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Tips for Creating a Learner-Centered Syllabus

According to Linda B. Nilson, author of Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, a syllabus "is not only the road map for the [semester’s] foray into knowledge but also a travelogue to pique students’ interest in the expedition" (p 33). Before addressing the particulars of a learner-centered syllabus, Judith Grunert, author of The Course Syllabus: A Learning Centered Approach, suggests that we engage in "scholarly reflection" and consider the following questions:

  1. Who are my students, and what do I want them to learn beyond the content (i.e., communication skills, the ability to use resources effectively, critical thinking, etc.)?
  2. What point is my course making, and what do I want my students to believe or question?
  3. Where does this course fit in my students’ intellectual life?
  4. How does this course introduce students to the methods, procedures, values, and/or issues in my discipline?
  5. How does this course fit into the program and/or departmental curriculum? Is it a foundational course?
  6. What parts of the course are going to be most interesting to students? Where will they experience the most difficulty either in understanding or motivation? What parts of the course connect to topics students already understand or have experienced?
  7. If someone else were teaching this course, what would they do differently? (5-6)

According to Nilson, a learner-centered syllabus could be as many as 20 to 30 pages in length, (especially if it is a combination of the official course syllabus and the section syllabus). In addition to the standard information found in a syllabus, a learner-centered syllabus may also include items such as the following:

  1. A welcome letter to set the tone, to share one’s teaching and learning philosophy, etc.
  2. Detailed instructions for assignments, projects, presentations, etc. This is often considered a standard part of any syllabus.
  3. A detailed grading policy (i.e., including the weights assigned to each test and/or assignment, the impact of any extra credit, the impact of a missed quiz [i.e., the lowest quiz score is dropped]). A detailed grading policy is also generally considered a standard part of a syllabus.
  4. A course schedule with the topic(s) for each week, homework such as assigned reading, due dates for various assignments and exams, etc. If you need to revise it later, provide a written revision. Also, consider including important dates such as last drop dates, registration dates for the next semester, Spring Break, etc.
  5. A learning style inventory and an interpretation key, or a website address that includes an inventory and assessment.
  6. A learning contract (make this a hyperlink) if applicable.
  7. Suggestions for team building, especially if students will be working in dyads, triads and/or small groups.
  8. Examples of quality papers if applicable.
  9. Advice on how to master course material. Given that students often hear advice better from each other, this could be based on previous students’ suggestions.
  10. How to read/take notes/study in this discipline. Again, this could be based on prior students’ input. Give students an idea of how much time should be spent studying for this class. When planning, keep in mind that students have other obligations. However, don’t lower your standards or minimize what is required to succeed in the course.
  11. Web-based resources and library materials pertinent to the course, as well as suggestions for accessing the library’s wealth of resources. Or, have an instructional librarian provide an overview on how use LCC’s library to the fullest.
  12. Provide information about other campus resources such as Tutoring Services, Academic Advising Center, the Academic Resource Center, etc. LCC also requires section syllabi to include information regarding services available to students through the Center for Student Access. (See The Center for Student Access' Faculty Handbook)

Keep in mind that the more information and detail included in the syllabus, the fewer questions and less anxiety on the students’ part. Also, if your syllabus is lengthy, you may want to consider including a table of contents to make accessing the syllabus easier.

Finally, model the behavior you expect from your students by providing the syllabus on the first day of class.


Davis, B. G. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. Print.

Grunert, Judith. The Course Syllabus: A Learner-Centered Approach. Bolton: Anker, 1997. Print.

Jones, Ken. "Creating a Learning Centered Syllabi." Learning Enhancement Center. St. John’s U., 2000. Web. 15 Jan. 2010.

Haugen, Lee. "Learning-Centered Syllabi Workshop." Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. Iowa State U., 1998. Web. 15 Jan. 2010.

Nilson, L. Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

Starke, Diane. "Getting Started - Resources for the New College Instructor." Professional Development Module. Texas Collaborative for Teaching Excellence, 2007. Web. 11 Mar. 2010.

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