Small Teaching Tip 21: It's Time for a Syllabus Redesign
Best Practices, Small Teaching Tip, Teaching Advice, Web 2.0

Small Teaching Tip #21: It’s Time for a Syllabus Redesign

If you’re like most faculty, you receive an inordinate number of questions from students that they could have easily answered themselves if they only consulted the syllabus.  For years, I’ve pondered the question: why don’t students read the syllabus?  The answer I’ve come up with after a lot of research and talking with students is that syllabi are boring. Yep, I suggest it’s as simple as that.  As I’ve written about before, syllabi tend to feel cold and sterile like those Terms of Service agreements no one actually reads. In addition, their format hasn’t changed much in the past twenty years to reflect the amazing technological advancements in graphic design and information transmission.  Should it truly surprise us that students avoid reading these inhospitable documents?

In other blog posts, I’ve suggested ways to make your syllabus more welcoming, engaging, and learner-centered.  Today, I’d like to offer two tips specifically regarding the format of your syllabus.

Construct Your Syllabus Like an FAQ

Students likely ask you the same questions from one semester to the next:  Do you accept late work? What is your attendance policy? Can I buy the textbook used or a previous edition? How am I going to be graded? Can I take the final exam early so I can leave campus sooner?  If you’ve been paying attention to these repeat questions, you’ve already compiled a list of FAQs (frequently asked questions) that students seem to care the most about. To encourage students to locate answers themselves, make the information as accessible as possible.  Organize your syllabus into distinct segments with very clear headings so students can scan the pages and quickly find what they’re looking for.  You can also make your syllabus more reader-friendly by using bulleted or numbered lists and constructing shorter paragraphs. These organizational features create greater white space, which is easier on the eyes, and also makes the text seem less dense and, therefore, less intimidating.

Create a Digital Version of Your Syllabus

Rather than presenting students with a Word document or PDF, consider creating a digital version of your syllabus. What do I mean by “digital”?  I’m referring to creating your syllabus using a Web 2.0 application and hosting it online.  For example, creating your syllabus using Google Docs, Google Slides, Populr, WordPress, or Piktochart.

There are numerous reasons to create a digital syllabus.  First, it transforms a traditionally static document into a dynamic and responsive experience.  You can embed links to web pages, documents, or videos, allowing you to share more information while preventing “syllabus bloat.”  Secondly, using an online tool makes it easier to “spice up” your syllabus with color and graphics (such as memes and gifs) which make your syllabus more inviting to students.  Third, a digital syllabus is likely more mobile-friendly than a Word document or PDF.  Most students want to access your syllabus (and other course materials) on their phones but relying on tools designed to create print materials often do not display well on mobile devices.  Finally, the fourth reason to create a digital syllabus is that it is easily shareable.  You can post the link to your syllabus just about anywhere — in an email, on your department’s webpage, on your own professional webpage or blog, and even on your department’s social media accounts to encourage greater visibility which could increase enrollments.

An Important Note About Accessibility

If you decide to experiment with digital syllabi, it’s important to keep accessibility in mind.  You want to ensure all students can consume the information contained in your syllabus regardless of ability.  For example, if you include images in your syllabus, you should also add “alt text” that describes the image so screen readers can detect that information and relate it to the user. I recommend keeping on hand the old version of your syllabus, which is completely text-based, in case you have a student who is visually impaired. If you are unfamiliar with screen reading software or the specific needs of our students with disabilities, I encourage you to reach out to the folks in Disability Services.

Now that I’ve convinced you to create a digital syllabus, check out these examples for inspiration:

Want to learn more?  If you are a graduate of the Distance Education Readiness Course, you can participate in the Distance Education Extension Program and access the “Crafting a Learner-Centered Syllabus” mini-course. If you haven’t taken the DE Readiness Course yet and want to know more, please visit