Syllabus Design

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.

The Importance of Transparency

Your syllabus is an ideal place to share with students the assumptions and expectations that informed your approach to designing your course. Whether or not we’re conscious of it, we hold beliefs about how learning works and what counts as good teaching. This set of beliefs is often called a teaching and learning philosophy. This philosophy stems from our own experiences and observations as both students and teachers. Depending on the context, our beliefs may or may not give way to what would actually constitute effective teaching and learning in a given situation. For this reason it’s important to build awareness and agility around one’s teaching and learning philosophy. To that end, try answering these questions: By what methods and activities do students learn? What does it look like to be “knowledgeable” in your field? How is power shared or not in your classroom? What do you assume your students should be able to understand or do in order to be “successful” in your class? These are big questions. At times it may be hard to discern why grappling with these questions matters, especially during the course design phase. But reflecting on questions like these is an ongoing process and practice that can inform all aspects of your teaching.

Some further questions to ask regarding the transparency of your syllabus:

  • Do the title and preamble clearly 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?
  • 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?

Framing Modules by Putting Assignments First

While the aforementioned list of syllabus functions will seem familiar to most instructors and students, there are some ways in which we would encourage you to make your syllabus a bit unconventional, so as to distinguish it from a mere "schedule. " For students (and instructors, too) the syllabus's important role as a schedule can obscure its equally important role in communicating the course's learning objectives. A good syllabus will illustrate "the overall pattern of the course so a course does not feel like disjoined assignments and activities" and will help students "feel that the course strategies have been designed to help them reach their goals, rather than merely as busywork" (Slattery and Carlson 2005, 159).

At the Bok Center we suggest you layout your syllabus in a way that will highlight the design of your course to motivate and guide your students.  We recommend:

  • "Front-loading" assignments. Well designed assignments should make your course goals clear, demonstrating to students what they will know and be able to do by the end of the course.  Assignments should scaffold to help students build the knowledge, skills, and practice to be successful. Instructors typically list assignments/exams at the ends of modules, when they are due; but by placing the culminating assignment upfront, you motivate students and help them understand the purpose of the work they are being asked to do right from the beginning of the syllabus.  We suggest putting a description of your final assignment immediately after your course description. We recommend putting descriptions of the culminating assignment for each module at the beginning of the module. In a paragraph describe how each students’ mastery will be tested at the end of this unit. Doing so emphasizes the fact that the content—readings and lectures—of each module are meant to prepare them to be able to do something—which can be a great motivator.  It also makes the students even more aware of how intentionally the course is designed to scaffold their learning.
  • Framing language. A well designed course should be broken into modules.  These modules may build to a final point or taken together these units may allow students to fulfill your learning goals.  Before the description of each module’s culminating assignment, you should include a description of the module. What is the theme or preoccupation of this chunk of the course?  How is it preparing students for the subsequent unit(s)? How does it relate to the goals of your course?

Providing this framing language, in addition to front-loading the assignments, makes it more transparent to students why they are doing what they are doing, at the times they are being asked to do it—a powerful motivator.  It makes it clear what a student needs to do to meet the course objects, helping them take ownership of their learning.

A Final Syllabus Check Up

  • Does the order or logic of the semester still coordinate well with your course description?
  • 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?