A good syllabus serves multiple purposes. In the most general sense, it is a reference document. It indexes the important elements, events and policies for the course. It’s also a planning document, helping both instructors and students stay on track. The syllabus can also help set the tone for the course; a well-organized, legible syllabus puts students at ease because it suggests that the professor has been thoughtful in her choices for the course.
Most importantly, perhaps, the syllabus is a teaching tool. It helps makes sense of your course and indeed your discipline for students who are likely unfamiliar with things you, as an expert, take for granted. The things that you easily perceive as signposts, connections, obvious landmarks, and “the big picture” may not exist for students, who experience the information and concepts in your discipline as one large jungle, or a meandering maze of details without point or purpose. A syllabus is an excellent tool for providing a necessary overview, which, like a good map, can be referred to again and again.
What Goes into a Good Syllabus?
- Basic course information (course title, meeting location and time)
- Instructor information (office, office hours, phone, email, website)
- Course description and rationale (what the course is about and why it exists; how it fits in with the rest of the university’s or department’s curriculum)
- Course goals/objectives (what will the students learn from this course? list specific learning outcomes the course is intended to produce. “By the end of this course, students will be able to…”)
- Format and procedures (how the course will be structured and how classes will be taught; will there be discussion? an opportunity to ask questions?)
- Course requirements (readings, homework, participation, tests, papers, projects)
- Grading procedures (what will be graded; how the grading percentages will be distributed among assignments)
- Course policies
- Course schedule (dates of class meetings, topics covered, readings/problems/assignments due, test or presentation dates)
- Suggestions for achieving course goals and meeting academic expectations (what have students done in the past to help them perform well? what academic resources exist to help students?)
Link to the FDC’s “The Syllabus as a Teaching Tool” in PDF format.
How Do I Get Started?
Check out sample syllabi – Colleagues are often willing to share their syllabi, and some departments keep syllabi on file (ask a departmental administrative assistant for help). They may even have syllabi for the very course you will be teaching.
Consider course design – The syllabus can only be as clear as the class is well designed. What are your goals for the course? What should students know, do and value by the end of the course? Once you have made these important decisions, writing the syllabus become a matter of communicating this information to the students.
Get feedback from others – Ask trusted colleagues to take a look at your syllabus, or schedule a syllabus consultation with the FDC.