Designing an Engaging Syllabus

“A strong syllabus facilitates teaching and learning. It communicates the overall pattern of the course so a course doesn’t feel like disjointed assignments and activities, but instead an organized and meaningful journey” (Slattery and Carlson 2005).

Your course syllabus is a critical road map for students to gain an understanding of how your course structure, assignments, and schedule lead to meeting course goals. This includes sharing required materials, expectations for participation, how to reach you, assignment and grading details and much more. A syllabus can serve many roles in setting the tone for a course including that of contractual agreement, a motivational encouragement,  and scheduler. Learn more about designing an engaging syllabus below:

Syllabus as Contract

Syllabi have come to be thought of as a contract between students and instructors. With ever increasing pressure to cover all of the expectations and anticipated student questions, Schuman (2014) in her article Syllabus Tyrannus comments on how syllabi can become enormously long, in the realm of twenty-five pages. While syllabi may function as a contract in respect to policies, it does not serve as a contract in terms of content.  Your syllabus should contain language that notifies students that assigned material is subject to change.

Some contractual components may include:

  • Expectations for attendance and class participation
  • Policies on late work
  • Policies on academic honesty and integrity including plagiarism and cheating
  • Information regarding students rights and responsibilities
  • Grading criteria for subjective assignments (including rubrics)
  • The instructor’s availability and expected response time on emails/assignments
  • Policies on providing accommodations for students with disabilities
  • Information on university support services such as technology support and library resources

Syllabus as Motivator

A syllabus sets the tone for a course by introducing students to the topics to be addressed, as well as to the instructor’s background and expertise related to the course. It is often the first impression a student has about a course and possibly the topics included in the course. This introduction should help motivate students to engage in class activities leading up to the course goals as well as help students see connections to other program, personal and professional goals. Instructors can present the course in such a way that encourages students to be excited about it (Harris 1993). By sharing an overview of the topics included in the course, the purpose of the course, and learning goals, students will be able to make better connections to how they are being assessed. Additionally, the syllabus can help students take responsibility of their own learning (Grunert 1997). How content in a syllabus is expressed, the tone used, and the inclusion or exclusion of information have an impact on the student and the course (Fink 2012).

Syllabus Structure

There are several important components you will want to include in your syllabus. Below you will find an outline of the main sections you should include when drafting your syllabus.

  1. Course and Faculty Information:
    Include the course title, call number and section number prominently at the top of the syllabus. Below that, include your name, contact information information (phone and email) and  office hours/virtual office hours platform. Students also appreciate seeing your photo and you can include your background or a brief sketch of your credentials, if you wish.
  2. Course Delivery:
    Add information about the course delivery format and where to access course materials.
  3. Course Description:
    This brief description provides students with an overview of the course. It may come directly from the university catalog and may also include your own personal description of the course activities.
  4. Required Materials (if applicable):
    List the required textbook(s) in correct APA formatting, and what edition to buy. Make a distinction between required and optional or recommended materials. Share how they may best obtain them, and any other required supplies beyond the textbook. If there is an ebook option, it is helpful to include a link to this as well.
  5. Course Goals:
    Provide a brief list of the course goals.
  6. Course Topics and Schedule:
    Include a schedule with the specific time frame for each module, or unit of instruction, including the date and time it will become available to your students, the deadlines for any assignments, and the end date/time for the module.
  7. Communication:
    Add information about how you would like students to contact you and the expected turnaround time for receiving a response. Add any specific guidelines regarding electronic notifications.
  8. Assessment and Grading System:
    Include a breakdown of how much homework, participation, quizzes, exams, projects, etc. will count toward the final grade. Descriptions of required activities should be included here, although detailed requirements and rubrics may be included as separate attached pages. Information regarding late assignments and making up work should be included, as well as information regarding online access restrictions to exams or assignments, as well as expectations and participation/attendance requirements. Include your point system or weighting of assignments as well as the official grading scale used with total points, percentages, and letter grades. The University’s official grading system can be found in the MSU Faculty Handbook.
  9. MSU Protocols & Resources
    • Academic Honesty and Integrity: It is very important that you understand Montclair State University’s policy on academic honesty and integrity. The link above provides you with resources to understand what academic standards and plagiarism are and to learn how to take a course responsively and honestly to avoid plagiarism.
    • Student Rights and Responsibilities: Find out more about your rights to access the university’s resources as well as your related responsibilities.
    • Commitment to Accessibility: Students with disabilities or special circumstances should contact your instructor as soon as possible to ensure that your needs are met in the course. Reasonable accommodations are available for students with a documented disability. If you have a disability and may need accommodations to fully participate in this class, please contact the Disability Resource Center. (DRC at 973-655-5431).
  10. Technical Support 
    • Canvas: To get help troubleshooting problems using Canvas, contact the Canvas Support Hotline at 855-778-9968 or click on the “Help” link in the upper right corner of the course to contact them via chat or email. You may also find answers to common questions in the Canvas Guides.
    • General Tech Support: To get general technical support contact the University Help Desk at 973-655-7971 or via email at You may also find answers to your questions on the Help Desk website.

Syllabus Template

Below is an example of a syllabus using this format in Canvas.
We also have a downloadable syllabus template for your use: MSU Course Syllabus Template (attached DOC)

The Canvas Syllabus Page

Canvas uses a page to display your syllabus with a few additional features. You may still upload your syllabus as a Word document or PDF and link it to this page. Copying some of the key information from your attached file to the Canvas page helps provide students with more direct access to the information.  Canvas creates a dynamic syllabus with your assignments listed in chronological order at the bottom of the page and any weighting you may have for assignments from your gradebook.

The syllabus page in Canvas:

website syllabus image

Learn more about how the Canvas syllabus page is set up.


Fink, S. (2012). The Many Purposes of Course Syllabi: Which are Essential and Useful? Syllabus, 1, 1 – 12.

Grunert J. (1997). The course syllabus: a learning-centered approach. Boston: Anker Publishing Co.

Harris, M. M. (1993). Motivating with the course syllabus. National Teaching & Learning Forum, 3(1), 1-3.

Schuman, R. (2014, Aug. 26). The Syllabus Tyrannus: The decline and fall of the American university is written in 25-page course syllabi.

Slattery, J.M. and Carlson, J.F. (2005). “Preparing an Effective Syllabus: Current Best Practices.” College Teaching. Vol. 53, No. 4.

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