Creating Usable Syllabi

We’re all familiar with the frustrations that come from students not reading our syllabi. But I’ve come to feel that the problem isn’t one of whether or not the syllabus is read, but one of if and how it’s used. The first step in getting students to use your syllabus is creating one that encourages them to engage with the document and to take ownership of and responsibility for their learning.

Part of this involves making some changes to your syllabus and part of this means making small changes in how you use it. This article outlines four simple ways to transform your syllabus into a usable document. 

Turn your lists into checklists

Lists pop up in all sorts of places in our syllabi. From learning outcomes to requirements, from what to do to what not to do, from readings to policies. There can be any number of idle lists in a syllabus, so why not make them work for us?

For example, I’ve often felt that my students didn’t use the list of features of a successful writing project when they revised. So, I tried to make it easier for them to use the list in a practical way instead of having it be a sort of ethereal guideline they could refer to.

usable syllabus list

 I adapted the list above into the checklist below:

Usable syllabus checklist

I also pointed out more specific actions they needed to take in their revisions such as naming specific grammar lessons. We were then able to use this checklist in class to check off what they had done and still needed to do for their final revision. 

Use daily plans to show what’s coming & what has been done

We all get tired of students asking us questions when the answer is “it’s in the syllabus.” But I’ve found myself taking away their need to refer to the syllabus in a number of small ways. Why would they look at the daily plans when I remind them every class of what homework and readings they have due for the next one? And why should they keep track of their own attendance when they can send me an email asking how many absences they have? 

Rethinking my daily plans meant finding ways to make sure the students had to take responsibility for their learning. Again, it’s as simple as adding a checklist, and it encourages students to both stay on top their work and to see the progress they’ve made during previous weeks. 

course syllabus

Consider visual elements

Another way to avoid the tedious monotony of lists or to condense information is to use some visuals. For example, changing a list like this:


Into an image like this:

usable syllabuses

Gives an accurate visual for the weight of each part of the final grade. I also feel this carries a bit more weight for students when they see the large percentage the smaller elements, such as homework and participation, add up to. It should be relatively easy to turn most quantitative elements into a chart, but you can also use flow charts to represent processes.

Give thought to organization

Rethinking the order of different types of information in your syllabus is also beneficial. Why front load the document with information they refer to once or twice? Think about which sections students do (or should) use most frequently and put those up front where they’re more accessible.

If you enjoyed these suggestions, try Three Ways to Visualize Your Syllabus.

Or you can find the full syllabus here:




Photo by Matthew Hamilton on Unsplash
Teaching Assistant at University of Illinois at Chicago |

Hannah Green is a PhD student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While a creative writer by nature, she’s a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching writing in all its forms including composition, professional, technical, and creative writing. Her research interests include the place of the asylum in narratives of mental illness, the literature of Southern Africa, and oral storytelling. Her creative writing appears both in print and online in places such as The Rumpus, PANK, and McSweeney's. Hannah is also the Editor-in-Chief of During Office Hours.



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