Faculty Club / Course Design / Creating a Syllabus Your Students Will Read [Free Ebook]

Creating a Syllabus Your Students Will Read [Free Ebook]

Stephanie Speicher, PhD, shares five principles of humanizing syllabus design and provides a checklist for teachers to design syllabi that generate curiosity for course content.

Student reading in class.

Stephanie Speicher, PhD


Assistant Professor of Teacher Education,
Weber State University, Ogden, Utah

PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, MEd in Educational Leadership, BS in Social Sciences/Secondary Education

Raise your hand if you ever asked yourself how many of your students actually read through the syllabus. Hand raised over here! Until recently, the syllabi I distributed to students were multiple pages and focused on university policies, grading procedures, and class protocols. The world events of the past few years, however, provided an
incredible opportunity to revisit how I was using syllabi to build equitable spaces where students felt they belong and were an asset to the learning environment.

Why Revisit the Syllabus?

Syllabi are much more than a course contract! As a result, syllabi carry immense opportunities to establish connections between who we are as humans engaged in the learning process. Students rely on the syllabus as a guide, a reference point, and the framework of how they will engage with you and the course.

When created with intentionality, the syllabus serves as an invitation to connect the student to you, other students, and the course!

In this interactive handbook, we’ll review five principles of humanizing syllabus design. I’ll also provide a checklist for you to design syllabi that highlight your teaching personality, create social connections, and generate curiosity for course content.

Learning Objectives

💡 Understand the five principles of humanizing syllabus design and how to apply it as a guiding framework for syllabus creation.

🧠 Rethink syllabus design using the checklist provided in this handbook.

📈 Implement targeted strategies to enhance a sense of belonging among students and a connection to course content through syllabus design.

Your students will acquire the foundational components of trust, belonging, and connectivity by engaging with a humanized syllabus.

The Syllabus as a Catalyst

The syllabus can serve as a catalyst to deepen communication and solidify shared expectations, which ultimately is linked to students’ overall success in our courses.

We are in a new paradigm of higher education, and we need to be asking ourselves, “How can the course promote learning and intellectual and emotional growth in students?” vs. “How am I going to cover all of this content in one semester?”

Shifting our thoughts to forming inclusive, inspiring, and inquiry-filled learning environments begins with providing a syllabus that deliberately sets the tone for shared learning and compassionate accountability.

5 Principles of Humanizing Your Syllabus

1. Be experience-focused: Students are experiencing your course, not as passive participants, but as active constructors of their learning journey. Faculty facilitate the learning experience, and the syllabus is the guidebook. Be intentional about constructing the syllabus to convey how students will engage with you and the content.

2. Examine and edit for inclusive language: Redesign policies where applicable with inclusive, welcoming language. The language we use can instill a growth mindset and an appreciation of the wealth of knowledge students bring to the learning experience—or it can diminish and potentially belittle students. If students feel the learning environment is safe to take risks and the teacher cares about who they are as a human, the possibilities to learn are endless.

Tips for Inclusive Language in Your Syllabus

  • Welcome students to the course in a standout message at the beginning of the syllabus.
  • Tell them your course is “student-centered.”
  • Use personal pronouns (I, you, we) instead of “the professor” or “the students.”
  • Actually state “I am committed to…(This lays the groundwork for clear expectations.)
  • Use language and slang students will relate to. (e.g., I’ll say “the deets” instead of “details.”)
  • Be deliberate in using terminology that paints a picture of a welcoming community and space. (e.g., “We are a community of learners where all students are valued and contributing members.”)

3. Set expectations with your students: Life happens! By trusting your students and offering compassion and mutual respect, your students will more likely utilize resources to aid in their learning and overall success throughout their learning journey. Include students in setting expectations; their voices and ideas are of incredible value.


We want students to check in, so they don’t check out!

4. Be equitable and accessible: Meet your students where they are (and where you are)! Apply Universal Design for Learning principles to meet the diverse needs of students.

5. Be human, be vulnerable: When students relate to you as someone more than a talking head and begin to identify themselves as part of a learning community, they are more likely to come to class and connect with you and their classmates. Authenticity matters!

Your Syllabus Checklist

✅ Use website tools and digital resources to create visually stimulating and easy-to-scan syllabi. My personal favorite is Adobe Creative Express to create visually engaging syllabi that perform beautifully across platforms. Use images, color, headings, and bullets to set the tone for one of the first experiences students have with your course. Make it mobile-friendly and easily clickable! (Here’s an example of my syllabus.)

✅ Include a short welcome video. Invite the students to the course and tell a story about who you are and your interests. Embrace your vulnerability as it can cultivate a sense of connectivity of shared human experience!

✅ Share a brief teaching philosophy statement. What is your WHY?

✅ Align course outcomes, course content, and assignments. Transparency is critical. As I say, students love surprises when it is merch and food, but not when it comes to grades and expectations!

✅ Leave room for students to express their expectations for the course. Be open to editing the syllabus based on student input.

It is imperative that space is made to learn who the students are, what kinds of knowledge and experience they bring to the community, and what they want to accomplish.

✅ Add a section stating your commitments to the students— what can students expect from you? Use this space to share your communication policy; for example, how should students contact you (email, text, phone)? What’s your response time?

✅ Embed and list descriptive links to immediately connect students to useful resources on campus and beyond. Increase the interactivity of students with the syllabus by being intentional with your links and visual cues.

Within a week of the official course start date, I like to send a welcome email with a link to the syllabus and any other important information to kick off the semester with ease. With one click, students are greeted with a welcome video engaging them in a learning experience. This can ease academic anxiety and begin to create a sense of belonging prior to the first day. 

Create Your Teaching Philosophy

I like to share my teaching philosophy on the syllabus to further personalize the course. First, read my teaching philosophy below. Then, I invite you to use it as a guide to draft your own!

Here’s the teaching philosophy I share with students:

“I am passionate about creating dynamic, exciting, and interconnected environments that will encourage you to be part of thought-provoking conversations and learning experiences. The content covered in this course is interconnected and I believe everything we learn fits together into a complete understanding of the world, from which we develop a personal global perspective. Ultimately, I hope from taking this course you will develop an informed and compassionate lens with which to view the world and recognize the importance of education. I want to utilize my teaching skills and resources to empower you to facilitate purposeful, strategic, and deliberate learning experiences to engage students in your future classrooms. I am fully committed to helping you grow as an individual and as a member of the greater global community.”

Now it’s your turn! Take a moment to draft your teaching philosophy.

Getting Student Feedback

Take time in the first week of class for a class discussion (either face-to-face or asynchronously) for students to ask questions, seek clarification, or provide feedback based on what is outlined in the syllabus. If possible, provide an opportunity for students to offer suggestions on course readings, assignments, and how they want to work as a learning community.

Class Activity: Syllabus Annotation

Split the class into small groups and have each small group annotate the syllabus together. Encourage them to ask questions to each other and clarify the content in the syllabus. After each small group has annotated the syllabus, come back together as the entire class to debrief common questions.

Develop Your Humanized Syllabus

Now it’s your turn! Answer these three questions to get started developing your humanized syllabus.

❓How is success defined in human terms for your course and communicated in the syllabus? In other words, how does your course honor the student from a holistic perspective? (e.g., Do you offer flexible due dates, alternative/authentic assessments, etc.?)

❓What stories do you want you students to tell about what they have learned in you class?

❓How can you co-create expectations with your students?

Download the Ebook

Embedding the five principles of humanizing syllabus design and using the checklist as a guide can open immense possibilities for you to create a sense of belonging and heighten students’ engagement before the first day of class! Download a PDF version of this ebook below to share with your community.

What’s Inside:

  • Five principles for humanizing your syllabus.
  • Student activities for syllabus engagement.
  • Personal exercises to reflect on your pedagogy.

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