Setting the stage for active learning: The “why to” and “how to” of an interactive syllabus

Melanie McNaughton
5 min readAug 14, 2017

I came across a blog post the other day with a pretty piece of typography touting: Great teachers don’t teach content, they teach people. Perhaps I was having a tough day with the school year looming like the sword of Damocles, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. It’s a lovely sentiment, but how is one meant to translate such pithy observations into tangible practices? My students are people and it’s important to connect with them. But I have undeniable and significant obligations to my students in terms of content. Students must master skills and knowledge to progress in their coursework and succeed in upper level classes.

For me, a more useful way to think about student engagement is to ask myself how I can get my students to connect with course materials in a way that makes this content meaningful to them. One way to do this is to integrate active learning principles in your classroom. In general, higher education is seeing a push towards active learning, and a move away from the “sage on the stage” lecture model of instruction.

Many people argue the first day of class is critical in establishing your class’s dynamic. I like to push this principle one step further. If one of your goals is to promote active learning, create an interactive syllabus. Your syllabus doesn’t have to be a dull list of details outlining the contract between you and your students. Your syllabus can be an important component in establishing a more dynamic interaction. The syllabus is the first class material your students will read — making it a particularly effective target for establishing interactivity as a class norm.

I like the four functions Dave Ferreira outlines as the goals for a great first day of class: 1) foster rapport, 2) communicate key elements and expectations, 3), promote desired student behaviors, 4) actively involve students. An effective interactive syllabus will operate as a microcosm of the first day, and similarly meet these goals.

The tool I use to create an interactive syllabus is, a hosting site with templates you can easily and quickly fill out. They have a wide variety of genres, and their education section has a selection of syllabus plug and play templates. is great because there’s no significant learning curve. I’m not affiliated with or compensated by, I just find their product useful. If you apply for an educational account, you receive several years of free access.

You can find an example of my interactive syllabus here. What I like about the drag-and-drop options is that I can create a visually engaging first impression, and that I can organize information in ways that make it easy to understand how the course will function.

Returning to the four core goals, it’s easy to see how an interactive syllabus allows me to achieve these.

Foster rapport

I work on establishing rapport by presenting pictures of myself and my cats. There are a wide range of philosophies on what type of imagery of is appropriate — do what makes sense for you. For myself, I chose three images: one in a casual-yet-professional context, one of myself in front of a wall of graffiti, and one of my cats. I chose the casual professional image because it shows me doing adult conferencey-type things, but in a context that reads as approachable. I included the graffiti image because I study popular and visual culture, and the image connects with that. I opted to use the cat photo because revealing I have pets is a low-level disclosure that humanizes me as a person, without offering overmuch detail about my personal life.

I also include a short version of my teaching philosophy to help students understand how I approach teaching, as well as a short video I made introducing myself, so that students can get a sense of who I am as a person and an instructor.

Communicate key elements and expectations

Given that this is a syllabus, goal outlining expectations and responsibilities. Like any traditional syllabus, I include the catalog course description, course goals and learning outcomes. This information gives students a full and transparent understanding of what the course involves. In addition to providing the grading scale and point value of all assignments, I like to include a pie graph which visually illustrates the point values for course assignments.

Promote desired student behaviors

By linking out to the course policies, and including videos students can click on, I encourage students to engage in actively looking for information they need. Yes, this is pretty small stakes, but creating a syllabus that requires students to interact with information is one way to illustrate I see students as active, not passive, participants.

Actively involve students

Links to course texts and policies, the embedded videos, as well as the image slideshows, create a dynamic reading and viewing experience. These visual and interactive tools more actively engage students than dull lines of text. As with promoting student behaviors, active involvement in my syllabus is relatively low, but it’s more involvement than what’s typically on offer in standard prose syllabi.

I started building interactive syllabi for my online courses. Online classes have particular needs for encouraging engagement with students. I have now adopted the practice for all my classes. Moving syllabi online has helped simplify syllabus updates. I can make changes to one course policies document, which connects to all my courses. This is a much easier process than endless cut-and-paste fiascos. Trying to remember what course policies document I needed, and updating my syllabi every time I made a change always led to errors. Which I inevitably wouldn’t discover until the first day of class. Moving my syllabi online has helped streamline that considerably.

If you’re a particularly technologically adept sort of person, and have a WordPress site for your courses, I have developed a template which you can find here.



Melanie McNaughton

Work: exploring identity, design, and visual culture. Play: paint, fiber arts, and cats.