The Guide to Creating The Perfect Syllabus

July 14, 2021

Perhaps you have been in this exact situation before: It’s the middle of a course term, and you have numerous students asking the usual questions. “When is the deadline again?” “How are these papers graded exactly?” You remind them of the syllabus, which they had quickly forgotten after you introduced it to them on the first day of the course.

It’s not entirely your students’ fault. In fact, most syllabi must meet administration standards that can be off-putting to students’ interests. But these days, syllabi are starting to be seen as something much more than a list of essential dates and times. They introduce the culture of a course, the teacher’s philosophy, and inspire students to get excited about what they will learn. In fact, a syllabi study in Harvard has found that incorporating a teaching philosophy into a syllabus has as much importance as any other factors. 

Fortunately, creating an intriguing and informative syllabus is not a difficult process and should inspire you as much as it does your students. Before understanding how to create the optimal syllabus, it’s imperative to understand what can go wrong with the wrong type of syllabus and how this can affect the overall run of the course.

What problems arise from a poorly developed syllabus?

A poorly designed syllabus can lead to numerous headaches for multiple parties, including teachers, students, administration, and parents. A syllabus lacking in detail will be the cause of those pesky questions you will find yourself answering time and time again. Answering these questions will cost you valuable class time that could have been spent with your students learning, reviewing, or participating in more productive (and fun) activities. You could also find yourself in an uncomfortable situation between a parent, administrator, and yourself in the grading of an assignment if a student claims that something was unclear or even unfair. Putting the initial time in to write a good syllabus could save you time and frustration in the long run in a variety of ways.

What topics should be included? 

The question then becomes, what should be included in a syllabus? Three essential components make up a properly written syllabus:

The technical details

These are the relevant dates, times, and other quick facts that every basic syllabus contains.

Your name and contact information

Include your name, title, phone number, office location, and office hours. Also include the best times and way(s) to reach you. 

Course information 

This includes the course name, course number, day and time that the course meets, location, credit hours, and semester.

Required reading and materials

What books, online resources and texts, and subscriptions are required? Note if these need to be purchased or not. 

Prerequisites for the course

Note what other courses, subjects, or skills are needed before taking on this course.

Course calendar

A course calendar is a map of the course schedule. It can be weekly or monthly, depending on your preferences and the overall length of the course. Include the topics that you will discuss as well as the readings you will reference in relation to specific class days and times. Additionally, add the assignment due dates, exam dates, and holidays. 

Key Tip: Use the phrase “subject to change” to give yourself some leeway when it comes to certain dates you are unsure of. Using this phrase can save you in moments where you need a date change.

Grading criteria

This section is one of the most essential components of a syllabus. Being as detailed as possible here can save you a number of headaches in the future. Break down the criteria for all types of assignments, quizzes, tests, and projects. How many points does each kind of assignment get? How will the final grade be calculated? For instance, what percentage of each type of assignment will count towards the final grade?

Policies on revisions, late work, and incomplete work

Just like with the grading criteria section, it helps to be as comprehensive as possible in this section. Will you allow revisions? If so, what’s the deadline for receiving revised work? What is the penalty for late work? Will incomplete work be accepted, or will it be marked as zero? You can add a quip here about why you have set up these policies. Perhaps they are part of your institution’s regulations, or you have strict rules against tardiness.

The vital policies 

The following policies often act as a reflection of the institution you are teaching in, although adding your own philosophy will demonstrate your own expectations of students.

Academic integrity policy 

It’s common to reference your institution’s academic integrity policy here, which will cover such topics as plagiarism, ethics in research and study, and transparency. It would be beneficial to put a sentence or two describing how you feel about this topic, saying something like, “I have zero-tolerence for plagirism or cheating.” That way, your students will fully understand your stance on the subject. 

Attendance policy

Like with the academic integrity policy, your attendance policy should be the same as your institution’s. Define what constitutes an excused or unexcused absence, late arrival, and early departure from class. Note that some students will have notes explaining why they have arrive late or have to leave early. If students will receive a penalty for missing too many classes, be sure to provide the exact details. 

Accommodation policy

This policy is a description of how the course will accommodate students with special needs. This section of the syllabus will be greatly appreciated by students who may need it. 

Communications policy 

As we continue to move into a world of digital advancements, we will continue to come across more channels of communication (online school systems, emails, texting, social media channels, etc.) With such a wide range of communications, it’s imperative to let students know when and where they have to go to get notifications, updates, and messages when it comes to the course. In this section, you will let students know exactly where to turn in assignments, and how to do so. This is a common issue that arises for students — “I didn’t know where to turn it in” — so being as detailed as possible about how and where to turn in assignments is a great advantage.

Classroom policies 

How are students expected to behave in the classroom? Are they allowed to eat or drink, or should they limit what they bring in the classroom? In addition, what is the classroom’s electronic devices policy? Can students have their cell phones out, or should they put them away for the duration of the class? Explain why these policies are put into place. This is another instance where you can incorporate your own beliefs into the syllabus. You can explain why you allow or don’t allow certain practices and behaviors and how they may affect learning in the classroom.

Teaching philosophies

With the rest of the syllabus layout, you can let your teaching philosophies shine:

Course description 

The course description isn’t only for your students it’s also for your colleagues, your school administrators, and even accreditation services. Therefore, the course description should be both extremely informative and captivating. What are the main topics that will be covered? What are the minor topics? What is the theme of the course, and why should students be interested? What is the tone you are hoping to achieve during the course? Be sure to use collaborative language here, specifically “we,” when discussing what the course will cover. For example, “we will learn ____.” Doing so adds a more inclusive atmosphere to the course.

Course objectives 

The course description leads to the course objectives. When writing out the objectives, make it learner-centered in active voice. For instance, “Students will be able to identify/recognize/comprehend ____.” This phrasing can help make the learning objectives more proactive and interesting.

Course relevance to students 

This section is where you really get to show off the importance of your course and get students motivated. Answer the questions they may have here: Why does this course matter? How is this course relevant to my overall college learning experience? What will this course add to my career later on? Let your beliefs and attitudes towards the subject show here, and students will take notice of your dedication and passion for the subject. Moreover, writing these answers will motivate you when it comes to teaching. You’ll remember the goals you set out for yourself and want to achieve them.

Your teaching philosophy

What is your teaching approach? Do you take a constructivist approach? Reflective? Inquiry-based? By understanding how and why you teach the way you do, students will be better prepared when it comes to completing your assignments and getting a good grade in your class. Taking time to include your philosophy in your syllabus also shows that you are invested in the teaching and learning experience, which is encouraging for your students. Be sure not to use overly complex language when describing your philosophy, because it can come off as confusing and off-putting to students who are not too familiar with these concepts.

Estimate of student workload 

Remember, students often have a lot on their plate with other classes and personal responsibilities. It would be immensely beneficial for them to know what to expect when it comes to how much work they will be taking on each week, including how many pages they will need to read or how many words they’ll be expected to write. You may be able to answer these questions after years of experience teaching the course, but if you’re new to this class, you can ask for advice from other members of your department. They will most likely be able to give you a solid estimate of what students should expect.

Hints, tips, and tricks 

Students love getting as much help as possible right from the start. If you have any hints on how they should study, take notes, or review material before a test, lay them out here. For instance, perhaps there is a note-taking technique you recommend or a certain review program you know about. Including hints like these examples will encourage students to refer back to the syllabus in the future.

Classroom interaction expectations 

Lastly, let students know what you expect out of class participation and interaction. What kind of interaction will you have in class: Will your class be mostly made of group work and group projects, or do you expect students to participate independently? Is there a participation grade included in the overall grade for the course? If so, why do you place participation highly? If students are uncomfortable sharing in the context of class, are they able to participate online instead?

Final items to remember

There are some other elements of syllabus-making that you may want to keep in mind:

1) Controversial topics: It has become common practice to reference the possibility of controversial topics on the syllabus. In doing so, you are preparing students for potentially difficult discussions or giving them the option to not participate, depending on your policy. 

2) Syllabus checking: This practice is more commonly done in lower-level grades. You may want to consider a form of syllabus checking, which is a way to double-check that your students have read and understood the syllabus policies and guidelines. You can give a syllabus quiz, ask questions, or have parents sign the syllabus and return it, acknowledging that their child has gone over the document.

3) Administration approval: Even with a well-developed syllabus, you may run into a student or two who challenges your syllabus at some point. It is a good idea to send your syllabus for approval to an administrative team member. That way, you have it on record that it was looked over and approved.

A good syllabus is a teacher’s best friend

A good syllabus will set you on the right path for a successful school year. By incorporating your philosophies along with the must-haves in your syllabus, you are ensuring that your students, the school administrators, parents, and yourself can be well prepared — and excited — for your course.

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