In my early years as a teacher, I quickly came to understand the value of a good syllabus as a means for organizing the school year. To me, the syllabus was not merely an obligatory document to be passed out, read and signed by a parent, and brought back the next day. Instead, I came to see the syllabus as a guidebook, a battle plan, a contract, and a class constitution all rolled into one. It was a master plan, meticulously crafted to guide both my students and me along a specific path of learning.

While I’ve since moved on from K-12 education, I still make a syllabus from time to time. Now, however, I am managing my own learning, so the syllabus is for me.

Why make a syllabus for yourself? Having a plan can help you conceptualize, work toward, and achieve a goal, whether that’s a new skill, expertise in a subject matter, or the ability to complete an unfamiliar task.

For example, think of a skill you’d like to develop, the one that would have the greatest impact on your personal effectiveness.

Now, think of all the ways you can learn that skill. Through reading books or taking classes? In person or online? How many programs, certificates, degrees, websites, or videos have been created that could teach that skill? How do you sift through all of the options to choose the best one for your lifestyle, resources, and goals?

While a syllabus can be a lot of things, it is at its essence an intentionally designed plan to achieve specific learning objectives. This is why I create my own personal syllabus – to help me sift through a multitude of options and organize my learning in a way that works for me.

One of the most fundamental principles of instructional planning is backward design, beginning with an objective in mind and working backward from that objective to plan the learning activities that will enable you to achieve it. With that principle in mind, consider setting aside a Sunday morning to chisel out a personal learning syllabus of your own.

Start with these three basic steps:

1. Identify a learning objective.

After your learning, what do you want to be able to do? Your learning objective could take any number of forms, such as completing a challenging project or task, developing a new proficiency or skill, getting a new job, or becoming eligible for a promotion.

Goals should be attainable but challenging enough to engage you, and important enough that you will prioritize it over the other demands on your time (or at least give up Netflix for!).

You may also need to define how to tell if you achieved your objective. For example, how would you determine whether you gained proficiency in a new skill? Be sure you have a clear finish line in mind.

2. Organize modules by outlining what you will need to know and do in order to achieve your learning objective.

Break your overall learning objective down into smaller goals. Think of these smaller objectives as the steps you will need to take in order to achieve your final objective. Lay them out sequentially as the modules of your syllabus. If your learning objective is to be able to answer a question, what are the other questions you must be able to answer first? If you want to become eligible for a promotion, use the description of the job you’re after to identify the skills and characteristics needed to perform that job.

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3. Plan learning activities by identifying and sifting through the resources and tools you could use to achieve the smaller objectives of each of your modules.

Now that you’ve identified a learning goal and broken it down to its essential components, think about how to tackle the smaller objectives. Consider researching learning activities from options like these:

  • Online certificate programs such as HBX
  • Books (physical, digital, or audio)
  • Websites (reference sites, professional organizations, video sharing sites, etc.)
  • Degree programs (online or in-person)
  • Professional conferences or networking events

Add these resources to your syllabus to complete the outline of your learning path, and you’re ready to dive in. By following these steps, you’ll be well on your way to creating a personal learning syllabus that can help you master a skill, get a promotion, or expand your knowledge.

Happy learning!

Blake Bishop

About the Author

Blake is a member of the Course Delivery Team at HBS Online and is currently developing courses for K-12 school leaders. He received his M.Ed. from Johns Hopkins and his B.A. from Brigham Young University, and before joining HBS he taught 7th and 8th grade English. In his free time he enjoys running, backpacking, and reading bedtime stories.