Faculty Club / Course Design / A Teacher’s Guide to Humanized Syllabus Design

A Teacher’s Guide to Humanized Syllabus Design

Psychology professor Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill explains the REACH method for creating a human-centered syllabus.

Mary McNaughton-Cassill


Professor of Psychology,
University of Texas, San Antonio

PhD in Clinical Psychology, MA and BA in Psychology

Most faculty think of their syllabus as a means of communicating with students about what a particular course will entail. This includes how the class will be organized, what students will be asked to do, and how grades will be determined. 

Traditionally the format of this document was left up to the faculty member’s discretion. However, more and more universities are asking, or requiring, faculty to use a standardized template to convey information about their course and to share information about university policies and resources. 

While this may standardize the transmission of information, it typically results in a dense document which students skim over and forget. This makes it even more important to remember that teaching is an interactive process which is dependent on connection and engagement.

So how can we thread the needle between conveying important information and using the syllabus to create, inform, and support students in a positive way? The answer lies in what we include beyond the messages about student conduct and assignment due dates. 

When trying to REACH out to students via my syllabus, I incorporate elements of the five following components of effective teaching: Relevance, Engagement, Accessibility, Clarity, and Humanity.

Relevance: Connecting Course Content to Students’ Lives

It’s no surprise that people are more likely to pay attention to things they find relevant in their own lives. 

However, many students have difficulty connecting their course material with their own interests. As educators, we must ask ourselves: Does my syllabus show students how this course relates to their lives and career goals? 

Try introducing each section with a few sentences about how the material pertains to students’ experiences, or how it will help them in their field.  Or craft an opening assignment asking them to detail what they want to learn from the class to encourage them to see how the course might benefit them.

To connect with students, I often rely on a reflective question strategy. I pose a question to students and have them submit a one- or two-paragraph response through our learning platform. I reply to each answer with a sentence or two, and I typically make the assignment worth a couple of points.

I find that students really appreciate my feedback, and it enables me to get to know all of them, not just the ones who speak up in class. It does take time to review their answers, but in classes of over 100 students, I make the question very specific and limit the length of their response, so they have to be succinct.

Engagement: Fostering Active Learning and Responsibility

It is difficult to learn if students don’t engage with the material beyond skimming a book or listening to a lecture. So how can you address this in your syllabus?  Encourage your students to engage with the course material and to take responsibility for their own learning and course performance. 

I sometimes embed extra credit points within the syllabus. If students read far enough, they will find a question about the syllabus, which they can answer through our learning platform (Blackboard or Canvas) to get an extra credit point. I usually spotlight something they often get confused about. 

For example, I ask students, “Do I use percentages or points when grading?” The answer—points— is in the syllabus, but I don’t tell students that. I simply tell them to be sure to read it all. I do let them submit the answer until the end of the course so I can see that the word eventually spreads!

Other faculty leave room in the syllabus for students to determine when assignments are due, how to organize their own study groups, or create guidelines for group presentations. The more ownership students feel about their own learning process, the more successful they will be.

Accessibility: Building Connections

We are all adept at letting students know how to reach us during the semester. But simply listing our office hours and contact information doesn’t necessarily make them feel comfortable reaching out to us. 

Many students avoid talking to faculty members one-on-one because they don’t find us approachable. While there are professional boundaries we shouldn’t cross when talking about our own lives, simply telling them about where you are from, where you went to school, and why you chose your discipline can help them to see you as a real person.  

I often share some stories from my own winding academic path. My first PhD program was not a good fit for me, so I left with a terminal MS degree. It seemed like a crisis at the time, but that degree enabled me to get a job in a lab where I eventually was a co-author on three journal articles. The combination of the degree and the articles allowed me to gain access to a very competitive PhD program which shaped the rest of my career.

My point is that you never know how things will turn out, and it is okay to change directions if needed. This often resonates with students who think that everyone else is more sure of themselves than they are. When we as their instructor reveal how we overcame our own academic setbacks, it can give students permission to discuss their concerns with us.

Clarity: Setting Clear Expectations for Success

Most of us put a lot of energy into making sure our syllabus describes course requirements, due dates, and lecture topics clearly and concisely. However, when we teach the same class over and over, the things that seem clear to us may be difficult for students to understand. 

To ensure the expectations in your syllabus are clear, specify exactly how you will calculate grades, share the rubrics you use to evaluate assignments, and add notes in the syllabus regarding when they need to start more complicated projects. 

For example, if students are doing group projects, long papers, or an active learning project, include a timeline in the syllabus regarding when they should be doing specific things. 

Students often underestimate how long a project will take, so a structured set of dates can help. Indicate when they should be on each step of the project or have students make their own deadlines for the project as part of an assignment early in the class. Such guidance can help reduce student frustration and enhance their sense of control.

Humanity: Recognizing Students in a Complex World

The reality of modern life is that we are all inundated with electronic input, deadlines, and pressure to balance our work, school, and personal lives. 

While it may seem that it will make your life easier to set firm deadlines for assignments, this isn’t always the case. Inevitably there will be a student who has a health, family, or other personal crisis that prevents them from meeting a deadline. Build some flexibility into your schedule by creating a procedure for make-up exams, or by allowing students to drop their lowest exam or quiz score. This will save you the trouble of negotiating each student’s crisis individually. 

If there are policies you cannot bend because of the course you are teaching, it helps to be as clear as possible about their options in the syllabus. For example, in a language class it might be crucial that students attend in person. Explaining how language learning works can provide support for a grading policy that is not flexible on missed attendance.

If you have a make-up policy or a process for late assignments, be clear about how the policy works and emphasize that you can’t make additional exceptions because you are obligated to offer the same opportunities to all students in the class. 

Occasionally you will have a student whose life events are repeatedly interfering with their academic performance. In that case, you’ll want to inform them of any relevant and available resources on campus. Familiarize yourself with how to help students access this help. 

Even if your campus syllabus template contains links to those services, I find that it doesn’t hurt to include a section in your own words about campus offices that provide counseling, advising, tutoring, disability assistance, and even basic support such as a food pantry or emergency loans.

The Impact of a Human-Centered Syllabus

Preparing a syllabus is a time-consuming task. But even if you are constrained by the template your institution uses, you can set the stage for a satisfying, engaging course by consciously reaching out to your students and letting them know that you want to help them learn. By creating a human-centered syllabus, you treat each student as a person, not as a number or a problem. 

We want our students to do well, and we want to feel that we are doing a good job as teachers.

Research suggests that students value teachers they felt treated them fairly and cared about their class performance and them as individuals.

The syllabus is often the first tool we can use to convey that we want students to enjoy and succeed in our class.


Mary McNaughton-Cassill
Professor of Psychology
University of Texas, San Antonio

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