Teaching Tips

How to Create a Syllabus

Kevin Gannon’s advice guide on “How to Create a Syllabus” provides a helpful set of tips for putting together the basics of your syllabus in a way that is inviting and fosters student learning. Though the full guide goes into much more detail piece of the syllabus puzzle, you’ll find the key points summarized here:

Though approaching your syllabus like a contract—a collection of policies and procedures—is a popular analogy in higher education, it is not the most effective way to create a syllabus. Instead, a syllabus, being the first contact our students have with us as instructors, sets the tone for the course and can be used to communicate to students the various things they will be able to do (or at least do better than before) after taking our class. As you create a syllabus, then, the question you ought to keep at the center of the process is: What am I saying to my students? The guide linked here aims to help you (re)design a your syllabus to be both an effective map of your course logistics as well as invitation to actively engage in the learning process.

Be sure to have the following on hand before you start the syllabus construction process:

  • Your course materials
  • Your institution’s academic calendar
  • Any other relevant calendars, information, or materials (including religious calendars, institutionally required syllabus policies, and departmental assessment resources)

Syllabus Essentials*:

  • Basic course information. What course is this? When and where does it meet? How many credit hours does it offer? Is the course face-to-face, online-only, or blended? Are there prerequisites?
  • Instructor information. Who are you? What’s your departmental affiliation? Where is your office (if you have one)? When and where can students meet with you? How can students communicate with you via phone or email, and do you have a preference? 
  • Course goals. What will your students be able to do as a result of this course that they could not do, or do as well, before? What purpose does this course and its material serve? Are there discipline-specific objectives, larger metacognitive goals, or both?
  • Course materials and requirements. What books, readings, and other course materials will be needed, and where can students acquire them? Are there other skills that students will need to be successful? Will the course involve site visits or fieldwork outside of regular meeting times?
  • Course policies. Do you have policies regarding attendance or missed work? Are there particular classroom expectations that students need to be aware of? What about technology use?
  • Grading and assessment. What will students be asked to do? How is the course grade determined, and what is the grading scale? Do you offer extra credit?
  • Course schedule/calendar. What will students be asked to do for particular class sessions? When will quizzes and/or examinations be given? What are the due dates for the papers, projects, or other assessments? Is there a final exam, and if so, when?

*Please refer to the full advice guide for in-depth considerations and explanations for each of these essentials

What to Avoid in a Successful Syllabus:

  • Sloppy editing. If the syllabus is riddled with typos or poorly formatted, any message you’re trying to convey to students about the importance of proofreading their papers is undercut.
  • Scolding. Students will see all of those “thou shalt nots” as your telling them that you expect them to screw up at some point during the semester, or that you anticipate “bad behavior.”

Putting It All Together

Incorporating some creativity into your syllabus design can help make your syllabus more visually compelling and interesting. Simple steps like adding color, varying headings, and incorporating images or graphics (think infographics) go a long way toward creating a more interesting and creative syllabus, one that students are more likely to read and remember.

Key Question: How will students access your syllabus?

Depending on the kind of course you teach, you’ll need to make a decision about how you will distribute your syllabus to your students: in person, digitally (posted on your course shell or via email), or both? Timing is important as well. Consider emailing a PDF of your syllabus or posting it on your course web page a week before class begins. Not every student will read the syllabus before the first day of class, but providing it early can (a) set a professional and organized tone and (b) assist those students who like to plan ahead. Here are a few specifics to consider if you decide to go the digital route:

  • Distribute your syllabus in a way that minimizes any technical or accessibility issues. A PDF often works best as it preserves your formatting and is easy for students to read on whatever device they’re using.
  • Another consideration when using electronic documents is their accessibility for visually impaired students using screen-reader technology. Head over to CSU’s webpage on accessibility and inclusion in design to learn more about Universal Design and accessibility in course materials.

Getting Your Students to Read It

Here are some strategies for making sure your students actually read the syllabus you’ve created:

  • Keep mentioning your syllabus in class
  • Don’t read the syllabus aloud on the first day of class
  • Let students know where they can find a backup copy
  • Give a syllabus quiz or other low-stakes assignment
  • Hide an “Easter egg” on your syllabus
  • Make the syllabus matter throughout the semester

Assessing and Revising Your Syllabus

Here are some things to consider as you revise and strengthen your syllabus across semesters:

  • Loopholes: There will very likely come a time when — no matter how thoroughly you think you’ve explained specific assignments, policies, or other material — a student finds a loophole (or, if you prefer, an ambiguity) in the syllabus. When a student challenges an ambiguity on your syllabus, the first question to ask is whether you have, indeed, presented information unclearly. You’ll also have to be careful about the exceptions you make to your syllabus policies, always prioritizing fairness and consistency across sections.
  • Revisions on the fly: There’s nothing wrong with revising your syllabus in the midst of a semester. Indeed, attempting to rigidly adhere to something that’s obviously not working is a recipe for disaster. Just be transparent about any changes, and make them for clear reasons. . Post any revisions in the same manner as the original syllabus, and clearly identify the changes as addenda to the document.
  • What to Keep, What to Change: Ask yourself questions like— Did your syllabus achieve did everything you intended it to?  Were there sections that students either missed or had difficulty understanding? Did your course policies — articulated on your own or in collaboration with students — foster effective learning? Were there any issues that arose during the semester that might inform future versions of your syllabus?

Sources

Gannon, Kevin. (2018). “How to Create a Syllabus – Advice Guide.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved July 15, 2019 from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-syllabus