Syllabus Design

What is a syllabus?

Your syllabus is a tool to describe what you guarantee to teach in your course; it can be considered a contract with students. For this purpose, it is important to describe the outline of the course, learning goal, course schedule, and grading policy specifically so that students can understand what they will learn and what skills and knowledge they will gain from taking your course. The syllabus with detailed course directions and expectations helps students maintain their motivation to learn throughout the course.

A syllabus plays important roles for both students (including prospective students) and instructors. Please note that at ICU, during the first week of classes it is very common for students to add/drop classes during that period. For that reason, the syllabus on the first day plays a very important role in the decision that the student makes in either deciding to stay in the course or drop it.

The effective syllabus would help:


  • Students
    • develop their course plan.
    • understand learning goals and level that they should accomplish by the end of the course.
    • understand the pedagogy and course content in advance and prepare for the course.


  • Instructors
    • smoothly manage the course.
    • share the pedagogy, course contents and expectations for assignments and grade allocations with students in advance.
    • improve their own teaching.


  • Prospective students
    • develop a better understanding of ICU courses.

Jay Parkes and Mary B. Harris (2002) define three purposes of a syllabus as 1) Syllabus as a Contract; 2) Syllabus as a Permanent Record; and 3) Syllabus as a Learning Tool.

For details, visit their article “The Purpose of a Syllabus.”


How can you create an effective syllabus?

General Tips

1) Rationale

A syllabus that articulates the rationale of why it is interesting and important will draw the attention and promote motivation of students in learning. A syllabus with no explanation about the rationale of the importance of the topics and assignments given will result in a lack of motivation and passion for students in learning while syllabus presenting a clear rational educates students by making the implicit explicit.


2) Detailed syllabus

A strong syllabus is relatively detailed to give a clear idea to students of the structure, content and expectations of the course. A detailed syllabus can reduce student anxieties or misunderstandings about the course prior to attending the class. A detailed syllabus needs not to be lengthy or wordy, but concise and informative. Although each course may differ in its content or structure, information such as the purposes of the course, expectations, grading methods and criteria, schedule of events, instructor’s contact information, course policies and relevant resources are provided, almost without exception. We ask you to use the ICU Syllabus Template as a tool for developing a detailed course plan.


3) Review and update the syllabus

A syllabus is rarely ‘perfect’ for the first time it is created. Instructors should review the syllabus after one teaching cycle to further improve or update the information to be relevant at the time of next teaching session. Following the PDCA cycle below may help this review and update process.

  • P (Plan): set the learning goals and course schedule (develop the syllabus)
  • D (Do): teach along with the syllabus
  • C (Check): grade and evaluate your course by students and colleagues         
  • A (Action): improve teaching and syllabus based on the evaluation