What is a syllabus?

A syllabus is a document containing all the essential details students need to know about a course and is distributed either on or before the first day of class. It provides the expectations of the educator and program along with the what, why and how to support student success. 

A syllabus includes four basic categories of information:

  1. Information about the instructor
  2. Course policies
  3. Required texts and supplies
  4. Schedule of classes and assignments

A well-designed syllabus informs students of what they need to know regarding how the instructor will run their course. The quality of the document reveals a lot to students, not just about the curriculum but about you as a teacher as well. It gives students a first impression and general idea of how you present material.

A syllabus isn’t just for students, either. It also provides important information for instructors as well as for your colleagues, program or institution administrators. 

  • For instructors: It provides a map for how to proceed through the term. It serves as a reminder for you of all the key touchstones you want to hit along the path. By referring to your syllabus regularly, you can ensure you’re always aligned to course goals and policies.
  • For your colleagues: It provides visibility to colleagues teaching related courses and can help ensure a consistent learning process throughout a student’s educational journey.
  • For higher education administrators: It helps ensure you’re hitting key requirements in terms of curriculum, as well as institutional procedures and policies.
  • For students: It serves as a single source of information for course details, including due dates, reading lists, policies, how to contact the instructor and important resources.

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An effective syllabus serves multiple functions:

  • As a contract: It clarifies the rules for the course, laying out what students can expect to occur over the semester or school year. It also outlines the responsibilities of the educator and student alike as well all the pertinent course, program and school policies and procedures.
  • As a learning and teaching tool: It aids students in learning more effectively by including background information about the course, why it’s important to students and how it may be relevant to their lives. Syllabi also provide logistical information about how the material is structured and why, as well as how it fits into the program or school’s curriculum. It can also include more personal elements, like your philosophies as an instructor regarding the course and pedagogy in general. 

The document can even include helpful tips and hints for succeeding in the course such as how best to take notes or an estimate of what kind of workload students can expect. You could also consider adding in a list of resources to further aid a student in their learning, such as tutoring, counseling or writing assistance. If there is an archive available of past tests and assignments from the course that students can access and review, you can include them here as well.

  • As a permanent record: A syllabus serves the dual functions of providing documentation and accountability. By delineating as much as you can about the course as clearly as possible, you and your students will have a common reference point from which you all will operate. In this way, the document can eliminate many avoidable questions and disputes about requirements and expectations. 

Your syllabus should include the precise topics to be covered, the level at which you will be teaching these topics and what the students will receive in terms of credits, advancement or other learning outcomes. 

This guide will teach you how to create a syllabus that helps you set your students up to succeed from the outset.

Syllabus and course information

In your introduction, provide an overview of what the course is about and the areas you will cover. This is also the place to outline your goals and objectives. A bulleted list of the three to five main objectives will help students stay focused on what is most important to their success. This is also an appropriate place to briefly lay out the format and structure of the course. Consider including details on why you’ve organized it the way you have.

The introduction should also describe how the course fits into the associated program, department, curriculum and school’s overall philosophy. You can elaborate on why a student would want to learn this material, how they may find it meaningful to themselves and how they might apply it in their lives. This is a great way to get students invested in learning from the get-go. 

If there are certain terms you will be using that students may be unfamiliar with, you can also include relevant definitions. 

The course description is the first and, arguably, most important part of your syllabus since it summarizes the course and lays out what students can expect to learn. For that reason, think carefully about communicating your goals and objectives and the learning outcomes you seek to achieve. 

What to include in a syllabus

Each of the four basic sections of a syllabus should be detailed and complete, yet as concise and well-organized as possible. 

Instructor information

A syllabus should let students know who you are and how to reach you for questions and assistance. If you have a particular title and/or rank, you should add this as well. It can also be helpful to include a short biographical statement letting students know a bit about your background. If the course has teaching assistants, list their names, contact information and when they are available to support students. 

It is helpful to give students an idea of how long they can expect to wait for a response from you to an email or voicemail message. If you have office hours, include them along with the location and schedule. Similarly, it can be helpful to include the days and times you’re most likely to be reachable outside of office hours. 

Other information you may wish to include in this section:

  • Program and department
  • Title and course code
  • Amount of credits or units students earn for taking the course.
  • Semester dates
  • Time and location of class meetings

Course policies

A syllabus should outline all the rules and regulations pertinent to the students’ successful completion of the course of study. This includes:

  • Grading policies: How will you assign grades to students? What are your grading procedures for the course? Will you be grading on a curve? What are the components of a student’s final grade? What is the weighting and grading scale of various course elements? How much of the grade will be based on exams and projects, and how much will be based on other elements such as attendance and participation? Are there opportunities for extra credit?
  • Attendance policy: How many sessions is a student permitted to miss and still pass the course? Is attendance taken each session, and, if so, how will it be recorded? What must a student do if they are going to be absent? How should they make up for any missed coursework? How does lateness affect a student’s grade, and what must a student do if they are going to be late for a session? If your course is asynchronous, how will attendance and participation be measured?
  • Participation requirements: Similarly, how much are students expected to participate in the class and how much does this contribute to their grade? What degree of participation do you expect from each student, and what does this look like in practice? Does the course entail lab sessions, tutorials or seminars in which the students are required to participate? Is the course synchronous, asynchronous or blended, and how does that affect your participation expectations of students?
  • Behavioral expectations: Outside of participation, how do you expect students to act and treat one another in your class? If your course is online, what netiquette guidelines will you provide to your students?
  • Academic integrity statement: This is a statement of your expectations and the rules and regulations regarding students’ academic performance in and out of class. If there are any academic prerequisites or corequisites associated with the course, you should outline them here. This may include not only prior coursework but previously acquired knowledge, skills or abilities you expect your students to have. This section can also clarify aspects of the course that may commonly confuse students. An important element to clarify is what counts as appropriate collaboration and the boundaries between acceptable paraphrasing and required citation.

This section may also contain relevant university policies and information on any emergency response plans affecting students in the course. 

Along with your particular course policies, you may also want to include valuable statements and policies for students in your course to be aware of, such as:

  • Diversity and inclusion statement: Regarding equal treatment for all students, regardless of identity or background.
  • Cura Personalis, or “care for the entire person,” statement: Regarding provisions to ensure individualized attention for each student.
  • Accessible and accommodation statement: Regarding equal access to course sessions and materials for persons with disabilities and protection for those individuals from discrimination.
  • Title IX statement: Regarding equal treatment and protection for students regardless of sex and the prevention of sexual discrimination and assault.
  • First Generation students and Native and Indigenous Territories statements: Language to properly acknowledging first-generation students and students identified with First Peoples and Indigenous territories.

Required texts and other materials

A syllabus must inform students of the texts and other materials they will be required to read in the course as well as any optional readings and resources. This can include books, magazines, videos, podcasts and other digital content you deem helpful and relevant. 

Here, you can include a list of additional supplies students will require for the course, such as a calculator or graph paper or a certain software application.

This is also an appropriate place to include any suggested resources to help them supplement their learning. Just make sure to clearly distinguish suggestions and recommendations from requirements

Assignment schedule

A syllabus needs to let students know when and where class sessions take place. If the sessions are conducted virtually, the students need to know how to access them. It can also be helpful to include a list of key dates and deadlines for important assignments, such as major projects, labs, exams and other assessments. 

A brief description of the assignments and assessments in the course will help students better prepare for success. For example, if any of the work is group work, it can help to clarify that in the assignment schedule, so students can plan accordingly. 

While technically not an element of scheduling, this part of your document should also contain any relevant instructions for test taking, such as whether a student can arrive and start a test late. 

Differences among syllabi for different types of courses and learning

While all syllabi will contain some degree of each of the aforementioned elements, differences will necessarily exist between syllabi for different types of courses, such as online and offline, and different types of learning, such as synchronous and asynchronous. 

Asynchronous vs. synchronous syllabi

A syllabus will differ depending on whether you’ll be conducting the course in a synchronous, asynchronous or blended format. It helps to understand the differences between these approaches. 

  • In synchronous learning, the students and teacher all meet together in the same place and time, even if that “place” is online, such as a video conference. Students access activities, resources and course content at a specified time and place. In some cases, students taught synchronously may still have some control over their pace. Students also have direct and immediate access to teachers and peer support while undertaking tasks and assignments. 

Synchronous learning allows for greater class engagement, dynamic learning and educational depth. However, it imposes a rigid schedule and the possibility of certain logistical difficulties, such as access to a computer and reliable Internet.

  • In asynchronous learning, students move through the coursework at their own pace. Students can access course materials and work on their studies from anywhere that offers an Internet connection. In some cases, students can even download coursework and materials in advance of their study time so they can work when and where a computer or Internet connection may be lacking. 

Students are fully in charge of the time, place and pace of their learning and complete all tasks and assignments independently. Asynchronous learning allows for greater flexibility. However, it can also involve greater isolation, the potential for apathy and technical difficulties, such as computer software errors and Internet access issues.

  • In blended learning, some of the coursework is conducted in real-time. Students and instructors meet at the same time and location to conduct some course activities. Other work is conducted on the student’s own time. An example of blended learning are low-residency programs. In these programs, students meet with teachers and each other on campus for a brief period at the start of each term. Then, they conduct their studies for the remainder of the term asynchronously at home on their own time.

Considering the differences between synchronous, asynchronous and blended learning, it’s easy to see how the syllabi for each should be different as well. 

  • For a synchronous course: The times and locations of each class session and exams will be strictly scheduled. Attendance, lateness and absence policies are typically detailed in the course policies section.
  • For an asynchronous course: A greater focus is placed on due dates and deadlines. As long as a student reviews materials, completes assignments, exams and other assessments within the expected timeframe, they remain in good standing. Course policies for this type of course may place a greater focus on academic integrity than attendance and participation. A syllabus for asynchronous learning should also detail exactly how students will be assessed and what learning outcomes they should strive for.
  • For a blended course: Synchronous and asynchronous elements of the course must each be delineated. While both elements must be scheduled, students need to be clear on which elements require real-time, in-person participation and which elements are merely deadlines and due dates. Course policies may focus strongly on participation, given the opportunities to do so will be limited.

Syllabus in virtual/online learning

As more coursework takes place virtually, it’s important to note some of the differences to online or blended courses. 

For an online course schedule, be sure to include:

  • Unit of time: Do you use a weekly time frame or more flexible modules to structure the course? If using a weekly time frame, consider making assignments due at the end of each weekly period. If using modules, incorporate regular check-ins or incremental due dates to maintain consistent contact with students and encourage progress.
  • Weekly structure: On what days does each weekly period begin and end? This can help students better organize their time on each assignment and avoid lateness. It can also keep students from attempting to contact you during times you don’t wish to be contacted.
  • Workload: Including a rough idea of how much time students are expected to commit to coursework each week can be extremely helpful for students working on their own. You may even include additional guidance on the degree of motivation and self-discipline necessary to succeed in the course.
  • Type(s) of learning: Online courses can be synchronous, asynchronous or blended. Let students know in the online syllabus what type or types of learning will take place in the course and the procedures and expectations for each. How will classroom discussions take place, for example: in a scheduled real-time chat or over an asynchronous forum?

A syllabus for an online course may also include information on where and how students can obtain technical support and what software or services students should use to communicate with peers and instructors. 

If students need to learn certain types of technology to be successful, set this expectation as well as any necessary guidance or resources.  As with any course document, you should also include tips and advice on how to succeed in the course. 

Fun with syllabi

As long as it contains all the essential information, your syllabus doesn’t have to be stale and boring. Instructors far and wide have come up with different types of creative, innovative syllabi. 

If you’re savvy with graphic design software, for example, you can create a graphical syllabus, also known as a ‘visual syllabus.’ This may include images, charts and graphs, like an infographic. Similarly, you can parse out the information you need to convey in bite-sized bits by creating a PowerPoint document. 

Some tips for an effective graphic syllabus:

  • Limit your choice of colors to just a few to keep the document from being too visually overwhelming.
  • Keep the design relatively simple, avoiding clutter and allowing for plenty of space to maintain readability and flow. Avoid intricate, hi-res graphics, as well. Instead, use simpler line drawings and vector images.
  • Use basic fonts, avoiding anything too fancy that may be hard for some to read.
  • If your students will be downloading the document to print on their own, keep the document and pixel size to a reasonable level so accessing it doesn’t become prohibitive.

An effective course syllabus should define the roles and responsibilities of teacher and student alike and present a clear assertion of the course’s intended learning outcomes. Ideally, it should establish procedures and standards for assessment and apprise students of all logistics about the course. This in turn helps create a clear channel for communication between students and instructors. 

Click here to access our Free Syllabus Template to streamline your online, blended and face-to-face course preparation.

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