Writing a Syllabus

It is common to think of the syllabus as a contract between instructor and students, and it should indeed spell out, clearly and thoroughly, all the policies pertaining to the class, including the expectations for both students and teachers. Both parties should be expected to abide by the syllabus—it’s unfair to change requirements mid-semester, and students will be certain to protest.

The syllabus conveys your sales pitch to the students. Constructing the syllabus presents you with the opportunity to determine precisely what you want your students to learn during the course of the semester. This means that writing a syllabus is an occasion for reflection. Rather than duplicating the classes we took years ago, or simply listing topics and assigned readings, we have the opportunity to decide what skills, concepts, or proficiencies our classes should teach, what overarching questions they should begin to answer, what perspectives they should provide.

If we present students with what Ken Bain calls a “promising syllabus,” we show them what they can expect to gain by engaging fully with the course, and we evoke their curiosity: this intrinsic motivation is more auspicious for transformational learning than the extrinsic motivator of fear of a bad grade. A well-crafted syllabus can make students desire the mastery promised by the class, and convince them that it can be pertinent to their lives.

In the same vein, grades can be presented not as punitive, summative measures, but as a communication between teacher and student about the student’s learning. Since student learning is the purpose of the course, designing a good syllabus is not just an exercise: you're building the foundation of the course. The best place to start is by determining the goals of the course—what we want students to learn.

From there, we can determine how best to accomplish these goals. What readings, what assignments, what exercises, etc. will best facilitate student learning? And how will we measure that learning?

Students will appreciate your explanation of these issues: why and how were readings selected? What purposes do certain exercises and assignments serve? What skills build upon which concepts? What are the conventions of research in your field? Is there a language they must employ with skill? How does your field determine mastery?

When course goals are poorly aligned with assessments this can lead to confusion and frustration on the part of the students, and a sense that they're doing “busy work.” Students are likely to work harder and learn more when they can see and understand the value and utility of what they’re learning.

The nitty-gritty of the syllabus can be inviting, too. The course and instructor must be identified (course number, department, semester, time, location, etc.); office hours must be listed; you might even need to give directions to your office. Your contact information should be clear and prominent. It’s useful to explain the purpose of office hours and invite students to visit you. The syllabus is an introduction—to you, the course, and what students need to do to succeed.