Building Student Engagement: The Syllabus

To develop a vibrant, productive and memorable course, professors must continually work on building student engagement. Engaged students are enthusiastic, active participants in their own learning.

In this, the first installment of a six-part series on building student engagement, I offer some suggestions on how to use the syllabus to help you set a tone of engagement and excellence right from the start.

Devise specific learning outcomes: In the syllabus, make the learning outcomes as specific and clear as possible, and relate these to the assignments and to your grading metrics. For example, state specific learning goals as well as how you will assess whether the students meet these goals (pop quizzes, tests, discussions, etc).

Describe class format: Describe in your syllabus the class format. For example: “We will strive for class sessions that are lively, engaging, fun, creative and informative. Our format will combine discussion, presentations, guest speakers, case studies, in-class screenings and analysis.”

Spell out expected student behavior: Describe in your syllabus the behavior you expect from your students. For example: “Students are expected to come each week prepared to contribute their knowledge and insights. We will all learn from each other. All reading and written assignments must be completed before coming to class, and written assignments must be free of spelling and grammatical errors. There will be extensive peer review and interaction. More than your physical presence is required in class. I am looking for attentiveness, vitality and enthusiasm during class. Participation in class will raise your grades. The give-and-take of information, ideas, insights and feelings is essential to the success of this class. Thoughtful, informed, balanced and candid speech is most helpful, especially when critiquing each other’s work.”

Describe expected professional behavior: You might even want to go a step further and add a paragraph to your syllabus describing the professional behavior you are looking for from your students. For example: “Students are expected to act in a professional manner, meeting deadlines, solving problems, cooperating with classmates, and generally contributing in a positive way to the class. Working in the real world often means searching for solutions in a group context. Teamwork, listening, empathy, enthusiasm, emotional maturity, and consideration of other people’s concerns are all essential to success. Please bring these qualities and values with you to class. It is as important to ‘practice’ these interpersonal skills as it is to learn new intellectual content. Students will be evaluated on their professional demeanor in class.”

These are simply suggestions to get you thinking about how to engage students from the beginning using your syllabus. Some of the suggestions may not work for you because of the size or content of your class. Classroom management strategies must be shaped around the maturity and expectations of the class and the individual teaching style of the professor.

In the next five articles of the series, I will offer student engagement strategies related to: first classes, classroom atmosphere, classroom specifics, classroom interactions, and beyond the classroom. If you’d like to share your strategies for using the syllabus to build student engagement, please do so in the comment box below.

Chris Palmer is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. He can be reached at