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Steps to a Good Syllabus

A primary purpose of a syllabus is to communicate to your students what the course is about, why it is taught, where it is going, and what will be required of the students for them to complete the course with a passing grade.

Because students will view the syllabus as a kind of "contract," it is important to be as clear as possible, and to avoid changing major aspects of the syllabus after the first day of class.

In deciding what to include in the syllabus, first include all information that students need to have at the beginning of the course. Second, include all information that students need to have in writing. There is no hard-and-fast rule about the proper length for a syllabus. If in doubt, it is usually best to err on the long side, to ensure that important course information is fully covered. At the same time, students will appreciate having key information in succinct form on the first page.

1. Get Started

Before you start writing your syllabus, think first and foremost about the knowledge and skills students should gain in your course, then about how you will assess these knowledge and skills, and finally about the best ways for the students to learn them. Focusing on learning outcomes, rather than a list of topics to cover, generally results in a more satisfying course for you and your students.

Organize the syllabus logically, and use consistent (underlined or bold-faced headings) to help students find information. We recommended that the syllabus be created in three main parts: (1) Course Description, (2) Course Outline, and (3) Policies and Procedures. Creating each of these parts separately gives you a set of three documents that can be easily adapted or directly reused for other courses taught

2. The Course Overview Section

The course description components of the syllabus should not be changed during the running of the course. A well constructed one or two page document is usually sufficient to include the following:

  • The Course Title, Course Number, and Semester
  • Instructor Contact Information
  • Office Hours and Location
  • Course Meeting Location and Times
  • Course Description 
  • Learning Outcomes
  • Required Textbooks or Readings

3. Course Requirements and Grading

The course requirements and grading section should include the following:

  • Assignments and/or exams with brief descriptions of expectations and values for each.
  • Grading scheme and weights including what a student must do to receive a grade of A to F.
  • Syllabi for courses at the 500 or 600 levels must contain an explanation of the differences in requirements for graduate and undergraduate credit. Graduate students should be required to complete additional graduate level work (e.g., a research paper and/or substantive additional reading), and should be evaluated on a more rigorous basis than undergraduate students.
  • Topical outline of content to be covered
  • A time allocation framework (e.g., week 1, week 2, etc. to include at least 14 weeks for a standard academic year course session)
  • All distance education courses must include a statement about the estimated instructional time commitments for students. For example, the syllabus could state that students will spend approximately 150 minutes of instructional time during the 14 week session using Blackboard or other web technologies.

4. The Course Outline Section

The course outline is a part of the syllabus that may be subject to change as the semester progresses. For example, a topic students find more difficult than anticipated may require additional time, or weather conditions may cancel sessions. Changes should be kept to a minimum, be reasonable and justified, and notice provided in a timely manner. A course outline can be presented on a separate sheet or as a separate file online, and can include:

  • Topics and Timeline
  • Reading Assignments
  • Due Dates for Assignments
  • Test and Exam Dates

Some instructors like to outline their course in a date-by-date list, others with a general list without reference to specific dates, and still others with a calendar style. Examples for these approaches can be found as Syllabus Templates.

 5. The Policies and Procedures Section

Course Expectations are policies and procedures that describe how you will treat students. What you include and how it is stated will influence your classroom’s climate. It is therefore important not only to state what you expect of students, but to explain why. It is also recommended that you include a statement of what the students can expect from you.Since there is a good chance that your expectations of students will be the same in most of the classes you teach, it is a good idea to create your policies and procedures as a single document that you can reuse. You may consider include the following sections:

  • Academic Integrity
  • Attendance Policy
  • Expectations for Classroom Behavior
  • Assignment Submission
  • Missed Exams or Late Assignments
  • Accommodating Disability
  • Diversity
  • Instructional Methods
  • Recommended Study Habits
  • Expectations of the Instructor
  • Amending the Syllabus/Rules

Example Syllabus Statements are available for each of these sections.

 6. Using the Syllabus

It is important to review the entire syllabus with the students in class and allow time for questions. Students won’t necessarily read the syllabus word-for-word unless you underscore its importance. It is common to review the syllabus on the first day. It is recommended to schedule time during the second class meeting to reiterate key points and to answer further syllabus-related questions.

The syllabus should be a guide to learning. Periodically throughout the semester, say at the beginning of each unit or before major assignments, have the students refer to the syllabus in class and discuss how what they are about to do fits in with the rest of the class.

Having the syllabus easily available on-line will save both you and your students time and frustration later, when paper copies have been misplaced. Make sure students know how to access it. Blackboard is an easy place to post your syllabus.