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Creating a syllabus

Writing a syllabus presents some challenges.  On the one hand, as the first communication with the students, the syllabus needs to convey the excitement and interest of the course, and give the students a sense of how this course will change them and why they might want to take it.  At the same time, the syllabus needs to lay out the bureaucratic ground rules of the course, and it should also carry some  materials that the students probably won't read but that will provide protection for the faculty member if there are problems or disputes in the future. The appearance of the syllabus is very important as well, and it should be carefully proofread. We offer a variety of sample syllabi that may inspire you. Our syllabus checklist gives you some ideas of things that might be included.

Although the syllabus is a promise of what the course will be, TΦ101 has been told that a syllabus is not a legal contract.  If necessary you may need to change policies and you should not feel bound to follow your course outline if it doesn't seem to be working out or if you want to take advantage of student interest to go in a different direction.  Discuss big changes with your chair, and then notify the students.  It is also a good idea to describe the course schedule as "tentative" so that if you do make changes, you will not be violating what you promised. 

Getting Students to Read Your Syllabus:

Of course, after you have written a wonderful syllabus you might ask yourself whether students will actually read it. The answer is that they often do not do so. A good way to overcome this is to give a small written assignment on the syllabus itself.  For example, you might ask, which of your existing skills will help you most in this course, and which aspect of the course might you find most challenging?

Syllabus Checklist:

  • Name of course, semester, date syllabus was written.  It is amazing how often documents are undated, and how much trouble that can cause.
  • Your name, basic contact information, and office hours.
  • General discussion of the course.  Ideally, this should communicate enthusiasm and excitement and give students some idea of what difference this course might make in their lives.  In other words, while your syllabus does need to contain most of the items below, you do not want to send the message that your students are now trapped in Weber's "iron cage" of rationality. 
  • Books and materials that students should buy, with publisher and ISBN numbers.  There are so many different editions out there, even from the same publisher, that having the ISBN number can help.  Some instructors list the books, while others include some narrative about each book, explaining what will be learned from it.
  • Assigned work.  Papers, tests, final, journals, etc.
  • Grading rubrics.  What percentage of the grade will be assigned to each of these elements.
  • Policy on class participation, if class participation will be part of grade.
  • Course goals (see our earlier discussion of goals).  Goals should ideally be phrased in active terms, e.g. "You will learn to make and critique arguments."
  • Success strategies for how to do well in the course.
  • Course outline in terms of assignments and due dates.  Many faculty members now put detailed assignment information on the web through a course management software such as Blackboard or WebCTVista, but there should be some instructions about how to access this information. 
  • Course policies and expectations on the following.  You may not want to put all of these policies in your syllabus, but you ought at least to have a policy for most of them.   TΦ101 has never been a fan of excessively stern policies and penalties, but consistency is a good idea especially for new faculty members.  Typical policies include:  
    • Expectations on classroom conduct and decorum (e.g. cell phones and computer usage).  Neil Williams has created a whole set of (rather draconian) behavioral expectations for students, including not wearing hats, and waiting for permission to enter the classroom if they have arrived. 
    • Respect for others, respectful language. 
    • Lateness or absences. 
    • Late papers. The Cal Poly Pomona Teaching Excellence website discusses an unusual policy, allowing students considerable flexibility.
    • Academic integrity. If your course uses reaction papers, journals, or submission of drafts, be sure that you indicate that these too must be documented.  Students will sometimes submit a plagiarized draft, and say that they were planning to put in the footnotes later. Also make sure you refer to your institution's academic integrity policy.   
    • Accommodations for students with disabilities. Most institutions have boiler plate language for this.
    • A policy for students who are disagree with grading decision (we have a suggested policy below)   

More information:

There are several excellent websites with detailed discussion of how to design a syllabus, including:

The University of Massachusettes Center for Teaching has a worksheet for syllabus construction.

The University of Minnesota syllabus construction tutorial.
http://www.umn.edu/ohr/teachlearn/tutorials/syllabus/index.html

Materials from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching
http://www.crlt.umich.edu/gsis/P2_1.php

See also:  Williams, Neil F., "The Rules of Engagement : Socializing College Students for the New Century," The National Teaching & Learning Forum Newsletter. 17:1. December 2007.

Detailed discussions:

Policy on respect for others and respectful language.  If you are doing your job, you will probably end up with free-wheeling opened discussions in your class, which may also touch on sensitive subjects such as politics, race, sexuality, and gender.  In today's world of hypersensitivity it is very easy for your students to offend you or each other, and also possible for you to offend them. You might consider using language such as this:

Some of the material in this course will touch on sensitive subjects such as religion, politics, and sexuality. If you are in any way uncomfortable reading or discussing any of the material, please let me know and I will try to arrange an alternative assignment. Sometimes in lectures or discussions I may use outrageous examples to clarify points or provoke discussion; if you are offended by something that is said, please accept my apologies in advance and express your concern to me after class. I will not share your concerns with the class without your permission, but I will try to respond to them. While we will encourage informal discussion, I will insist that you always speak to others in the class in a respectful way, and to avoid comments and behaviors that disparage individuals. Speaking informally but respectfully about sensitive subjects is an important skill, and this class will help you learn it.

Questions about grades. John Fielder, a retired philosophy faculty member at Villanova, after observing some of the unpleasant and time consuming conversations that his colleagues were having with students about grades, devised a very simple and effective policy for grade challenges and discussions, following several steps, 

  1. He explained to the students that if they did not understand why they had gotten the grade that they got, they should absolutely seek clarification. He also promised that, under no conditions, would their grade be lowered. (Generally, it is a bad practice to create an appeal policy where people may be penalized for exercising a legitimate right to appeal). 
  2. If students did want clarification, however, they were required first to submit something in writing, explaining their question and, if they thought their answer was correct, documenting their belief with evidence from the text.  Students would frequently bring their tests to him after the lecture or in his office and he would always politely refuse to see them until they had submitted something in writing.
  3. After receiving their written questions, he would review their documentation and their test at his liesure, decide if a grade change was warranted, and then return their test and some written comments.  If students still had a concern, he would meet with them.  

This policy has enormous advantages. First, it slows the process down and forces the student to really think about the issues before discussing them. Also, it forces the student to take some responsibility and put some effort into the process. Many students would, in the process of writing something up, see the problem with their original answer. The lazier students, who were just hoping to get a few extra points, were frequently too indifferent to write up comments.  Often the students who did put some effort into the process actually had a valid point and, if so, were given extra points.

IMPORTANT:  When grading short answer questions, it is essential to put a mark at the end of what the student has written.  Otherwise, some dishonest students will write in more material and then resubmit the paper for a higher grade. 

Author: John Immerwahr
Update: June 1, 2010

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