Essentials of Effective Course Communication

The Syllabus

Your syllabus is perhaps most crucial component of effective course communication. It should include the following key information to empower your students to succeed:

  • Course learning goals.
  • Basic course and instructor information.
  • Schedule of events to enable students to anticipate assignment and quiz dates.
  • Course rubric that explains your evaluation system, or what constitutes an “A, “C,” “D,” or “F.”
  • Explanation of your classroom expectations.



Explore the sample syllabi included below.  Each syllabus will be different, but they should ideally include the five items listed above.

After you’ve reviewed a small selection think about what you believe these syllabi did particularly well, how you would improve them, and how each identified strength would be particularly beneficial to students.

  1. History 112 – Professor Leonora Neville, Fall 2012 [1]
  2. History 223 – Lane Sunwall, Spring 2015 [2]
  3. UW-Madison Department of History Program Syllabi

Open Syllabus Project

Wondering what to assign your students to read? Check out the Open Syllabus Project. OSP is not a collection of actual syllabi. It instead breaks down the reading lists of over a million syllabi to provide you a searchable interactive course reading list for courses from any discipline.

Syllabus by Adobe Illustrator

Your syllabus does not need to conform to the syllabus layouts you received as an undergraduate. With modern publishing software you can use bold design, illustrations, shading, and tables to highlight important aspects of your syllabus.

Amos Bitzan from the history department provides some creative examples: History 224 — Professor Amos Bitzan, Spring 2016[3]

Take Action

Make the Syllabus More Sticky

Have your students read over the syllabus at home during the first week of class. Then in the second week assign students a 10-15 question open-book online quiz that reviews the syllabus items you think most important to reinforce.  Here, the quiz is a formative exercise. It provides students a new medium in which to review and reflect upon key points of the syllabus while simultaneously keeping them accountable for knowing syllabus content. Win and win.

Improve access to the Syllabus

Since the syllabus is such an important document, it should be readily accessible online, even if you hand it out in class. Post your syllabus in a location easy for students to find online. Ideally, your syllabus should live the homepage, or in its own module at the top of the module list.

Click here to find out more about homepage customization.


Increase Student investment in Course Learning Goals

Encourage students to set personal learning goals to encourage them to think beyond their letter grade and examine critically how course learning objectives have application to their wider career. You should return to these goals throughout the semester to provide student meaningful feedback on their progress.

This activity can be as easy as having students fill out a 3×5 index card in-class with their course goals written on it.  Ideally this should be done towards the beginning of the semester and after students have reviewed the syllabus.

Go Beyond

Create a better syllabus

There are many resources available to you in your quest to create the perfect syllabus.  Check them out.

  1. Learning Support Services – LSS works to help instructors more thoughtfully think about pedagogy and the use of course technology.[4]
  2. DoIT Academic Technologies [5]
  3. Writing Center & Writing Across the Curriculum – Offers one-on-one consultation to help you improve your syllabus, create innovative writing assignments, and even improve your feedback. Also, be certain to explore their online teaching resources.[6]
  4. Library Services – The friendly staff at the university libraries can help you tweak your syllabus to help you build engaging assignments that help students better take advantage of library resources and better understand the process of academic research.[7]
  5. DesignLabThe Design lab can help you plan course components that employ technology to complement traditional papers and reports.[8]

  1. Dr. Leonora Neville, History 112 Syllabus. University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI. Source:
  2. Lane Sunwall, History 223 Syllabus, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
  3. Dr. Amos Bitzan, History 112 Syllabus. University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI. Source:
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