Teaching and Learning Lab:
Designing your Course and Syllabus

1. The Groundwork:

As you begin designing your course, consider the following questions:

  • Who are my students?
  • What can I expect them to know or bring to the course?
  • Are my expectations for student learning reasonable, and how can I effectively communicate them to students?
  • What do I want my students to learn?
  • How will I select course content? 
  • How might I encourage and present a variety of perspectives/approaches that will help the class both understand and critically examine the premises of the course and related systems of power and privilege? 
  • Do I use examples and materials that are representative of, and accessible to, a diverse range of students?
  • How will I evaluate student work to help promote student learning?
  • How will I offer students opportunities to provide feedback on how they are experiencing the course and learning environment?
  • What teaching strategies will I use to address both the course goals and the learning needs of a diverse student population?

2. Strategies for Course Design:

An effective way to begin designing your course is to identify what you would like students to learn and be able to do by the end of the course, instead of focusing on how much content needs to be covered.  Developed by Wiggins and McTighe, this backwards design approach to course development encourages a more intentional organization of assignments, forms of assessment, and content so as to support student learning.

  • Learning outcomes –> What do I want my students to learn?
  • Assessment –> How will I know that they have learned? 
  • Learning Activities –> Which activities/assignments will lead to the desired results?

Resources and Readings: 

3. Crafting your Syllabus:

Refer to RISD’s Syllabus guidelines.

What are learning outcomes? They are measurable objectives that demonstrate fulfillment of course goals. In other words, students need to do at least one assignment that asks them to enact each of the learning outcomes listed on the syllabus, while daily activities will help students understand and build up to the outcomes.

Your learning outcomes need to specific and relatively easy to measure:

*OVERLY GENERAL/VAGUE LEARNING OUTCOME: As a result of this course you will develop problem solving skills.

*MEASURABLE AND PRECISE LEARNING OUTCOME: At the end of this course you will demonstrate the ability to evaluate and synthesize information from a variety of different sources to create a persuasive argument.

General Guidelines for an Inclusive Syllabus

Inclusive syllabi:

Are framed as an invitation, rather than a contract. Tone is important: emphasize opportunities for learning and what students will gain, as opposed to rules and prohibited behaviors.

Cultivate transparency and an environment that prioritizes learning: List learning goals, provide a rationale for your choices in designing the course, articulate norms for learning in your classroom, and invite student feedback on and contributions to the course design. Use a variety of mechanisms (anonymous weekly questions or regular check-in moments) to assess how students are learning and what their concerns are.

Refer to a diverse range of content and/or examine issues of structural inequality related to the course topic: Cultivating an understanding of how certain forms of knowledge and experience are normalized, while others are silenced and marginalized, also helps dispel the notion that certain fields are limited to a privileged few.

Articulate the importance of diversity and dialogue, and consider students’ experience in the course: Including a diversity statement, an explicit focus on inclusive dialogue, and a consideration of different types of student support all signal the value of inclusion.

Recognize that there are a variety of ways to learn and demonstrate learning: Vary assignments to address different learning styles – individual vs. collaborative; written, oral, visual; and give students the time to process before responding in discussion or critique. Consider allowing students to choose how they will demonstrate their learning and achievement of assignment objectives.

Are activated documents: Refer to your syllabus! Use it in assignments. Ask students to identify which learning goal is most important to them and why.

Resources and Readings:  Kevin Gannon’s “How to Create a Syllabus” 

4. Grading and Assessment: 

In addition to including clear grading policies and standards in your syllabus, it is important to create assignments that have clear goals and assessment criteria, and to remind students of how you are assessing work when you assign and return it.

Tips for effective feedback:

  • Link comments to the goals for an assignment and your evaluative criteria
  • Focus comments on how students can improve so as to encourage more successful future work.
  • Prioritize and identify patterns and representative strengths and weaknesses, rather than overwhelming the student with a barrage of commentary.
  • Be specific and constructive; avoid vague or overly general feedback – “awkward,” “this doesn’t work”: explain why it is awkward, or what might be done to make it work
  • End your comments by linking to the broad concerns of the course and asking questions that will help guide further inquiry

5. Gathering student feedback: 

Gathering information from students consistently throughout the course can be an effective way to adjust your teaching so as to more effectively address student learning needs. To that end, start building in a variety of ways of soliciting regular student feedback throughout the semester.  

While end-of-term course evaluations will give you an overall picture of the strengths and weaknesses of your course design and teaching, Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) can help you assess how students are processing what is happening in the course from week to week or class to class. 

Some common CATs include:

  • "Minute papers": brief, end-of-class, possibly anonymous responses to questions like: "What was the most important thing I learned today?"; "What did I not understand today, and what needs further clarification?"; "What might help you to understand today's material more fully?"
  • "Directed paraphrasing": Instead of asking students whether they understood what you just said or did, ask students to write or present in their own words a major idea or procedure that was addressed in class.
  • "Student-generated test questions": Ask students to develop their own questions or forms of assessment for the material covered so far in the course and model what they would consider good responses.

The above CATs:

  • Encourage students to reflect on what they understand as important aspects of the course and articulate a need for clarification/support in a timely manner.
  • Help instructors to assess student learning, identify topics that need clarification and further discussion, and adjust teaching to address student concerns.

GW's Classroom Assessment Techniques site provides helpful further references.  


6. First day of class:

  • Explicitly articulate and collaboratively develop a classroom agreement for discussion and critique. Please refer to our Classroom Statement as a way to catalyze the discussion.


  • Get to know your students: 

Think about how to integrate exercises and activities that will introduce the class to students' intellectual engagements, interests, and educational and cultural backgrounds.

Discuss how students would like to be identified (pronouns, chosen names) and draw their attention to our Chosen Name Policy.

Think, pair, share activities can be good ice-breakers and a way to begin sharing how students think about their backgrounds and identifies.  For example, consider working in groups to share the history and meaning of one's name. Paired with a reading like Henry Louis Gates’s “What’s in a name?” this activity can begin to build an understanding of the complicated politics and histories of naming.