"Stalking the Superior Syllabus" was a Reflective Practice Group Presentation by John Woolcock held on August 15 and September 4, 1997.

The Functions of a Syllabus

  • Establishes an Early Point of Contact Between Student and Instructor
  • Helps Set the Tone for the Course
  • Describes Your Beliefs About Higher Education Places the Course in the Broad Context of the Discipline
  • Acquaints Students with Course Logistics
  • Defines Student Responsibilities
  • Describes the Role of Special Teaching and Learning Practices (Active Learning, Technology, etc.)
  • Helps Students Assess Their Readiness for the Course
  • Describes Available Learning Resources
  • It Models Good Planning and Organization
  • Represents a Learning Contract Between You and the Student

A Basic Syllabus Checklist

  • Course Information (Title, Number, Prerequisites, etc.) from Catalog
  • Instructor/Contact Information (Office, Telephone, E-mail, etc.)
  • Bibliography of Texts and Other Required or Optional Materials
  • Course Objectives or Goals
  • Course Calendar or Schedule
  • Evaluation Items (Tests, Quizzes, Papers, etc.) With Due Dates
  • Required Special Events (Performances, Visiting Speaker, etc.)
  • Method of Determination of the Final Grade
  • Attendance Policy · Class Participation Policy
  • Missed Exam or Assignment Policy
  • Academic Dishonesty Statement
  • Lab Safety/Health
  • Course Support Services Available

What is a Learning-Centered Syllabus?

  • "A learning-centered approach to college education asks you to consider how each and every aspect of your course can most effectively support student learning." (Grunert, 1997)
  • It conveys your philosophy about teaching and learning.
  • It conveys your instructional priorities and more importantly, why you have selected them.
  • It clarifies the mutual responsibilities of both you and your students in meeting the course goals.
  • It provides students with the resources of a course manual that explain how each component is crafted to promote student learning.
  • It can provide students with a vehicle to link their needs or learning style to your course plan, its rationale and your teaching style.

Why Have a Learning-Centered Syllabus?

  • "A simple syllabus is more like a soliloquy...an enriched syllabus becomes a conversation." (Duffy and Jones, 1995)
  • To Encourage Students to Cooperate with the Instructors Efforts to Promote Learning
  • To Encourage Students to Think About Their Own Learning Processes
  • To Encourage Us to Clearly Articulate Our Teaching Philosophy
  • To Encourage Us to Be More Reflective About How Our Teaching Methods are Linked to Student Learning

Components of a Learning-Centered Syllabus

  • An Open Letter to the Students or a Teaching Philosophy Statement
  • How You View the Student-Instructor Relationship
  • Your Content or Course Goal Selection Rationale
  • Your Text Selection Rationale
  • The Teaching Techniques You Plan to Use (lecture style, active and/or cooperative learning, CAT's, etc.)
  • Assignment Rationales (why you use them, descriptions or samples of each assignment, etc.)
  • Your Grading Philosophy
  • A List of Student Support Services for the Course
  • How to Study or Other Learning Tools the Students May Need to Succeed

Example of a Basic vs. Learning-Centered Syllabus Basic Syllabus

(CH 113: Concepts in Chemistry)

Good Questioner Points: Good questioner points are obtained by asking questions in-class, during office hours by e-mail, by telephone, etc. To be eligible you must ask a question that indicates that you have thought about or worked with the material being presented. Questions of the type "What is the homework assignment?" or "Can you give me a strategy for study question 11?" are not eligible. You will receive 1-2 good questioner points for each item that is judged to be eligible. There are a maximum of five good questioner points available at each meeting. All judgments concerning the eligibility and value of questions are solely at the discretion of the instructor.

Learning-Centered Syllabus (all the above plus...)

The "Good Questioner Points" are included to give you an additional incentive to ask questions in class and in other situations. Framing a question, verbalizing it, reacting to the answer and then following up with a related idea or question is an effective ways to learn. First, this is definitely an active learning process. Second, it helps you fit the topic into your own personal frame of reference. As you can see from the syllabus there are a wide variety of ways to do this including during office hours, by e-mail or by using note cards (for those who are too shy to ask in class).

If you do ask a question in class you will immediately receive a token. This is because I want to reward you for being in an active learning mode and because it means you must take a personal risk in identifying yourself as even having a question! You can redeem this token for good questioner points at the end of class. This will also allow me to connect names and faces and give me an opportunity to talk with you about other things as well. Remember, I sincerely believe that there are no stupid questions. In fact, all of education is built around the process of asking and answering questions.

I try to provide formal time for questions during each lecture most often at the beginning. My main technique in answering questions is to try to help you find your own answer and help you think a question through rather than just telling you how it is done and you copying down my words or what I put on the board. It may seem frustrating at first, when I answer your question with a question. But believe me, it is a more active and effective learning tool if your try to construct your own answer than if I just "hand" it to you.

Example of a Basic vs. Learning-Centered Syllabus Basic Syllabus

(CH 113: Concepts in Chemistry)

Problem Strategies: Problems chosen from the questions at the end of each chapter will be assigned and collected on the due dates announced in class. Late problem strategies will not be accepted after this without consultation with the instructor. The problem strategies will be graded based on the number of problems reasonably attempted. This means that whether or not you obtain the correct answer, you must still provide a clear approach or "problem strategy" for each assigned question or problem. A simple copy of the brief answers in the back of the text or a citation of the pages in the text that apply to the question is not acceptable. A problem strategy is a written record of your thoughts, ideas, calculations, etc. as you attempt to answer the question or solve the problem. If the question has multiple identical parts, only one example problem strategy for one part of the exercise needs to be shown. The lowest score you obtain any one of the problem strategy sets will be dropped. A percentage based on the total points possible for this item will be calculated and multiplied by 50 points.

Learning-Centered Syllabus (all the above plus...)

"Problem Strategies": Rather than just assigning homework problems to be completed, I want you to also make a conscious effort to examine your thought processes as you answer each the end-of-the-chapter exercises. By recording how you answered a question, you can begin to understand how you are trying to use the material you have been studying. This will allow you to refine and improve your learning habits and problem solving skills. Some good models for problem strategies appear as example exercises throughout the text. I will also do example exercises as a regular part of the lectures. You should note that on the "Learning Objectives" sheet for chapter 1, I have included answers for those questions that do not have short answers in the appendix. I do this because I want you to focus more on the process of achieving the answer and less on the answer itself. In fact, I deduct no points for incorrect final answers on the problem strategy sets. I want these to be learning tools, not evaluation tools or "mini exams". Since each person learns a little differently and may use a different logical path to arrive at the answer, I evaluate the problem strategies to see how clear you are in your explanations. Some students are minimalists in their explanations, others are detailed. I evaluate the problem strategies by first checking to see if you wrote down more than just the answers from the appendix or a simple paraphrasing of the answer. Then I look to see if your strategy is pointing you in the right direction.

Using a Learning-Centered Syllabus

On the First Day

  • Describe in detail the learning-centered nature of the syllabus
  • Conduct a discussion or cooperative learning session in which students explore their roles in the learning process

During the First Week

  • Have the students write a response paper to the learning issues raised by the syllabus
  • Give a quiz on the syllabus content
  • Administer a student reaction questionnaire

Throughout the Semester

  • Moderate a discussion of the learning-centered aspect of each assignment as the first due date approaches
  • Provide examples that illustrate how each assignment in the syllabus is to be accomplished and evaluated
  • Administer a mid-semester course assessment, summarize the results for the students and discuss possible changes to the syllabus


"The traditional syllabus is primarily a source of information...the learning-centered syllabus can be an important learning tool that will reinforce the intentions, roles, attitudes and strategies that you will use to promote active, purposeful, effective learning." (Grunert, 1997)


Grunert, J. (1997). The Course Syllabus: A Learning Centered Approach. Anker Publishing: Bolton, MA

Duffy, D. K. and Jones, J. W. (1995) Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA; chapter 3.

Hammonds, J. O. and Shock, J. R. (1994). The Course Syllabus Reexamined J. Staff, Prog. & Org. Dev., 12, 5-17.

Gabennesch, H. (1992). The Enriched Syllabus: To Convey a Larger Vision, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 1, 4-5.

Altman, H. B. and Cashin, W.E. (1992). Writing a Syllabus Idea Paper No. 27, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, Kansas State Univ.