The Importance of a Syllabus

by Jessica Mansbach

If you have designed or redesigned a course, then you have likely taken part in a conversation about the course syllabus. From these conversations, you know that the course has to have a syllabus prepared in advance, and that the syllabus will be one of the first items in the course that the students review. But what is a syllabus? What information does a syllabus communicate about you and your course? This post answers these frequently asked questions about syllabi.

What Is A Syllabus?

A syllabus is a document that contains important information about your class. Typically, for an online course, this information includes:

  • Biographical and contact information for the instructor: a paragraph about the instructor’s background and relevant qualifications for teaching the class.
  • Course description: a paragraph that explains what the course is about.
  • Course materials: a list of textbooks and/or computer software (if applicable) that students will need to participate in the course.
  • Course learning goals: a set of statements that shows students how the course will be relevant to them, what they will know, and what they will be able to do in relation to the subject by the end of the quarter.
  • University policies:
    • Academic integrity: a statement about the university’s guidelines about plagiarism and academic honesty.
    • Instructions for obtaining accommodations: a statement about the services the university offers for students who have any special learning needs or disabilities.
  • Grading policies
    • Grading breakdown: the distribution of point values and their corresponding letter grades.
    • Late policy: a statement about whether late assignments are accepted and what the consequences are for turning in work late.
  • Assignments: a brief description of each assignment to give the students a sense of how much work is required in the course.
  • Discussion board etiquette: a statement about the type of communication expected on the discussion boards.
  • Weekly learning outcomes: statements about what specific skills and knowledge students will have developed by the end of each week.
  • Course schedule: a list of assignment, quiz, and project due dates.
  • Minimum technical requirements: a statement about the type technology required to access course materials.
  • Technology support: a statement about who students should call if they experience problems with technology.

Students should be able to glance through the syllabus quickly and get a sense of who is teaching the course, what they will learn from the course, the materials they will need to participate in the course, who they should contact if they need help with an aspect of the course, and what they will have to do to succeed in the course. For these reasons, all of the information described above should be contained in the syllabus.

Why Should We Care About A Syllabus?

In addition to containing all of this information, a syllabus is an important document for several other reasons.

It makes an impression on your students. Since the syllabus is one of the first materials students will have about the course, the design of the syllabus is your opportunity to make a good first impression on your students. An organized, comprehensive, easy-to-read syllabus will make a positive first impression on your students by showing them that you have put a lot of thought and effort into the organization of the course, considered what they will learn, and that you care about the quality of their experience in the course. On the other hand, a disorganized, incomplete, and hard-to-read syllabus will make a negative impression on your students by showing them that you have not thought deeply about the organization of the course or what they will learn, and it may suggest that you are not very invested in giving students a high-quality experience (Cunliff, 2015).

It sets a tone. The syllabus can set a tone for what students’ interactions with you will be like. In her article What Does Your Syllabus Say About Your Course, Weimer (2011) encourages instructors to consider how they word items in the syllabus. Policies and instructions written with a friendly and welcoming tone may encourage students to communicate with you and ask questions. Policies and instructions written with an impersonal and punitive tone may discourage students. Consider the difference in tone between these two statements:

Late assignments are not accepted, and you will not receive full credit for late work.

and

I encourage you to make your best effort to submit all assignments on time, but I understand that sometimes circumstances arise that are beyond our control. If you need an extension, please contact me. Assignments submitted late without prior approval will not be eligible for full credit.

While the first statement is concise and direct, it seems cold and lacks compassion. The second statement is longer, but conveys a more understanding attitude.

It conveys information about expectations. A syllabus functions as a contract between you and your students. By enrolling in the course, students are agreeing to the terms of the contract. It is crucial then that the terms of the contract are clear and students know what is expected of them. The syllabus lays out your expectations for the quality of work you expect from your students and shows students how they should prepare for class. For example, the syllabus can explain whether students are supposed to do the readings before or after class. Including a course calendar in the syllabus helps students meet your expectations by allowing them to plan how much time to spend on each assignment. In addition to providing a course calendar, including tips for students on how much time to spend on an assignment makes it easier for students to manage their time (Bart, 2015).

How To Make The Syllabus Engaging

Since the syllabus contains a lot of policy related items that may not be all that interesting to students, you may want to take a few extra steps to spice up your syllabus. Weimer (2011) suggests posing some questions in the course description that pique students’ curiosity about the subject. Explain to students that they will be able to answer these questions throughout the quarter as they complete the assignments and engage with the course materials. In the instructor biography, say a few words that show your passion for the subject and your excitement about teaching.

For more information on how to spice up your syllabus or how to use a syllabus, please check out the a few Faculty Focus articles listed below.

References

Bart, M. (2015). A Learner Centered Syllabus Helps Set The Tone For Learning. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/a-learner-centered-syllabus-helps-set-the-tone-for-learning/

Cunliff, E. (2015). Tonic for the boring syllabus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/tonic-for-the-boring-syllabus/.

Weimer, M. 2011 What Does Your Syllabus Say About Your Course. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/what-does-your-syllabus-say-about-you-and-your-course/



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