Center for Teaching & Learning

UC Santa Cruz

Writing a Syllabus

 

A course syllabus is many things:

  • students' introduction to the subject and to you as the teacher
  • the document that communicates your goals and expectations to students
  • your official notice to students of policies and requirements
  • a learning tool.

To accomplish all of the ends simultaneiously requires a good deal of thought and a certain amount of finesse.

General Guidelines

  • The syllabus will probably be students’ first substantive contact with you as an instructor. As with any piece of writing, think about (a) how you want to present yourself (approachable? authoritative?), (b) the characteristics of your audience (advanced or beginning students?) and (c) what information you need to communicate.
  • Consider how the syllabus conveys your philosophy of teaching and the environment you wish to create in the course. Is the emphasis on student activities? information transmittal? testing? interaction? Does the course come off as a collection of requirements, or an educational experience? What have you said about student responsibility?
  • 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 quarter starts.
  • 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 or two.
  • Organize the document logically, and use underlined or bold-faced headings to help students find information.
  • Having the syllabus easily available on-line will save both you and students time and frustration later in the quarter, when paper copies have been misplaced. Make sure students know how to access it. (Contact Instructional Computing for help in creating a course web site.)
  • Don’t neglect to go over the syllabus in detail on the first day of class, and to allow time for questions. Students won’t necessarily read the syllabus word-for-word unless you underscore its importance. Also reserve time during the second class meeting to answer further syllabus-related questions.

 

Common Elements of a Syllabus

Course overview

Describe what the course covers, why the subject is interesting, or useful, and how it fits into the curriculum. Be sure to mention whether the course fulfills any requirements, and whom it is appropriate for, to help “shoppers” evaluate whether your course is what they need.

Learning objectives

What should students expect to know and be able to do upon completing the course? State learning objectives in concrete terms whenever possible. Use action verbs such as analyze, explain, identify, apply, critically evaluate, demonstrate. In addition, you may wish to tie it all together with an overarching goal, which may be stated in more abstract terms: introduce, provide an in-depth understanding, etc.

General approach

Students will want to know how you plan to teach the course. Will you primarily lecture? Will there be independent or group projects? Discussion? Will students have any responsibility for choosing their own areas of emphasis? What do you consider the roles of student and instructor?

Textbooks and other course materials

Indicate whether they are required or optional, and where they may be purchased.

Course requirements & how students will be evaluated

Clearly spell out what will students have to complete in order to pass the class.
Many instructors like to frame this as a positive statement, such as “In order to be successful in this course, students will. . . .” List exams, quizzes, written work, projects—along with the relative weight each will carry in computing final grades, and an indication of your grading philosophy.

Policies

Attendance, late assignments, participation, rescheduling exams, etc.

Major assignments and exams, with dates

You may wish to include a complete description of each major assignment here, or indicate that this will be provided at some later date. When spelling out assignments, remember to specify the criteria on which they will be evaluated.

Schedule of activities for the quarter

Minimally, this should include what topics will be covered for each week of the quarter, with readings and other assignments. Although you will probably want to include a statement allowing yourself a little “wiggle room,” aim for as much detail as possible in the calendar. This enables students to plan ahead, and will save you having to constantly field questions from students who weren’t in class or for some other reason didn’t get the assignment. This schedule also serves to convey the conceptual structure of the course.

Estimate of student work load

Including this accomplishes three things: it communicates your expectations for student effort; it encourages students to plan their time; it allows students to find another class if they won’t be able to manage the work load in this one. Be realistic: don’t either underestimate in the hope of attracting students, or overestimate in the hope of weeding out “slackers.”

Instructor office hours and contact information

Be sure to include this information about any TAs or course assistants, as well.

Invitation to students with special needs to contact you

You’ll want to know about any necessary accommodations as early as possible, to allow you time to work with the Disability Resource Center.

A Statement about Academic Integrity

Communicate the university’s values and policies regarding academic integrity, as well as any discipline-specific resources or expectations.

Helpful supplementary materials

You may wish to include items such as a glossary, bibliography, list of useful web sites, information about available academic support.

 

Resources:

Linda B. Nilson, Teaching at Its Best (1998, Anker).
Chapter 4: The Complete Syllabus

 

Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching (1993, Jossey-Bass).
Chapter 2: The Course Syllabus
Also see excerpts on line:
http://teaching.berkeley.edu/bgd/syllabus.html

 

Brown University online publications for faculty: The Syllabus
http://www.brown.edu/Administration/Sheridan_Center/publications/syllabus.html
In addition to an article about constructing a syllabus, links to an online syllabus workshop