Functions of the Syllabus

We recently asked a cohort of undergraduate and graduate students how, in a word or short phrase, they would define the function(s) of a syllabus. The results were impressive: while several answers (like "a contract") repeated as one might predict, others (like "a recipe book," "a user's guide," or "a provocation") reminded us of just how many audiences—and how many ends—this genre is meant to serve. Faculty (not to mention job market candidates) often compose syllabi as much to demonstrate their mastery of a topic to other instructors as they do to inform their students. (This may be one reason why we so often find ourselves repeating "it's on the syllabus!" to our students. Is it entirely their fault that they don't know how to manipulate a document that wasn't written with their own needs in mind?) While there is no single model of an "optimal" syllabus, there are at least some features which students report finding especially useful.

Key Functions and Components of a Syllabus

A syllabus has several functions. The first function is to invite students to your course—to inform them of the objectives of the course and to provide a sense of what the course will be like. The second function is to provide a kind of contract between instructors and students —to document expectations for assignments and grade allocations. The third function is to provide a guiding reference—a resource to which students and instructional staff can refer for logistical information such as the schedule for the course and office hours, as well as rationale for the pedagogy and course content.

Generally, a syllabus should include the following information:

  1. Learning Objectives. What students will gain or take away from your course. Why these objectives are the most important skills/knowledge for the course (helpful if objectives are included for each topic/session).
  2. Goal/Rationale. How the course relates to primary concepts and principles of the discipline (where it fits into the overall intellectual area). Type of knowledge and abilities that will be emphasized. How and why the course is organized in a particular sequence.
  3. Basic Information. Course name and number, meeting time and place, instructor name, contact information, office hours, instructional support staff information.
  4. Course Content. Schedule, outline, meeting dates and holidays, major topics and sub-topics preferably with rationale for inclusion.
  5. Student Responsibilities. Particulars and rationale for homework, projects, quizzes, exams, reading requirements, participation, due dates, etc. Policies on lateness, missed work, extra credit, etc.
  6. Grading Method. Clear, explicit statement of assessment process and measurements.
  7. Materials and Access. Required texts and readings, course packs. How to get materials including relevant instructional technologies. Additional resources such as study groups, etc.
  8. Teaching Philosophy. Pedagogical approach including rationale for why students will benefit from it.

Questions to Ask of Your Syllabus

  1. Do the title and preamble clearly state what the course is about, orient and excite students?
    • Does the preamble clearly identify the theme of the course, or pose questions that draw students in?
    • Does it challenge or inspire your students? Is there a problem or puzzle to be solved?
    • Does it introduce relevant vocabulary without being confusing?
    • Does it require and mention prerequisites?
    • Does the phrasing set a collaborative tone or sense of common purpose? e.g., “We will explore...”
    • Are learning objectives stated? e.g., “You will be able to…” “Students will learn…”
    • Does it refer students to the course website, or Internet sources for further detail?
  2. Does your syllabus establish a clear contract between you and your students?
    • Does it provide a means of contact (phone; email etc.)
    • Does it make clear promises regarding due dates, readings, and office hours?
    • Does it establish clear expectations for course blogs, chat rooms or the course website?
    • Does it make grading policies explicit? e.g., 20% for X; 40% for Y (or something else)
    • Does your syllabus make provisions for writing and assignment preparation: pre-paper conferences, review sessions with you or TFs, etc?
    • Are you prepared to eliminate material that cannot be covered (since adding is problematic)?
  3. Is your syllabus coherent? —In the simplest sense a syllabus is a “calendar,” but it should also have a logic, an order of argument or a story line.
    • Is the logic or story best told in vignettes (one per week or month)? Or is it better divided into 3 or 4 Acts -- and if so, are they manageable chunks?
    • Does that order or logic follow from your preamble?
    • Are the sections or elements linked to one another, or steps that follow one another logically?
    • Can the elements be posed as questions that follow in a coherent sequence (at least for you)?
    • Is the pacing reasonable? Can your students really read X pages a week (or less during exams)?
    • Are there built in moments of review?
    • Have you checked due dates against the university calendar: vacations/days of religious observance?
  4. Does your syllabus build the appropriateskills or competencies? Does it clearly motivate stages of learning or have learning outcomes?
    • Is the pitch and degree of difficulty right for the cohort (again, are prerequisites mentioned)?
    • Is the sequencing of assignments laid out clearly with an eye to developing necessary skills?
    • Do writing or other assignments coincide with the material they address?
    • Do the assignments (reaction papers, exercises etc.) develop skills that build to a final, challenging written or other project or exam?