Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Note 11: Developing a Syllabus

Happy New Year!

I hope that you have enjoyed and perhaps are still enjoying this quiet(er) time between Winter holidays and the beginning of the Spring semester. “Spring” is such an aspirational descriptor for the state in which we begin the new year’s teaching and learning endeavors. I imagine that many of you, like me, have aspirations for your course syllabi as well.  I find syllabus development is one of the hardest parts of teaching: far more than just dividing up the chapters of the text and assigning each a week, an excellent program of study takes disciplinary developments, current controversies, and the knowledge of one’s new students into account, as well as all the other details of the coursework.

Despite its importance to our course success, most faculty members learn to write syllabi by mimicking what our colleagues before us have done.  Using colleagues’ models or Googling examples (there are 1000s of them) helps, and perhaps surprisingly, there is also empirical study on what makes effective syllabi. I offer an example by Harnish & Bridges (Social Psychology of Education, 2011), entitled, “Effect of syllabus tone:  Student perceptions of instructor and course.”  In this study, one  hundred  and  seventy-two  (172)  Pennsylvania  State  University  undergraduates who were enrolled in introductory psychology took part in this experiment and received extra credit in exchange for their participation. Researchers modified a base syllabus to reflect either an inviting or uninviting tone by 1) using positive or friendly language; (2) providing a rationale for assignments; (3) sharing personal experiences; (4) using humor; (5) conveying compassion; and (6) showing enthusiasm for the course, and student participants then rated their perceptions of the (as yet unmet) instructor, based on their reaction to one or the other syllabus.  The researchers found that presenting students with a syllabus written in a friendly, approachable tone positively influenced the students’ perceptions of the instructor and the course.

While these results may seem self-evident, two things strike me about this work:  1) The our words as instructors and the clarity with which we present our plans for study is powerful, and 2) It takes so little, at least according to this study, to modify students’ first impressions of our courses.  I invite you to take a look at this study (including the surprising effect that viewing a video clip had) and see if there are small but potentially powerful changes you might make in your own syllabi.

As always, we at the Center for Teaching & Learning are happy to help you in any part of your course planning. 

With good wishes for a productive weekend,


Nancy S. Niemi, Ph.D.
Director, Faculty Teaching Initiatives

Contact Information 

Contact Dr. Niemi via email Nancy.Niemi@yale.edu or phone 203.432.8644 with thoughts about the collection and/or to receive these notes in your inbox.