When writing a syllabus, there are a number of important pieces of information to convey – grading policies, assignment due dates, expectations, and the like – but there are multiple ways in which this same information can be presented to students. Specifically, Michael Palmer and his colleagues at the University of Virginia distinguish between a content-focused syllabus and a learning-focused syllabus.

  • In a content-focused syllabus, the instructor emphasizes what the student will and will not do and how the instructor will reward or punish student behaviors.
  • In a learning-centered focus, the instructor emphasizes what the student will learn, how student learning will be demonstrated, and how the instructor plans to support students in accomplishing these learning goals.

Even when the course designs are held constant, syllabi rated as being more learner-centered using Palmer, Bach and Streifer's Measuring the Promise: A Valid and Reliable Syllabus Rubric have been shown to increase students’ engagement with the course and student perceptions of the warmth and supportiveness of the instructor.

Making the Syllabus more Learner-Centered through Change in Tone

  • Content-Focused Tone: “Students are required to write a 4-5 page, double-spaced paper addressing [specific topic or question]...
  • Learning-Focused Tone: “Students will be invited to explore the topic of [specific topic or question] within the context of a 4-5 page, double-spaced paper.”
  • Content-Focused Tone: “Students are expected to have completed all reading assignments prior to coming to class. Consistent, active class participation contributes 10% to a students’ overall grade in the course.”
  • Learning-Focused Tone: “In order to include the perspectives of all learners in our class,  it is my hope and expectation that you will have completed the reading assignments prior to our class meetings, so that you can fully and actively participate in discussion. Your consistent and active contributions to class discussion will earn 10% of your overall course grade.”

Making the Alignment Between Learning Outcomes, Activities, and Assignments Clear to Students

Another approach to to making your syllabi more learning-focused involves how you describe the connections between course themes, learning activities, and how you’ll know that learning has occured.

  • In a content-focused syllabus, the requirements are described in an abstract way, with an emphasis on due dates.
  • A learning-focused syllabus highlights the big ideas or questions in the course, describes how students will prepare to engage with these ideas or questions, and provides information about where the instructor will look to see evidence of learning success.


The following examples are adapted from Figure 4 from Palmer, Wheeler, & Aneece (2016)

A Content-Focused Course Schedule Example:
2/2 Recontruction: 1865-1877 Chapter 19, p 321-330  
2/7 & 2/9 The Gilded Age: 1870-1900 Chapter 20, p 330-342  
2/14 & 2/16 Race, Empire, and Culture in the Gilded Age: 1870-1917 Chatper 22, p 347-360 Quiz #1
A Learning-Focused Course Schedule Example:

Date Questions/themes we'll explore... How to prepare for discussions... How I'll know that learning has occurred...
2/2 What big picture questions and themes are worth exploring?    
2/7 Reconstruction: What was actually being reconstructed? Read Pollitical Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, Chapter 2 -- on Blackboard Reading Check
2/9 Gilded Age (growth): Does rapid industrialization change everything?

Read Sisters, Introduction and Chapter 1


Submit your discussion question online one hour before class.

In-class debate (details will be provided in class)

To view the full example of a learning-centered syllabus click here.