Exploring Syllabus Design

April 22, 2021
Game pieces sit atop a syllabus design worksheet using game concepts to help build a syllabus.

Is there any document that does more, and receives less recognition, than the humble course syllabus? By comparison with the other documents scholars produce—journal articles, dissertations, even letters of recommendation—our syllabi hardly rate; they’re often regarded as ephemeral, purely functional, designed to be read once or twice and then cast aside at the end of the semester. But in fact, the syllabus is so much more than a reference document. The syllabus can help set the tone for your course, excite students, and invite them to engage more deeply with the content, the instructor, and each other.

Before doing any writing, however, or assigning readings or scheduling the first class meeting, there are many questions to consider: What goals are central to your course and how will students achieve them? What do you want students to understand, and what does success mean for your course? How can you communicate all of these things on the syllabus, in a way that students will read it and understand?

This spring, over 20 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows participated in the Bok Seminar Designing a Syllabus to grapple with these questions in the creation of their own syllabi. Designed and led by Eleanor Finnegan (Assistant Director, Faculty Programming), this seminar provided an opportunity for graduate students to explore a variety of resources on course design (on topics like backward design, capstone and assignment design, and scaffolding). Participants reflected on how the seminar modeled the syllabus and course structures being presented:

“I really appreciated how the weeks built on one another and culminated into a final syllabus…to share with the group. Although this path wasn't intuitive for me at the beginning of the course, it came together really well and I will use this process when creating new syllabi.”

The goal for the seminar was to have participants create a syllabus, as well as to learn something about writing assignment prompts and creating individual lesson plans. Thinking about what students would do during a course—both in the form of assignments and day-to-day interactions—provided the context for crafting a syllabus that could help create those kinds of experiences, interactions, and opportunities for learning. Participants moved from macro to micro, laying out and then filling in their courses in multiple forms, with one individual noting:

“One of the most useful tools for me was the game board/visual activity to lay out the flow of the course. Being able to see it all come together on one page was really helpful in then formatting a written syllabus.”

Participants also appreciated the space that Finnegan created for peer feedback.

“It was great to not only learn about different tools and processes for making a syllabus, but also composing parts of a syllabus and getting to share that with our class colleagues for feedback. Getting to see other colleagues' work was really valuable for my own syllabus design process.”

We believe that teaching at its best is a collaborative act, whether instructors are sharing strategies for section or writing an early draft of a syllabus. We appreciate our community of graduate student teachers and instructors across campus who are eager to share and learn with us and from each other.

You can find more resources on syllabus design on our website, and you can stay connected with the Bok community during the summer by signing up for a Bok Seminar. Registration for summer seminars will open May 1.