How to write a syllabus

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The academic syllabus has assumed considerable importance in recent years. Originally, it served the purpose of informing students of class policies and procedures, along with a tentative schedule of activities. Now it comes close to carrying the weight of a legal document. 

It is more important than ever to spell out for students exactly what is expected of them—in terms of academic assignments, ethical issues, and classroom behavior. With people ready to sue at the slightest provocation, a professor needs to develop an iron clad document to protect him- or herself. 

Learn what must be included and you’ll know how to write a syllabus.

Purpose

The purpose of the syllabus is two-fold (at least). It enlightens the student as to what the course contains and serves as a map for the instructor. As a subtext, for the student, it serves as a way to decide whether to stay in the course with that particular teacher. Philosophy of learning and workload are usually among the main considerations behind this decision. 

The purpose won’t necessarily be included in the syllabus itself. It is important for the instructor to be clear about what the syllabus should contain and why. In order to create this foundation, one must plan the course ahead of time. Once the course structure is in place, it is easier to create a syllabus. It is also important to check institutional and department requirements. Obtain a template or study syllabi obtained from colleagues. You don’t want to copy someone else’s syllabus, but knowing what others in the same discipline consider important will make your job easier.

Course, Instructor, and Institutional Information

This section supplies the nitty gritty of the course. This information helps the student determine whether or not he or she is in the right class. Include instructor and course name, section number, time and place it meets.

Course description and Prerequisites

This is the place for a brief description of the course. You may use the one provided in the catalog, if appropriate. List prerequisites, such as previous courses or their equivalent and assessment tests. Be as specific as possible. If students must achieve a certain score on an assessment instrument, include it.

Textbooks & Materials

List all required and recommended materials. For textbooks, give the author(s), title, and publication information. Emphasize the edition you will be using and whether it is acceptable to purchase a used book or a previous edition. Students will appreciate your efforts to help them cut down on textbook costs. 

Tell about any special requirements you have in the way of supplies. Mention any fees that may apply, as in the case of laboratory courses.

 

Resources

Point them to any resources available on their campus, whether ground or online. This may include library or media centers, writing centers, laboratories, and tutoring help.  

For students needing special accommodations, include contact information for the department in your school that is there to help them.

Expectations & requirements

A student looks here to scope out the course. Outline what you expect them to accomplish by the end of the term. Express as objectives to be achieved. Your department or district may have a list of objectives you can include here. 

Spell out the types of responsibility the student will be expected to shoulder. Tell them what behaviors you will expect in the classroom—and what you will not tolerate. Be especially clear in the area of technology.

Philosophy & teaching method(s)

Your philosophy of teaching/learning may be in a special section. Or it may be infused throughout the syllabus. Let students know whether your presentation will be strictly lecture or comprised of hands-on and/or group activities.

Policies and procedures

The absence policy may be the first thing that students look at. Life happens. Some students are already anticipating their best friend’s wedding in Hawaii or Thanksgiving with family in another state. You should make it clear how you deal with absences—planned or unplanned. Refer to school policy as well. 

This is the place you will place items such as submission of assignments, makeup work and extra credit (if accepted), classroom routine and the like.

Course outline

The course outline is a tentative schedule of what you will cover during the academic term. With an emphasis on tentative. Include a disclaimer indicating that scheduling is subject to change and that the class will be notified of any major changes. 

This section should include material to be covered, reading and project assignment due dates, and scheduled quizzes and tests.

Grading

Next to absences, this is probably the most relevant from the student’s point of view. List your grading scale and how you arrive at grades for different types of assignments. Let students know whether attendance and participation are included in calculating their grades. 

Break this section down into specific assignments if possible. Explain whether you grade on the curve and whether you round scores up (or down). This section can be presented effectively in chart form

Holidays, special events, exams

Make note of any school holidays that will occur during the term. Don’t forget those that are unique to your institution. Include an exam schedule for those who plan ahead.

Accountability

You will include a lot of information for a student to absorb. Be sure to break it up into bite-sized chunks. Use a variety of tools to make sections easy to locate. Vary font size and style and use bold and underlining to emphasize important points. You may include graphic elements for visual interest. Providing an online copy with live links can help students find resources easily. 

A well-constructed syllabus can smooth the way for a successful semester or quarter. Learn how to write a syllabus and you and your students can get off on the right foot.