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Course and Syllabus Design

This section offers tips and strategies on course design, with particular attention to understanding your students, constructing and using course learning goals, and building a syllabus. We also offer some information and suggestions for approaching online and hybrid courses. Finally, we wrap up the section by addressing gradebook and recordkeeping strategies and some logistical preparation strategies.

Now that you’ve gathered answers to many questions about your classroom, you’re ready to begin building your course. Just as there’s no one right way to teach a course, there’s no one right way to design a course or a syllabus. The most rewarding courses to teach strike a generative balance between the interests of the faculty member, the goals of the curriculum, and the needs of the students. Keeping these ideas in mind as you’re building out your syllabus is a good idea, but also a persistent challenge.

Your Students

Why are students taking your class?  

The answer to this question, especially for beginning instructors, rarely (if ever) has anything to do with your identity as a burgeoning scholar. That identity will certainly be why they love the class and remember it fondly after the semester is over. But, we’re sorry to say, there is little chance that it has anything to do with why you’ll find them sitting in your classroom when you arrive for your first day teaching.

For the most part, CUNY students take classes taught by CUNY Graduate Center students for two reasons:

  1. The course is a requirement
  2. The course fits within their schedule

If you’re lucky, you may have the opportunity to teach an elective course or a course intended for majors in your field, but that will most likely come after you’ve gotten a few semesters under your belt.

It’s a challenge to translate the sophisticated and contested ideas you’re grappling with in graduate school to an undergraduate classroom where students come in with wildly differing levels of preparation, needs, and interests. Understanding where the course fits within the curriculum and the role the course will play within your students’ college experience can help focus your efforts.

You might ask yourself the following questions: if this is the one history or political science course your students have while on the path to becoming an accountant, or a physical therapist, or a physician, how should that impact the design of the course experience? If you are teaching a composition course in a writing program, how should the likely majors and career paths of your students influence the way you design their writing assignments?

By way of context you should know that in 2013, CUNY instituted a common curriculum called “Pathways” ( which intended to make it easier for students from CUNY’s community colleges to transfer to its senior colleges. Pathways significantly reduced but did not eliminate the autonomy that CUNY senior colleges have over the general education curriculum. It is very likely that the course you’re assigned to teach in your first year teaching will be a Pathways course, and it makes sense to review your campus’ Pathways requirements to see how that course fits in.   

Another other reason that students may find themselves in your class is because of its timing. CUNY students are busy. Many work full-time, and squeeze coursework in between jobs and responsibilities at home. As such, CUNY’s classrooms tend to look different at different times of day: if you teach early in the morning or after five, you may have more older students who work full-time in your class. If you teach during the day, your class may have younger students.  

When designing your course, then, it’s useful to think about why students will be in that particular class at that particular time, and how the experience may fit into their course of study and their lives.

Learning Goals

Many faculty approach course design by first asking, “what do I want my students to know or to be able to do by the end of our time together?” A “learning outcome” is a statement of what students can be reasonably expected to learn while in your class, during a particular class session, or by completing an assignment. Think of learning outcomes as the skills or set of competencies that your students will walk away with.

Your department may already have outcomes or goals for your course. If they do, seek a clear understanding of these objectives while you’re doing your planning. If they don’t, then producing your own can help guide you through selecting readings, and designing assignments and assessments.  

When you clearly communicate learning goals to students, not only do you make assessment and course design easier, but you also give students a map and a stronger sense of what’s expected of them. “Backwards planning”— where you start with your learning goals and move backwards to assignment and activity design and the selection of course materials—can help you devise the structure for the class and identify moments within it where different kinds of activities make sense.

Keep two things in mind when writing your learning objectives. First, how will the student demonstrate their efforts towards the objective? In other words, what kind of assignments or activities will they be asked to accomplish and how will they move them towards the learning objective? Second, how will you evaluate whether or not the student reached the objective? What assessment criteria will you use?

The following guidelines can help you create strong learning goals:

  • Learning goals should describe actions that students will be able to perform upon completing a course. Therefore, they differ from descriptions of what we intend to teach.  
  • When composing learning goals we should think not just about what we want to cover in the course but also about how we will know that students have learned the things we want to cover.
  • Goals should be formulated to be as specific as possible.
  • If you are going to assess student learning goals separately, then list them separately.
  • In writing learning goals, consider using active verbs that represent a student’s ability to do something related to the course.  For a suggested list of verbs see (note that the verbs “understand” and “know” are discouraged).
  • The learning goals you define may be informed by the mode of instruction you intend to use. For example, if you are teaching an online or hybrid course, consider including learning goals that address how students navigate the tools of the course.

The Syllabus

A syllabus is both a pedagogical document and a practical one. It’s an artifact that tells the story of your course, but students justifiably also see it as a contract that will govern your relationship with them while you are together. At minimum, then, your syllabus should be clear and comprehensive. It doesn’t have to and shouldn’t go into exacting detail on every element of the course, but it should let students know what will be expected of them, what policies they need to be aware of, and how they will be evaluated.

A strong syllabus, however, can do more than this. It can present an argument to students that makes explicit the structure that you’ve set up for the course. It can present both an arc of the semester and establish guideposts to help your students along the way. It can also capture and make explicit what your values are and what makes your course distinct.

Make your syllabus as accessible as possible: hand it out in class, and post it to your course web site or on Blackboard. If you make any changes during the semester, be sure you distribute and upload the revised version.

Create a hierarchy of what you want to include and be mindful of both the size and the aesthetic qualities of the document you’re drafting. A syllabus can be overlong and overstuffed with material that might be more effectively delivered another way. Using clearly delineated headings can help break up a long document and make it easier for the reader to digest. Ask yourself what belongs on your syllabus, and what belongs on a separate document (such as assignment instructions, writing guides, bibliographies, etc.)?

The syllabus should give students practical information about the course, including course name and number, where and when it meets, how and when to contact you, where course materials resides, and any course or departmental policies that students should know about.

In general, your syllabus should include:

  • Course policies (expectations, a grade breakdown, attendance, late assignment submission)
  • Campus policies (plagiarism, accommodations, other required information)
  • Course Plan/Schedule (a calendar with reading and assignment due date information)
  • Be sure to consider your (or your department’s) policies:
  • Will you accept late assignments? If so, is there a penalty for submitting material late?
  • Will you accept assignments digitally? In hard copy only?
  • What are your technology rules? Are students encouraged to research, take notes or read on cell phones, tablets or laptops during class, or do you want your classroom to be a technology-free zone?
  • What does a student need to do to be marked as ‘present’ in your class (bring the required materials? Arrive on time?)?
  • Do late arrivals after a certain time count as absences? Does leaving early? How does arriving late or leaving early impact a student’s standing?
  • Do you have specific policies for exam days or paper submission?

Please see the next page for a sample syllabus template that includes additional details on a syllabus’s composite parts. This template is also downloadable and editable in this online edition ( 

Online and Hybrid Courses

Successful online and hybrid courses often require more intensive planning than face-to-face classes. This is especially true if it’s your first time teaching in this instructional mode. Graduate Center students may find themselves assigned to teach online or hybrid courses for a number of reasons. You may be approached by a department chair and offered the opportunity to teach in these modes, and receive support in developing your course. You may be recruited specifically to teach online/hybrid courses. You may be applying for a position where teaching in such modes is expected of you. Or, you may even be told, right before the semester, “oh, by the way, your course is completely online. And it starts tomorrow!”

The primary challenge of hybrid or online courses is that there are fewer built-in opportunities to gauge student comprehension in-person. Often students are confused about what faculty expect of them, and this is true of classes in every mode of instruction. In face-to-face classes, this confusion often becomes readily apparent to mindful instructors, but it can be harder to detect online. Careful assignment design clarifies the expectations you have of students in your online or hybrid course. Creating an organized and well-structured course is especially crucial in these contexts. Once you have a structure in place, it becomes easier to carve out time and opportunities for you and your students to improvise.

Here are some guidelines for scaffolding assignments in a partly or fully online course that will offer you multiple opportunities to intervene in your students’ knowledge-making process:

  • Consider workflow: ask yourself what assignments from face-to-face classes might be better accomplished online. For hybrid classes, design online assignments that prepare students to take full advantage of the time the class spends meeting in person.
  • Articulate for students the reasons for assignments, the method of assessment, and the grading process.
  • Tie low-stakes and high-stakes assignments together to build upon each other in a gradual progression.
  • Construct tasks that give students practice before assessment.

Gradebook and Recordkeeping

Before the semester starts, take some time to figure out how you’ll organize your gradebook. Will you keep grades by hand? Use an excel sheet? Grade on an online platform such as Blackboard? As you’re setting up your gradebook, keep in mind that students will likely ask you how they are doing in the class during the course of the semester. It will be helpful to you if your grades are in an easy-to-manage space so that you can access current grade information for students.  

As you determine how you organize your grades,, you’ll also need to think through how you’ll calculate them You might start by determining what percentage of the course grade you want exams to be (if you’ll have exams). How will you balance papers, homework, participation, presentations, attendance? What other categories should have weight in determining the final grade? Do you have a strategy for quantifying and integrating into your grades information related to the course policies you outline in your syllabus, such as attendance and participation and late assignments? Are your course policies in-line with department and school policies? Remember, not all campuses have the same policies (particularly around attendance) so make sure you check!).

Once you have your big category numbers, begin to break them down. So, if papers are 20% of the final course grade and you have four of them, do you want each to be 5%, or will they be weighted differently? See section five in this handbook for additional guidance on grading and assessment.

Think, too, about your assignment return rule. Are you planning on returning papers the next time you meet? If so, does it help if you have the weekend to grade? Or do you want to avoid weekend grading? Do the students need feedback on the assignment before completing the next homework?

This will help you determine due dates. When you design your course calendar, think also about your life, and be savvy in your scheduling. If you know you have an article due or need to write a paper for a conference, it’s probably not ideal to collect a bunch of papers the day before. Sometimes scheduling conflicts can’t be avoided, and you certainly don’t want to interrupt the flow of your course, but be aware of all factors, and stagger due dates when you can.

Staggering due dates is especially important when teaching multiple classes. It seems like a good idea to copy and paste that course calendar for all of your classes, but it’s definitely not fun to carry around sixty five-page essays. Think about how long it takes to respond to student work (and how heavy it makes your bag), and consider off-setting assignments a day or two.  

Think too about the students’ schedules: if you introduced the material on a Tuesday, do students have enough time to understand and implement that material for an assignment due on Thursday, or would they benefit from the weekend?  (Depending on the material and your objectives, a case can be made for either option.) Think about the requirements of the assignment and how much time you want to offer students to complete it.

Schools vary in terms of how long students have the right to dispute their grades. Be sure that you know your school’s grade change policy. In the event a student initiates a grade dispute, it’s important that you have the necessary documentation to support the given grade. Students may come to you a semester, a year, or even a couple of years after you’ve had them in your class. You’ll likely have engaged with dozens or hundreds of students since then, and the records you keep will be helpful in refreshing your memory.  

Logistics and Preparation

Organize your material for distribution or for posting to your course blog or to Blackboard as early as possible. Read or re-read your assigned texts, and if you’ll be lecturing, begin to develop your lecture notes and lecture materials. You’ll still have to make changes and modify as the course runs, but if you can get as much of the work around generating and organizing material out of the way before the semester, it will save prep time during the semester.

Always make sure that you have well-organized backups of your materials on your computer, assuming that you’re using one. Consider creating a “teaching” folder, then a folder for the semester in which you’re teaching, and then a folder for each course section that you’re teaching. Within each course section’s folder, you might create additional subfolders for the syllabus, readings, assignments, grades, handouts, and any other category of materials. The semester will go by quickly, as will the years, and having a clear, consistent method of organizing your materials will be invaluable as your teaching career evolves.  

Once you have your reading and assignment schedule mapped out you can begin to break down the semester and figure out what type of preparation is needed. If you’re organizing your class into distinct units, think about what needs to happen in each unit, and, from there, in each week or class period. If you’re not working with units, perhaps break down your planning using high-stakes assignments (such as exams or papers) or the calendar as a guide. Look also for natural breaks in the semester that give you more planning time, or an opportunity to to catch up.

Once you’ve divided the semester into smaller chunks, think about when you’ll prep for individual class meetings. How much can you get done before the semester starts? Will you have a day in the week that you’ve set aside for preparation? Think about scheduling your office hours in a way that maximizes them as prep periods (maybe before class to read the assigned reading or after to get a head start on marking papers). Your prep for each class meeting should include:

  • Reading or reviewing assigned course material
  • Collecting and organizing background material: do you need to read any secondary sources or compile any background information?
  • Developing course materials: do you need to prepare a lecture, generate a list of discussion questions, or build supplementary materials such as slides, images or references?
  • Crafting assignments: make sure you distribute assignment guidelines well before the due date. If you use a rubric or distribute any format guidelines, make sure you’ve prepared those as well.
  • Generating (and where necessary, printing and copying)questions,quizzes, or problem sets
  • Reading and responding to student work: don’t forget that assessing can be time-consuming, especially you’ve never done it before
  • Get down the dates that you will meet over the course of the semester. Make sure you note when you won’t meet (holidays, breaks, a CUNY Wednesday schedule that meets on Friday, etc.).

Getting Feedback

It’s always a good idea to let a friend or a trusted colleague review your syllabus and give you feedback on both the sense of the course it conveys and how it reads as a document. The Teaching and Learning Center offers extended opportunities for this feedback in the weeks and days before the semester starts; we strongly encourage you to make use of it. Even the smallest tweak to a syllabus—increase the font size of this heading, clarify your language there, are you aware that that Monday is really a Thursday?—can improve the experience of your students.