Syllabus Construction

How to Construct a Syllabus

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.

Functions of the Syllabus

A syllabus serves several important functions in a course; most basically, it communicates to students the general content of the course and its organization. Other functions served by the syllabus include:

  • communicating expectations regarding students’ performance (i.e., grading)
  • informing students of the course goals and learning outcomes
  • direct students to the Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, & Conduct
  • listing the topics to be addressed in each class session, and the work to be done by students outside of class (in the course schedule)
  • setting the tone for the course by clarifying the roles of the instructor and the students
  • reflecting the instructor’s teaching philosophy and conveying what the instructor considers most important as a teacher
  • demonstrating the instructor’s enthusiasm for the course and the subject matter

Recognizing these roles that the syllabus can play has implications for constructing a syllabus. For example, students can (and will) make inferences based on the syllabus about what is pedagogically important to you. This suggests that you can view the task of syllabus creation as an opportunity to present a view of your course and of yourself as an instructor. In light of this idea, you might consider questions like the following in creating your syllabus.

  • What will you put first in the syllabus? The closer to the beginning of the syllabus a piece of information is, the more important it can be inferred to be.
  • How much space in the syllabus will you devote to particular topics or sections? Spending considerable space on a particular topic (or on particular rules or expectations) in your syllabus suggests that that topic or those rules are particularly important to you.
  • What kind of tone and style will you use in the syllabus? The tone and style of your syllabus can help you establish appropriate expectations for your students regarding how you perceive your role as an instructor and their roles as students.

Paper vs. Electronic Syllabi

A growing number of instructors are providing their syllabi either exclusively in electronic form, or both electronically and on paper. There are several advantages to providing the syllabus in electronic form:

  • You can embed links to relevant university policies or other important websites in your electronic syllabus, and students can simply click on the links to follow them.
  • If the electronic syllabus is provided in Canvas, it will always be available for students to consult; they can’t lose it, or lose pages of it.
  • Electronic syllabi are more easily accessible to students with disabilities. For the convenience of instructors, the CITL has provided a model syllabus template that is accessible, and you can also reference the IU Online QM syllabus template.
  • It is a good way to save paper, particularly if your syllabus is long.

One disadvantage to providing a syllabus electronically is that some students in your class may not have easy access to a computer or to the internet to view the syllabus. If you decide to distribute your syllabus electronically, you can also provide a paper version for any students who would prefer the syllabus in that form. 

If you provide your syllabus to students exclusively on paper, you may also want to consider providing an electronic version for students with disabilities.

Examples of Syllabi

For a sample syllabus, see these two templates:

CITL Syllabus Template — This annotated template provides general guidance on syllabus design, and it is created in an accessible Word format that can be read by screen reading software.

IU QM Syllabus Template — This syllabus template is designed to meet the Quality Matters standards for IU Online courses, although it provides excellent guidance that can be useful in any course with some adaptations.

With both of these templates, always be sure that policies align with those used on your campus and in your department.