This module models the UDL Principles of Representation and Action & Expression.

Using Syllabi to Organize Courses

Increasing Representation, Expression, and Engagement


Contributing Faculty

Portrait of Dr. Carolyn Dunn

Dr. Carolyn Dunn
Technology Systems
East Carolina University

Portrait of Dr. Dorothy Muller

Dr. Dorothy Muller
Office for Faculty Excellence
East Carolina University

Portrait of Dr. Douglas Schneider

Dr. Douglas Schneider
Department of Accounting
East Carolina University


A syllabus reflects the instructor’s feelings, attitudes, and beliefs about the subject matter as well as about the students in the class… (Parkes & Harris, 2002, p. 59).

College students appreciate a detailed class syllabus, presented in a friendly manner so that they are encouraged to do their best in the course. Instructors who write syllabi that convey a welcoming tone may motivate students by conveying an expectation of positive outcomes (Slattery & Carlson, 2005). Students also appreciate the way that a thorough syllabus can act as a guide to the course, assisting them in understanding the course objectives, planning for deadlines and completing assignments. This research supported approach is one way that instructors can organize a course to support student learning. In addition to crafting syllabi that meet the needs of students, faculty often include standard sections that may be mandatory at universities or within academic departments A syllabus can take on several concurrent roles. It can act as a self-management tool for students, helping them approach assignments, gauge their success, and assess where they need to invest more effort (Parkes & Harris, 2002).

At East Carolina University (ECU), two professors known for their well-organized courses, including syllabi that thoroughly lay out the course, are among the faculty who happen to provide the syllabi content recommended in the literature. Dr. Carolyn Dunn, an assistant professor who teaches technical writing for the Department of Technology Systems, says she uses syllabi to explain to students what they need to do if they want to be successful in her classes. In addition, she describes students’ responsibilities and also outlines her responsibilities to her students. Meanwhile, Dr. Douglas Schneider, a professor in the Department of Accounting, says syllabi can be used to help students understand how a specific course fits into the larger picture of their area of study. Schneider adds that it also serves as a roadmap, mapping out the goals that students should be striving to reach. To keep students apprised of the material to be covered, Dr. Schneider provides a course calendar and Dr. Dunn includes a course outline in her supplement to syllabus document. Some evidence suggests that students may be better prepared for class if the syllabus lists the anticipated topics for each class meeting (Hockensmith, 1988).

The syllabus also can serve as a permanent record of class rules and policies, which may prevent students from challenging the grading system by saying that course requirements weren’t communicated clearly (Parkes & Harris, 2002). Often, a syllabus functions as a type of informal contract or agreement between faculty and students, defining their respective responsibilities (Davis & Schrader, 2009; Habanek, 2005; Matejka & Kurke, 1994; Parkes & Harris, 2002; Slattery & Carlson, 2005). Drs. Dunn and Schneider make sure they include important policies so that students are informed of applicable school rules and procedures.

Dr. Dorothy Muller, an associate professor and the Director of ECU’s Office for Faculty Excellence (OFE), is available to support syllabi development with new faculty when discussing effective teaching strategies. The OFE is a unit within the Division of Academic Affairs, which provides faculty with services that support their teaching, research, and service endeavors. In workshops for new faculty, she explains university requirements, noting that the information contained within syllabi also serves as a map of the course. She directs faculty to university requirements for syllabi since university policies and procedures might be specific to ECU and might vary somewhat from their previous university—from grading to available student support programs. Still, Dr. Muller stresses that syllabi are much more than repositories for standard information. They should include that personal touch that makes the professor an individual and the course special, she adds. This is in keeping with the research that recommends syllabi reflect the values of faculty, while offering guidance to students (Slattery & Carlson, 2005).

The syllabus also can serve as a bridge to all learners. A syllabus that provides options for completing assignments so that students can choose a format that plays to their strengths is practicing the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Dr. Muller recommends that faculty provide assignment choices on their syllabi as a way of encouraging engagement, supporting learner differences, and promoting motivation.

Module Format

Each of the College STAR modules includes a concept map, giving readers an overview of the module content. (A concept map represents information or concepts in a graphical format .) The concept maps show the links between the instructional practice in the module, possible outcomes, and, in some cases, the principles of Universal Design for Learning, known as UDL.

Figure 1, the concept map below, illustrates the instructional practice in this module, which is about using syllabi to help organize a course by providing detailed information. Faculty members use the syllabus to provide a roadmap of the course for students. The syllabus allows the faculty member to provide policies, the course calendar, course objectives, and a description of assignments. For students this information results in fewer misunderstandings, allows them to plan ahead, makes them aware of objectives for the course, and supports them to be engaged by the assignments.

Clicking on the concept map, Figure 1, will enlarge the image.

Concept map presenting an overview of the module content as noted in preceding paragraphs.

Figure 1: Concept Map: Using Syllabi to Organize a Course

Module Navigation

There are multiple ways to navigate College STAR modules. Clicking on the sidebar menu takes you directly to the main sections and subsections of the module.

Navigation features located at the top and bottom of each screen allow you to move through the module. Clicking on the “breadcrumb trail” at the top of the module screen takes you directly to previously viewed parts of the module, as shown below in Figure 2 in the example from the Charting Student Information module.

Figure 2: A "breadcrumb trail" is located below the title of each page. A "breadcrumb trail" is located below the title of each page.

The navigation arrows at the bottom of each screen take you to the previous or next components of the module. The menu link at the bottom of each screen takes you to the top of the screen where you may view the menu sidebar as shown in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3: Navigation links are also located at the bottom of each page of a module.

Additionally, some links within the text lead to other sections of the module. Please use your preferred method of navigation to proceed to the next section about Universal Design for Learning (UDL).