An Introduction to the Learner-Centered Syllabus

How can a course syllabus help students learn, facilitate the development of higher-level thinking abilities, and prepare them for continued studies in the field? A learner-centered syllabus moves away from the traditional syllabus that is just a list of texts and concepts, and provides a document that supports learning throughout the semester. Here are a few tips to help you transform a traditional syllabus into a learnercentered one:

Prime Students for Success

Let students know how to find help outside of class hours. Any good syllabus includes the instructor name, email address and/or phone number, office location, and office hours. Also include information about making appointments outside of office hours and set a policy for how quickly you will respond to email.

Consider including a letter to the students that explains how to use the syllabus and how the various parts relate to one another, and how this will support their learning over the course of the semester. Some students might miss the first day of class and the introduction to the course (and your oral explanation of the syllabus); others may not have realized the importance of specific items you brought up in class. The letter helps keep those students on track, and supports those students who return to your syllabus for guidance.

Provide Students with Goals and Criteria

Before you begin rewriting your syllabus, think about the goals specific to your course which you can include in a “Course Goals” section. What should students be capable of when they finish a particular unit or an individual class? Is there a particular skill students should acquire in your class, like writing an argumentative paper, or learning how to design an experiment? How will your course fit in with other courses in your discipline? Answers to these questions can be addressed in a “course goals” section. Course goals (an extension of learning goals) help you set the tone and expectations for the semester.

While “Grading Criteria” appears on most syllabi, the learnercentered syllabus frames evaluation criteria in terms of skills the student uses to produce an assignment, and to what degree those skills are used. Consider including a grading rubric so students see how they will be evaluated, and they will have a sense of expectations for the course.

Choose and Frame Course Content

As you assess material you’ve already used and new material for the syllabus, sort it into three groups: one set of material will be studied by all of the students, another set helps students researching specific topics for projects, and a third set might be geared toward advanced students who are contemplating graduate school. You may choose to group the latter two sets for projects and advanced students in a “resources section” or keep them in the body of the syllabus.

Of course, the content you choose to include is only as good as how the content is framed. Students are new to the subject, and don’t have a map of how the various ideas fit together. As the expert in the classroom, become the navigator for the students and help them make these new connections. Use the syllabus to show how and why topics are grouped together, and provide contrasting viewpoints, if possible. You can do this by grouping texts (textbooks, articles, primary sources, etc.) in a way that encourages students to see how one thinker might agree with or challenge another.

Match topics with appropriate assignments. Consider how well assignments will develop students’ ability to think and work independently, or how to effectively work in groups. Will assignments help students learn tools of the discipline? Will class activities foster critical thinking? Develop these assignments with your course goals and grading criteria in mind; all three of these sections, individual assignments, class activities, and course goals and grading criteria, should support one another.

Prepare Students for Class and Exams

The learner-centered syllabus is a tool for teaching students how to learn. Help students acquire critical reading skills by highlighting how to prepare readings ahead of class time. Consider including questions to guide their interaction with the text, or ask students to bring questions from their assigned reading to class. 

These expectations can be outlined in a “Learning Contract,” a section in the syllabus where expectations and rules of conduct are outlined, or, even better, discuss these on the first day of class and agree on them together.

The syllabus can also help students prepare for exams. For example, in a history class, students might prepare for an exam by creating a timeline that reflects general trends, biographical dates for the most prominent figures, and also crucial dates like battles and revolutions. Couple this assignment with an explanation—seeing how these fit together would help students answer a short essay exam question about what technological and political events that lead to the Pentrich Rising.

With a little planning, your syllabus can be one of the most important tools in your course, minimize confusion, and prepare students for success.


Grunert, J. (1997). The Course Syllabus. A Learning-Centered Approach. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Prégent, R. (1994). Detailed Course Planning. In: Charting your Course: How to Prepare to Teach More Effectively. Madison: Magna. 115-147.

Rotenberg, R. (2010). Constructing the Syllabus. In: The Art & Craft of College Teaching. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast. 88-122.