Faculty Development

Design a Learning-Centered Syllabus

**This page is from an old version of CSUN's Teaching Toolkit. Find an updated version on the current Teaching Toolkit on Canvas.**





    Learning-Centered Syllabus Program

Redesigning your course takes time so we offer programs (e.g., consultations, workshops, retreats, and faculty learning communities & the TUC Learning-Centered Grant) to help faculty modify their syllabus and course to be more learning-centered.

This program is inspired by a recent visit of an award-winning faculty developer, Michael Palmer and associates from the University of Virginia who develop a learning focused syllabus rubric (see components below) and a highly effective summer course redesign institute.

Essentially we help faculty to create courses they will love to teach so that students will love to learn. Contact us (facdev@csun.edu) if you are interesting in more information.

    Learning-Centered Syllabus Components

Consider redesigning your syllabus to be more learning-centered to optimize students' chances to master course material.  Below is a list of characteristics to begin the process of discovering what would a learning-centered syllabus include.

1. Learning Goals & Objectives – Measurable & Assures Significant Learning

  • Does it have long-range learning goals (i.e., what you want students to learn 1-5 years) that span Dee Fink’s (2004) taxonomy of significant learning (do you have objectives focusing on learning how to learn; or cultivating caring/passion about the content; or developing the human dimension)?
  • Are course-level learning objectives, also derived from Fink’s taxonomy, clearly articulated using specific measurable action verbs (avoiding the words know, understand, or demonstrate) regarding what students will be able to do, value, or explain at the end of the course?
  • Is the course description engaging and question-driven sparking student curiosity and motivation?

2. Assessment/Assignment Activities – Transparent & Aligned to Objectives

  •  Are the assessments/assignments aligned or connected to each learning objective?
  • Are assessments/ assignments especially summative ones, clearly defined & authentic when possible (e.g., real-life applications, observations, field experiences, signature assignments, portfolios, case studies, presentations)?
  • Are all assignments transparently designed with a description that includes: the larger purpose of the assignment (e.g., what skills & knowledge used), the specific steps to be taken, and evaluation criteria including annotated examples?*
  • Does it appear there will be frequent opportunities for low-stakes formative assessments with immediate feedback from a variety of sources (e.g., self reflection, peer feedback, and instructor)?
  • Does it appear the instructor will use classroom assessment techniques (e.g., muddiest point) to gauge how students are mastering the material and will adjust accordingly?
  • Are the assessments adequately paced and scaffold throughout the course with at least one scheduled early in the semester?
  • Is grading information transparently included so that students can easily understand & calculate their current grade throughout the course?*
  • Does the grading scheme appear aligned with the learning objectives & assessments?

3. Schedule – Motivational & Logical

  • Does it embed motivational hooks such as beautiful questions inviting students to use inquiry to navigate the course?
  • Is the schedule transparent, easy for students to navigate (e.g., chronologically), and logically sequenced highlighting assignment due dates and weekly tasks (e.g., topics, readings, questions, homework)?
  • Does it appear there will be time dedicated to getting to know each other (student-student and instructor-student) and co-construction of the class (e.g., community norms, course topics/assignments)?*
  • Are procedures for making up assignments or missed work (e.g., due to religious holidays) included?*

4. Inclusive & Promising Learning Environment– Inviting, Supportive with High Expectations & Acceptance of Difference

  • Is the language and tone respectful, inviting, and address the student as a competent & engaged learner?
  • Does it signpost a learning environment that fosters positive intrinsic motivation, one that promotes a learning orientation instead of a performance one (i.e., avoids focusing on consequences, punishments & grade points)?
  • Does the syllabus communicate high expectations for learning and project growth mindset confidence that students can meet them through persistence?
  • Is there evidence the instructor will enthusiastically support & incorporate all learners’ backgrounds, identities, & viewpoints including when those differ from the instructor?*
  • Does the content include alternative perspectives (e.g., readings, speakers, assignments) or present the content through non-dominant perspectives?*
  • Are there indicators that the instructor uses inclusive pedagogical approaches (see CSUN’s Faculty Development Teaching Toolkit-Inclusive Teaching Ideas for specific examples)?*
  • Is there encouragement to connect with the instructor about course content and to anonymously reveal classroom climate dynamics?*
  • Overall, is the syllabus well-organized & easy to navigate allowing students to continually interact with the document?

5. Dynamic Activities- Evidence Based & Active Learning

  •  Do the class activities appear to align with learning objectives; in other words, will the course activities aid students’ ability to be successful on course assessments/assignments leading to achievement of the learning objectives?
  • Do class activities show promise to actively engage students in a variety of ways verses expecting students to passively listen (e.g., collaborative peer learning; group work; peer teaching; think-pair-share; jigsaw; 4-corners; Pogil; team-based learning; problem-based learning; fishbowl; send-the-problem; reflection)?
  • Will course activities foster a dynamic exchange of knowledge, including student-as-expert/contributor/teacher, using evidence-based teaching practices?

Lolita Paff, an associate professor at Penn State Berks, states in a Faculty Focus Article that she previously viewed syllabi as contracts.  Paff redesigned her syllabus with a more learning-centered approach to foster a better learning environment in her classroom. A learner-centered syllabus can take many forms, but it often includes one or more of these features: rationale for course objectives & assignments, shared decision making, warnings of potential pitfalls, opportunity for students to set teacher expectations, recommendations for staying on track. 

Bart, Mary. “A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning.” Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 24 June 2017, www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/a-learner-centered-syllabus-helps-set-the-tone-for-learning/.

   Other Syllabus Best Practices
  • Syllabus Components – Academic First Year Experiences hosts a guide to best practices for the syllabus, including how to address office hours and class participation.
  • CSUN Syllabus Blog-- Interested in sharing your syllabus ideas? Submit your ideas through this Academic First Year Experiences blog.
   Syllabus Tips from other Universities

   Other CSUs:

   Other Universities: