April 10, 2021

Making a first impression with your syllabus

Posted by Laura Guertin

Although this is not the time of year I would typically blog about writing a syllabus, I suppose it is never too early, as some institutions will be starting their summer sessions in just one month. And there are some very useful suggestions and resources that are exciting to think about and to consider as additions/modifications to this always-dynamic-never-static document. I’ve previously blogged about What content to put in the syllabus (and what to leave out) (2015), Getting students to read the syllabus with a Syllabus Quiz (2014), and Graphic syllabus and outcomes map – new additions to your fall syllabus? (2014). This time, I’ll be focusing on making a syllabus for student success through some simple inclusive and engaging strategies.

On March 25, 2021, the Teaching newsletter by The Chronicle of Higher Education called attention to the paper featured in the tweet below, which discusses how to create a ‘warm’ syllabus that encourages students to ask for help.

Teaching summarized some of the key takeaways from the article:

  • Frame course objectives as “we will” rather than “you will” — this wording makes students more likely to reach out for help
  • Pre-pandemic, faculty would make their first impression on students the first day of class. Now, and with the practice of posting a syllabus online before a class actually meets (whether virtual or face-to-face), the first impression is not made by the instructor but by the document (syllabus) and its tone.
  • Universities that encourage/require faculty to use a common template may find the format “cold/dry/boring” – but there are wording and design choices that can be made for the course and instructor to be viewed as welcoming and supportive.

Feedback from the March 25th newsletter issue resulted in many more suggestions for how to think about the first impression of a syllabus beyond a welcoming tone. The April 8, 2021, Teaching newsletter summarizes feedback from multiple faculty examples:

    • Words and design both play a role, Color and graphics can break up the material, yet faculty may feel that they need to have “permission” to experiment with a visual syllabus.
    • Faculty can have their students annotate the syllabus on the first day of class (Perusall and Hypothesis are potential programs to use).
    • Faculty can create a “liquid” syllabus, described as a “public, mobile-friendly website that includes a brief, friendly welcome video from the instructor and hopeful language to welcome students and demystify how to be successful.”
    • The language in a syllabus often does not convey instructors’ self-perceived emotional associations with teaching. Richmann et al. (2020) offer suggestions for Syllabus Language, Teaching Style, and Instructor Self-Perception: Toward Congruence [open access].

Additional resources for thinking about syllabus design include:



For some students (perhaps all?), when faculty share the expectations for class each week on the syllabus, this helps and encourages students not only in their preparation but participation (of course, this means that faculty need to have their course ready more than one week ahead of time…)


From semester to semester, syllabi are dynamic, living documents. Although many institutions push for a syllabus to be a listing of university rules and policies, even going so far as to use the wording that the syllabus is a “contract”, there is language and approaches we can select to use for the syllabus to be more inviting, to be more inclusive, and to make an even better first impression for students beginning their semester/quarter journey with us.



Additional resources about the syllabus