A syllabus your students won’t ignore

Skip the paper and go digital for a more engaging presentation.
By Dawn Wotapka

The first day of class is often a chore. Faculty and students spend time reviewing policies and requirements from a detailed paper syllabus. Digital syllabuses let faculty simplify material — meeting requirements but immediately engaging with students. Faculty can link collateral materials like detailed policies and resources, make a more attractive syllabus, and introduce themselves as much or as little as they want.

When George "Guy" McHendry Jr., Ph.D., first began teaching, he spent the first day of class walking his students through a lengthy printed syllabus detailing everything from the class calendar to the grading scale. "It's a terrible way to start the class," said McHendry, an associate professor of communication studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. "It's boring for the students. It's boring for me."

He decided to change that. "For decades in academia, faculty have been trying to find ways to get students to read the document throughout," said McHendry. "A 14-page document full of paragraphs and paragraphs of policies is really a difficult genre for students to engage with."

McHendry decided to go digital. Unable to find a suitable template, he made his own. Along the way, he became a guide to scholars looking to spice up their syllabuses. He now operates Interactive Syllabus, a free resource with a downloadable template that others can use.

Stephanie Gomez, Ph.D., an assistant professor of critical media studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., hasn't handed out a paper syllabus in a decade. She started using McHendry's template in 2018. "When I read about the interactive syllabus, I knew that it was something that I had to try," said Gomez. Now, "I use the first day of class to do more community-building activities and start to get to know my students."

For Melanie McNaughton, Ph.D., a professor of communication studies at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass., going digital made sense. She is mostly teaching a generation that grew up with the internet and smartphones. "Students are like the rest of us; they want stuff on-demand," she said. "You're up late working on a paper and you want a resource. I can link to all of these resources from a syllabus, and students can access it on their own time when it suits them."

A digital syllabus also offers the chance to showcase your personality. McNaughton's syllabus includes pictures of her traveling and her pets to humanize her in a friendly but professional way. "You want to balance what you're sharing with students," she said. "Pets are innocuous."

To go digital and make your syllabus more engaging, follow this advice: 

Don't be afraid. You don't have to be tech-savvy to be successful, said McNaughton. She uses a micropublishing site that lets users drag-and-drop sections into a digital syllabus. "You don't have to have any design skills," she pointed out.

Kay Gowsell, CPA, CGMA, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, in Blue Ash, Ohio, created an introductory PowerPoint presentation with a voice-over explanation of the syllabus highlights. To help students save time, she links to the college's required assignment platform as well as online resources. Students can easily access the syllabus via the class learning management system, she said.

Be brief. Schools may require a lot of information on the syllabus — from academic dishonesty policies to mental health support resources, but you don't want to make students scroll endlessly. "It doesn't need to be too long or too obnoxious," McHendry said.

Hyperlinks are a distinct advantage with digital syllabuses. Instead of including certain information, see if you can link to it. Gomez embeds hyperlinks so students can follow the link if they want the information. "I try to make the syllabus as streamlined as possible because students don't really want to spend a lot of time on it," said Gomez.

Think visually. Going digital allows you the opportunity to make your syllabus more attractive. "We know that marketing and branding visually matters to a lot of people, but we don't apply that to education," McNaughton said. "The assumption is that [a well-designed digital syllabus] is higher-quality. It gives students a sense of confidence and a willingness to engage."

Check your links. Hyperlinks change, so periodically check that the links you provide are active. McNaughton maintains a page that is accessible to multiple classes via a single link. She uses this page for the meatier policies and documents that students may not need all the time. When link updates are needed, she can make them once, instead of having to do so for every class.

Start a dialogue. McHendry uses his syllabus to interact with students. He asks for preferred names and pronouns, and if there's anything else that he needs to know. Some students voluntarily reveal issues that they might not have otherwise, ranging from family health issues to past traumas, information that is kept confidential. "Some students share things they're really struggling with that puts them on my radar," he said. "I can give them a little extra attention if needed."

He also asks for the best way to reach everyone for urgent matters. "I will always default to email, but many of our students just don't prefer to communicate that way," he explained.

Be yourself. Use a digital syllabus to stand out. What you include depends on the image you want to present, McNaughton said. "How much of your identity do you want to wear on your sleeve?" she said. "I'm not sure there's a one-size-fits-all answer."

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at

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