Instructional / Course Design,  Instructional Strategies

Communicating Expectations: The Course Syllabus & First Day of Class

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This post was originally published on the GSR 989: Philosophy and Practice of University Teaching blog on February 28, 2014.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the course syllabus and the impression it gives students on our first day of class.

Personally, I like to think of the syllabus as a map with the following components:

  1. Where are we headed?  (What are we studying and why?)
  2.  How do we get there? (schedule, readings, assignments, etc)
  3. How do we know when we’ve arrived? (exams, evaluation, etc)
  4.  What will it be like along the way?  (classroom climate, expectations, behaviour)

After coming up with this metaphor, I did some reading and discovered an article written by James M. Lang for The Chronicle of Higher Education back in 2006.  In it, Lang describes Ken Bain’s (What the Best College Teachers Do, 2004) notion of the “promising” syllabus which is basically the idea that if students have some ownership for their learning in the course syllabus  (instead of having a rule book thrown at them by instructors) they will be much more invested in the process of learning.  Lang and Bain describe this as “beginning the conversation about how the teacher and student would best come to understand the nature and progress of the student’s learning.”

This got me thinking about different ways I could creatively present my syllabus on the first day of class, and how I could use technology to do it.  Here are a few ideas that a) I have tried, b) I have gleaned from colleagues, and c) that I hope to try someday soon.

  1. Provide portions of the syllabus as a Google doc to students after the first class.  This might be a great way to collaboratively engage students in creating “ground rules” for discussion.
  2.  Assign students into small groups and do a scavenger hunt on the syllabus.  More on this from the Thoughts About Teaching blog here.
  3. Start with a job announcement or use scenarios to help students discover what professional skills they will learn in your course.  More on this from the Thoughts About Teaching blog here.
  4. Use clickers to play a Jeopardy game related to the syllabus.
  5. Have students create “outcome maps” of what they expect they will learn in your course.

I also wanted to mention there are some great resources for U of S folks preparing their syllabi, including a template and guide at


Lang, J.M. (2006).  The promising syllabus.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved February 28, 2014 from

Nilson, L. B. (2007).  The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map: Communicating your course.  Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.


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