Developing a Learner-Centered Syllabus

What is the purpose of a syllabus?

  • To outline a course
  • To provide basic course information
  • To provide a list of readings, class meetings times, and evaluation procedures
  • To serve as a contract between instructor and students

What are differences between a Content-Focused and a Learner-Centered syllabus?

  • Content-focused syllabi focus on dry course descriptions, use mechanical and robotic language, and have a calendar that only includes due dates and course readings.
  • Content-focused syllabi focus on what the “course will do.”
  • Learning-focused syllabi include engaging course descriptions; clear and measureable learning objectives; alignment between objectives and assessment activities; transparent and meaningful assessment activities; positive and inviting tone; and a detailed and interactive course calendar.
  • In a learner-centered syllabi, instructors focus on what “students will learn” and how the instructor will structure the learning to support learning.
  • In a learner-centered syllabi, instructors invite students to become co-learners.

What are some characteristics of a Learner-Centered syllabus?

  • Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) are a central element of the course.
  • SLOs focus on a variety of skills (e.g., evaluation, application, learning how to learn) for significant learning.
  • There is clear and meaningful alignment between all assessment activities and student learning objectives.
  • All assessment activities include a clear description, purpose, task, and evaluation procedures.
  • Course calendar provides a list of readings, class meeting dates, or assessment activities. Course calendar also requires students to interact with syllabus to stay updated with important readings as well as identify important themes or guiding questions for each class session.
  • Instructor uses personal pronouns, focuses on student learning, and communicates positive expectations to establish a positive and inviting tone.
  • Instructor’s beliefs toward teaching and learning are included. A rationale for how beliefs toward learning are related to teaching strategies, assessment activities, and/or learning environment is provided.
  • Instructor makes an attempt to connect UTRGV policies and procedures with course content, teaching beliefs, and/or pedagogical practices.

Why develop a learner-centered syllabus?

  • Students might be more motivated before they enter classroom
  • Students might have better perceptions of the syllabus, course, and instructor
  • Students might use the syllabus as an interactive learning tool throughout the course
  • Students might increase their academic confidence and sense of belonging
  • Students might have an improved appreciation of their role in the learning process

References and Other Sources

Guertin, L. (2014). Getting students to read the syllabus with a syllabus quiz [blog post]. Retrieved from

Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14, 319-330.

Nilson, L. B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, M. S., Bach, D. J., & Streifer, A. C. (2014). Measuring the promise: A learning-focused syllabus rubric. To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development, 33, 14-36.

Palmer, M. S., Wheeler, L. B., & Aneece, I. (2016). Does the document matter? The evolving role of syllabi in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48, 36-46.

Winkelmes, M. A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, J. G., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review: Transparency and Problem-Centered Learning, 18.

Winkelmes, M. A., Copeland, D. E., Jorgensen, E. Smedley, A., Sloat, A….et al. (2018). Benefits (some unexpected) of transparently designed assignments. The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 24, 4-6.

CTE Workshop

UTRGV Syllabus Evaluation Rubric

Moving from a Content-Focused to a Learner-Centered Syllabus Presentation