Creating your syllabus for an online class

Last Updated: January 15, 2024
A woman watches an online lecture on her computer and takes notes on a sheet of paper

How this will help:

Identify key features of a syllabus that benefit online students.
Determine in what ways you will want to update your syllabus for online teaching.

The basics

Syllabi are highly personal — some are very short, some are very comprehensive. How you choose to describe your course and assignments is unique to you. However, you may find that when a syllabus is created for an online class, there are areas where you may need to be more explicit that you hadn’t considered before. Students report more ambiguity in an online class, being specific and clear early can prevent questions down the line.

You won’t be “handing out printouts” of your course syllabus on the first day of class to your online students. Instead, it will be posted online in your course on Canvas. It’s very likely that students will have access to the Canvas course before you ever meet with them — your course syllabus is their “first impression” of you. Make it personable, informative, and extra clear on how they can reach you, and get help.

Key features to consider adding or modifying specifically for your online class.

  1. Personalize your syllabus
    Consider adding a photo or welcome video to your syllabus. Online students have few opportunities to connect with you.  It’s not difficult to add a video or photo of yourself and it provides a simple visual reminder of you to your students. If you are team-teaching, this is especially important! If you choose to make a welcome video, it can be short, and recorded on your smartphone. Students want to know that you are a real person.
  2. Communication expectations
    Set communication expectations for what students should expect from you: your students will not accidentally see you before class, or between classes, or walking across the Diag, so make it clear to them HOW you would like to be reached. Do you prefer email? If so, how soon can they expect a response from you? Do you prefer them to ask questions via the Discussion boards on Canvas? Will you be holding drop-in Office Hours? All of the above are reasonable ways to stay in touch. Be clear with students about how and when you can be reached.Also set communication expectations of your students: are you expecting them to participate on discussion boards? If you are holding synchronous sessions, will you be expecting them to be contributing? Using their webcams? Making these expectations clear in your syllabus helps students understand the level of engagement that you are anticipating.
  3. State the technology requirements for your course
    Will students benefit from a printer? A scanner? A specific level of laptop? Will they need any specific software? A strong internet connection? In reviewing your assignments, think about what the minimum requirement is to complete them, and make this clear to students. If you are expecting students to participate in synchronous sessions, suggest to them that a headset will be useful for better audio. You may find surprising how wide the range is of students’ access to appropriate technologies for online learning.
  4. Remember that online also often means mobile!
    Provide both a web-based syllabus in Canvas, and a printable PDF. Your students will be referring to the syllabus from their computers, and also from their mobile phones; providing the PDF allows them to download it for easy review offline.
  5. Take advantage of the scheduling tools and gradebook within Canvas.
    Number and title your assignments that have deadlines, and place them within a weekly structure, but use the Canvas scheduling tools to show exact assignment deadlines. This way, you don’t need to update your syllabus every time you teach your course. If you have due dates in two places, it’s twice as hard to keep them both updated and accurate. Explain in your syllabus where the due dates are.

Practical tips


Other Resources

Canvas Commons – how to use the syllabus tool

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