Curating a Syllabus

Professor of Creative Writing Yiyun Li teaches an Introductory Fiction class

Once you have thought about your learning goals and assessments, we encourage you to brainstorm or adapt your content and arrange it into a semester timeline to include on your syllabus. You might use your syllabus to communicate to your students course and University-level policies, set your expectations for the semester, and remind students of the resources available to them. Please see our Sample Syllabus Policies for Faculty, in which we offer a précis of some important university policies and sample text that you may use or adapt for your own syllabus. 

Developing Course Content

Developing Course Content

Starting from Scratch

As you think about your course content, ask yourself:

  • What kind of material or content do I need to introduce and do my students need to learn to meet the learning goals of this course?
  • Given the formative and summative assessments they will do to demonstrate this learning, is there a logical order in which to introduce this material?

Starting with a Syllabus

If you are working with an existing syllabus draft, you might review the content you've assigned and ask yourself:

  • Does each piece of content contribute to the course goals? Is there content you might add or take out?
  • Does the order of the content make sense and allow students to prepare for the formative and summative assessments staged during the course? Or does one piece of content belong earlier or later in the semester?

Working with a Textbook or Set Curriculum

If you are teaching your course by way of a textbook or a workbook, and/or if there is an already-set curriculum, you might have more flexibility than you realize over how and when you teach the material. For instance, you might consider:

  • What chapters or problems do you assign: can you make sure that each chapter or problem set is helping to meet your learning goals? (If not, and if this material is required, you might return to your learning goals and adjust them to align content and goals.)
  • When you assign particular chapters or problems in the semester: can you link these directly to the formative and summative assessments to scaffold this learning for your students?
  • Does the textbook cover all the content necessary to meet your learning goals? If not, can you introduce supplementary material? For instance, if one of your goals is to connect the content to current events or your students' lives, might you be able to include additional articles, podcasts, interviews, or news stories that will help students to see this relevance?
Make Your Content Accessible and Engaging
  • Once you have a sense of how the general outline of the content fits into the course and where it fits, you might look carefully at the kinds of material you present and make sure that it is accessible. For some best practices on content accessibility, please see Make Your Course Accessible.
  • Are there (small) ways you could design your course to offer multiple modes of engagement with the content? This is a key principle of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), the idea that designing for greatest accessibility best supports all students. (We offer more advice regarding implementing UDL on our page Make Your Course Accessible.)
    • For instance, if you have a reading-intensive course, you might consider experimenting with annotation tools such as Hypothesis or Perusall, which can promote social engagement and close reading, as well as flag students’ questions and confusion.
  • Do you offer multiple formats and media through which students can engage with the issues of the course (another key premise of UDL)? Are there electronic as well as hard copy versions of textbooks or texts? 
  • Thinking about the accessibility of content also might shape how you will deliver this content during the semester: a lecture (and if so, can you do informal polling of students with a tool such as iClicker)? a flipped course structure, where students read or watch a lecture outside of class and do activities in class? seminar-style discussions with the whole class or group work?


Putting Pieces Together

Putting Pieces Together

As you think through your course content, either by revising a previously taught course or designing a new one, it can be helpful to put goals, assessments, and content together into a semester timeline: the idea is to make each aspect of the course mutually-inform and legibly lead to each other aspect.

You might try out different ways of organizing your course content and assessment in a pre-semester brainstorm. We include opportunities to do so in our Redesigning Your Course Canvas Site. To map everything onto a timeline of the course and semester, you might write out the weeks, locate where in the course summative and formative assessments would make the most sense to scaffold students' learning, and then include content that will allow students to prepare for these assessments. Feel free to use the tools that work best for you, whether it be mapping out your course on poster-size paper, arranging post-it notes on a table, or diagramming the course on a blackboard or whiteboard in an empty classroom or your office. 

As you integrate the parts of your course together, it is especially important that you think carefully about where to include assessments on the course timeline: make sure to allow time for students to practice the skills that they will be asked to demonstrate in the course's summative assessments. In addition, consider the work you are asking of students weekly and across the semester (between readings, data sets, other formative and summative assignments, class time, etc.) to be sure it is reasonable. A helpful resource to determine workload in terms of different types of assignments and the time commitment they may require of students is the Enhanced Course Workload Estimator from Wake Forest University.

We also want to emphasize that as you develop your course content in alignment with your course goals and assessments, you may find yourself tweaking those goals and assessments. That is perfectly fine: this is an iterative process, and, much like developing an argument or hypothesis in scholarly writing, as you fill out the content, you may find that the goals and assessments also need to shift. In fact, we encourage you to return to your goals and assessments to make sure that all parts continue to fit together.

Assembling Your Syllabus

Assembling Your Syllabus

When designing your syllabus, it’s important to be conscious of how each aspect of the course helps students to meet your learning goals and prepares them for the formative and summative assessments. These design choices are also important content to share. On your syllabus and again when introducing the document to students, we encourage you to explain to students how you have designed your course and why it looks the way it does: that is, share the logic of your design. Understanding the course goals and how they can successfully work toward them can motivate students.

For instance, you might explain:

  • Why assessments help students meet learning goals
  • How you have scaffolded assessments to support learning over the course of the semester
  • How your content helps students undertake assessments and thus meet learning goals
  • How you will help students engage with the course (through offering multiple ways of accessing materials, or connecting to students' interests, for example)
  • How students can expect to reflect on their own learning (a skill called “metacognition” that has been shown to increase student learning)

Getting Input

As you are revising your syllabus, you may find that you would benefit from a second pair of eyes and a chance to discuss your syllabus in real-time. If you would like feedback or a brainstorming partner as you design your syllabus, here are a few different options:

  • Request a Consultation with the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, or contact directly Jessica Del Vecchio, Senior Associate Director, Teaching Initiatives and Programs for Faculty, for a consultation.
  • Request a consultation from an Instructional Designer at McGraw (especially if you would like help thinking about alternative assignments using technology, accessible course documents, or designing your Canvas site) by contacting [email protected].

Exchange syllabi with a colleague and share feedback. We would be happy to connect interested instructors (whether graduate students, post-docs, or faculty): please fill out the following confidential Syllabus Peer-Review Request Form and we will be in touch via email.

Setting Up Office Hours

Setting Up Office Hours

Holding office hours can be both rewarding and frustrating. While students can have real insights–or even breakthroughs–when meeting individually with an instructor, many are reluctant to come to office hours for fear of imposing upon their professors’ time. Here are a few tips you might consider (and that might inform your syllabus) for getting students to office hours and making good use of this one-on-one instructional time:

Encouraging students to come

  • On the first day of class and on your syllabus, make a point of inviting your students to see you during office hours or to make an appointment with you.
  • For small classes, make an office visit in the first three weeks of the term a course requirement. After an initial meeting, students will feel more comfortable returning later in the term.
  • Hold your office hours in one of the campus’s many cafés or student-run coffee clubs , or somewhere that feels less formal to students than your office. Doing so may help to break down barriers for undergraduates intimidated by the prospect of speaking with a Princeton faculty member.

Making the time productive

  • Advise students on how to prepare for meeting with you. You might suggest that they write down specific questions, mark difficult passages in a text, or identify recurring difficulties in a problem set.
  • Ask students to specify why they've come to see you. Knowing the purpose of the meeting will make it more focused and cut down on vague explorations–and time!
  • Guide students to a deeper understanding of course material through active questioning rather than by explaining the material. This sort of guidance gives students a template for critical inquiry they can put to use later on their own.
  • For quantitative courses, use office hours to teach problem-solving strategies rather than to provide students with answers to particular problems. Help them work through the conceptual basis of the problem, recognize and classify types of problems, and predict logical solutions rather than focusing on algorithmic calculations.
  • If you have a number of students waiting to see you, poll them to see if there is a common question or concern and then address those concerns with the entire group.


References and Additional Resources

Princeton-Specific Resources:

ODOC’s list of course policies include policies on the scheduling of courses, grading, attendance, undergraduate course assistants and supporting student well-being in the classroom.

Suggested syllabus statement from the Office of Disability Services (see bottom of Faculty FAQ page)

The Registrar’s policies and procedures include policies on grading practices, examinations, and conduct of courses.

Depending on when you will teach the course, you might consult the Academic Calendar. from the Office of the Registrar.

Additional Resources:

Barre, Betsy, et al. Enhanced Course Workload Estimator. Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Wake Forest University. Accessed 12 Apr. 2023.

Germano, William and Kit Nicholls. Syllabus: the remarkable, unremarkable document that changes everything. Princeton University Press, 2020.

Womack, Anne-Marie. Accessible Syllabus. Accessed 12 Apr. 2023.