Course Design Tips

An effective, learner-centered syllabus:

  • Offers tangible evidence that you have thought seriously about the course’s objectives, content, and organization.
  • Reduces the organizational work you need to do during the semester by providing a clear overview of the course structure.
  • Is a contract with your students that articulates the class’s conceptual framework, its content and scope, and your course policies, requirements, and assessment techniques.

Students are occasionally asked to revise and resubmit the syllabus for their Teaching Scholars course because it is missing components required by the undergraduate Committee on Instruction (COI). Below are the components the COI expects to find on a syllabus for an undergraduate course:

  1. The Introductory information about the course and instructor:  
  • Course title, term taught, class days/times, classroom location, course format (e.g., lecture, seminar, language, laboratory, etc.), and number of points for the course.
  • Instructor name, email address, office location, days/times of weekly office hours.
  1. A description of the course that conveys to students the intellectual goals of the course. This description could function as the course description for the Bulletin, or it could expand on that summary in even more detail.
  2. A list or description of the student learning outcomes for the course — i.e., the specific skills, knowledge, or attributes that students should be able to demonstrate after successfully completing the course.
  3. A list of required and recommended texts for the course — texts being defined not only as books and articles, but also other media such as films, music, or works of visual art.
  4. The requirements for the course through which student performance will be evaluated and the percentage of the final grade that will be based on each requirement.

    Please note that it is a COI expectation that all courses open to undergraduates ensure that some written and/or graded feedback will be given to students prior to, or around, the midterm-point of the semester, regardless of the type of course, so that students may understand better how they are being evaluated and may have the opportunity to improve. In no case should 100% of the grade be based on end-of-term work.

    Depending on the type of course, course requirements may include the following:
  • Attendance: It is a basic expectation that students will attend class; therefore, attendance in class should not be a substantive basis for grading. It is advisable, however, to articulate on the syllabus a clear policy on absences.
  • Participation: If you choose to assign a participation grade to students, please provide students with clear guidelines regarding your expectations, as well as evaluative feedback throughout the semester.
  • Weekly Readings/Homework: The amount of reading and/or other homework for the course should be designed with an aim to ensure that the course carries the expected workload for the course credit. For example, for a three-point course, students are expected to conduct an average of six hours of work outside of the classroom; for a four-point course, eight hours. (To learn more, please review the Guidance on Course Points.) The type of work will determine the approximate length of time that students may need. For example, in certain classes in the humanities or social sciences, students may be expected to complete 150 pages of reading in approximately three hours; however, in other classes in the humanities or social sciences, students may need more time to move through texts that may be particularly dense or in another language.
  • Presentations: If a percentage of the grade is allocated to an in-class presentation, please provide students with clear guidelines regarding your expectations and with graded feedback on the presentation.
  • Examinations: Lecture courses often require one or more midterm examinations and a final examination, while seminar courses typically require several written assignments. It is possible, of course, to require a combination of exams and written assignments, depending on the goals of the course. Please note that while midterm exams may be scheduled during class times at the discretion of the instructor, final examinations must be administered during the exam period according to the schedule assigned by the Office of the University Registrar. (Find more information on final examinations.)
  • Written Work: If the course is a seminar or colloquium, it is an expectation of the COI that students will be required to submit a final paper that is substantial in length and scope.
  1. A detailed schedule of the semester, noting the date of each class meeting, the topic of each class meeting, and the assignment(s) due by each class meeting.
  2. Course Policies: All syllabi should include a policy regarding academic integrity. Instructors are encouraged to include the Faculty Statement on Academic Integrity and to refer to the Columbia University Undergraduate Guide to Academic Integrity.

    All syllabi should also include a policy regarding students with disabilities. Instructors are encouraged to include the Faculty Statement on Disability Accommodations.

    Please also specify if you have specific policies about what is and is not allowed in class and in exams (e.g., if laptops are or are not allowed in class for taking notes; if books and notes are or are not allowed in exams; if cell phones must be turned off in class).

Canvas is Columbia’s learning management system; each course at Columbia has a Canvas page created specifically for it, which includes a grade book to record grades. Students can view their own grades at any point in the semester, and they welcome this transparency and access. I encourage faculty to use the Canvas grade book to record the grades they assign to their students throughout the semester.


  • The course must be at the 3000 level.
  • Films should be viewed outside of regular class time.
  • Additional resources geared toward instructors of undergraduate students can be found here.

The Center for Teaching and Learning ( provides individual consultation on course design and syllabus construction.