A Promising Start to the Semester

A Promising Start – and a Syllabus Clinic on Friday

Happy New Year! There’s a fresh semester ahead of us. If one of your resolutions is to build an even more galvanizing learning experience for your students, your syllabus–the learning guide for your course–deserves a fresh take, too. A “promising syllabus” (like the one attached, and the one here) invites students to explore new realms of learning. It describes what they can expect to gain from the course and the activities that will help them fulfill this promise, and “begins a conversation about how the teacher and the student would best come to understand the nature and progress of the student’s learning” (Bain, 2004).

To identify the promise of your course, you may need to reexamine your goals for your students’ learning. What do you really want your students to know or to be able to do when they successfully complete your course—and what will they value? What kind of academic superpowers will the course endow them with? What big ideas will they explore? How will students be transformed by the semester they spend with you?

The tone of your syllabus (especially in the course description and learning goals, but also in the policies) will set the tone for the class, and can either motivate or discourage students. Learner-centered syllabi make the learning goals understandable to students entering the class (rather than to an accrediting agency) and keep the language warm. A syllabus full of prohibitions can dampen the learning environment, conveying low expectations; focusing on opportunities, instead, can foster intrinsic motivation.

In a well-designed course, the activities and assessments help students learn, and help them gauge their progress toward the goals. There should be clear alignment among the goals, the ways you attempt to measure students’ learning, and the practice and feedback they get along the way.

If you’re not sure whether these three components are aligned, or you want to devise new ways of evaluating student learning, consider what sort of evidence students could provide to convince you that they have mastered the goals to the standard you’d like to see. This might involve quizzes, exams, papers, and projects, but may also require more creative, authentic means of measuring learning. Fink (2003) points out that “when we become clear about what constitutes successful student performance, it is much easier to develop effective teaching/learning activities.”

And when you’re thinking about how you’ll use your class time, Doyle’s (2011) mantra is a good reminder: “The one who does the work does the learning.” The more students do, the more they’ll learn, yet “many faculty members do too much of the work for…students, which results in diminished student learning.”

Your grading scheme, and the way you convey it, are also critical. The grading distribution conveys the class’s values, and directs students how to spend their time. Putting all the weight on three exams tells students that they can think about the class on the three evenings before exams: many will ignore it the rest of the semester. Students will benefit if you reward them for spending their time on those course activities that produce the most learning—whether it’s reading and annotating the textbook, writing, solving problems, discussing in groups, doing projects, etc. If you want students to work on and think about your class every day, you can reallocate points to multiple smaller and scaffolded assignments, including work done in class, so that students are practicing consistently.

If you’d like feedback on your syllabus, please join us at our Syllabus Clinic on Friday, in Westcott 116: you can drop in any time between 10:00 -2:00. We can help you determine what your syllabus says about you and your course; fine tune your learning objectives, grading scheme, or assignments; or review any other part of your course design.


Bain, Ken. (2004). What The Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Cox, Rebecca. (2009). The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Doyle, Terry. 2011). Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning Into Practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Fink, L. Dee. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Wiley & Sons.
Hammond, Zaretta. (2015). Culturally-Responsive Teaching and the Brain. London: Sage.