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Syllabus and Course Design

Professor planning with computer and sticky notes

Designing a successful academic course is a multi-step process requiring both subject expertise and pedagogical knowledge. To ensure the best possible alignment between course subject matter and student learning, well-designed courses require two levels of preparation: one focused on content (selecting readings, identifying key concepts and skills, articulating learning goals, writing lectures, etc.), the other on delivery and facilitation (taking into consideration institutional context and student data, selecting pedagogical modalities, crafting assignments, developing lesson plans, facilitating student-to-student interactions, etc.). Evidence-based principles of course design can help with creating, adapting, retrofitting, or refreshing academic courses to ensure they are well-aligned, effective, and inclusive.

Principles of Course Design

For many instructors, the process of course design begins with selecting content (textbook chapters, articles, lecture topics) or, in the case of skills-oriented courses, with developing assignment sequences (problem sets, creative portfolios, writing prompts). This traditional approach tends to be teaching-centered: it foregrounds what instructors are teaching, rather than what students are learning. In contrast, the backward design approach replaces the question “What will I teach in this class?” with “What will my students learn?”—a subtle but consequential shift in focus. The backward design process begins with articulating learning goals (What knowledge and skills will students gain in the course?); then moves on to consider appropriate assessment tools (How will I know if/what my students are learning?); and only then proceeds to curate content and develop class activities aligned with the learning goals and assessments. Backward design is learning-centered in that it organizes the entire course creation process around student learning, encouraging instructors to to focus more intentionally on aligning their pedagogical method with their course content.

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Art of the Syllabus

Creating a successful academic syllabus involves a delicate balance. On the one hand, the syllabus is a formal, quasi-contractual document listing official policies and requirements; on the other, it is an act of communication where students get a first taste of their instructor’s voice and values. A great syllabus should not only clearly articulate course goals, expectations, and policies but also establish a welcoming environment that promotes student self-efficacy and belonging.

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Innovative Course Design

While most college-level courses rely on traditional methods of content delivery and processing (such as lecture, small group work, or class discussion), more specialized course design approaches like flipped classrooms, Project-Based Learning, Community-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Case-Based Learning, Global Engagement Courses, or Reacting to the Past allow instructors to engage students more extensively in hands-on, active, and interactive learning. While many of the approaches discussed below emerged in specific disciplinary contexts, instructors across disciplines have adapted them to the needs of their students and courses. Elements of each approach can also be incorporated into traditional courses in the form of individual activities or assignments in order to energize the classroom and promote active learning.

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