Tips for Constructing a Syllabus
One of the most basic tasks facing an instructor preparing to teach a course is writing the syllabus. While this may seem like a straightforward matter, there are strategies that can ensure that your syllabus communicates clearly and effectively to your students.
- If you are new to teaching, or to a department, ask a colleague (ideally, one known as a good teacher) if you can look at syllabi from her or his courses. This will give you a sense of what the norms and standards for syllabi are in your department.
- Anticipate the questions your students might have about your course, and try to address them in your syllabus. Students’ questions might include:
- Will this course interest me?
- Can I handle the workload?
- What will I have to do to get a good grade?
- If you provide information such as a course description, a list of assignments and their weighting in the final course grade, and the grading criteria in your syllabus, students will be able to answer these questions to determine whether your course will meet their needs.
- Distribute the syllabus on the first day of class, and review its key points with students, but don't read through the entire syllabus, since this takes time away from other valuable first-day tasks. Make clear that students are responsible for everything in the syllabus, but do not read it to students in class; instead, assign it as homework. Some instructors ensure that students read the syllabus by giving a short quiz (either in class or online) on the syllabus.
- Try to leave some flexibility in your course schedule, in case you fall behind or decide to spend more time on a particular topic.
- Put a disclaimer in your syllabus that says that everything in it is subject to change, and that you’ll give students reasonable warning of any changes.
- Proofread it. If you care about sentence-level accuracy in your students’ work, demonstrate that by taking care with the grammar and mechanics of the documents you give to students.
- Make it accessible for students with disabilities. For more information on how to do this, and links to resources with specific instructions, refer to Creating Accessible Content.
- Consider your tone. A study from a psychology professor and his undergraduate co-author at Oregon State University showed that students are more likely to reach out for assistance—like coming to office hours—when the language in the syllabus is "warm" and inviting. For example, using inclusive "we will" language rather than directive "you will" statements set a more collaborative tone and made students more likely to seek help from the instructor. Also, the author suggested placing such invitations to office hours and other offers of help early in the syllabus, rather than at the very end, where students may overlook them or see them as afterthoughts. The syllabus sets the tone for the course, so choose your tone wisely.