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Writing a Syllabus

Writing a Syllabus

22 October, 2016

A comprehensive syllabus:

  • Sets the tone for the course. (Posner & Rudnitsky, 1994)
  • Communicates what, when, and how students will learn.
  • Makes clear to students what they need to do in order to be successful.
  • Communicates expectations in terms of student responsibilities.
  • Deters misunderstandings about course policies.

Creating an effective syllabus

Getting started

  • Establish course learning outcomes. Take into account what you would like students to know or be able to do as a result of taking your course.
  • Design your course.
  • Review the course description set by your department or syllabi of the same course from previous instructors.
  • Search online for sample syllabi of the same or similar courses from colleagues at other universities.
  • Consider questions students may have about the course. (Davis, 2009)

The following ideas are adapted from Nilson (2010, p. 33-36).

  1. Setting the tone for the course
  • Give course information such as course number, location and time, prerequisites, and other requirements.
  • Share your teaching philosophy.
  • Announce office hours and location.
  • Share some information about yourself, such as your educational and professional background.
  • Present how the course relates to the program, discipline, or field.
  • Give information about campus services that can aid students with their studies.
  • Reflect on the overall tone of your writing: is it encouraging or punitive?
  1. Communicating what, when, and how students will learn
  • State course learning outcomes.
  • List major topics your course will cover.
  • Present a list of reading materials (briefly annotated).
  • List textbooks and other course materials and where to find them.
  • List all graded course requirements such as assignments, exams, attendance, participation, etc.
  • Give a detailed schedule, weekly or daily. Include what will be covered, assignment and test dates, learning activities such as group work or presentations, guest speakers, field trips, library information sessions, etc.
  • Take into account using a graphic syllabus to supplement your syllabus. A graphic syllabus is a “flowchart, graphic organizer, or diagram of the sequencing and organization of your course’s major topics through the term. It may also note the calendar schedule of the topics, the major activities and assignments, and the tests” (Nilson, 2010, p.38).
  1. Communicating what students need to do in order to succeed in the course
  • Next to learning outcomes, list what you think students need to do in order to be successful (how many hours per week they should dedicate, class attendance and participation, etc.). Note that students may differ in their learning and that achieving course goals needs work on the students’ part.
  • Give detailed information on how graded assignments or activities will be evaluated.
  1. Communicating expectations in terms of student responsibilities
  • Next to learning outcomes, add a disclaimer stating that students may vary in their learning and that attaining competencies needs work on the student’s part.
  • Set ground rules for classroom interactions. Ask for student input and make adjustments to your original list of expectations.
  • Make sure that course policies you may have on attendance, tardiness, missed or late exams or assignments, personal use of technology, and safety procedures in laboratories are clear.
  1. Deterring misunderstandings about course policies
  • State institutional, departmental or course policies on academic integrity, students with disabilities, and diversity.
  • Present detailed examples of what constitutes violations of your policies and provide specific information on the consequences.
  • Note that any of the course activities listed in your syllabus may be subject to change under certain circumstances such as by mutual agreement or to enhance student learning.
  1. Motivating students to refer to the syllabus
  • Introduce the syllabus in class as a learning activity. Ask students to test each other, or conduct a jigsaw activity:
    1. Break the syllabus up into different sections.
    2. Divide students into different groups.
    3. Give each group a different section of the syllabus for review (expert groups).
    4. Change groups so that each group includes a member from each of the previous expert groups.
    5. Have the experts teach their section of the syllabus to their new groups.
  • Be tactical in where you place the syllabus. You can add it in the student course pack, on Blackboard, or on a course website.
  • If students ask questions that the syllabus answers, ask a student who has the course syllabus to find the answer on the spot.
  • Ask students to contribute to the syllabus. Have them review it in class and make suggestions for changes.