Syllabus Design

Purpose of the Syllabus

The syllabus is known to have many purposes. At the most basic level, a syllabus serves to provide a road map for a course – both for the instructor and the students. It lays out the trajectory of topics, readings, assignments, activities and assessments for meeting the course objectives. However, a syllabus is much more complicated than this, and yet many of us rush the syllabus design process and in some cases, blindly adopt the syllabus of prior instructors with minimal adjustments to reflect our personal information and relevant dates.

There have been numerous articles and studies published about course syllabi and their impact on courses, students and instructors. Some op-ed style articles cry out: Death to the Syllabus! This article echoes the sentiments of education scholars (e.g, Maryellen Weimer, 2002) who advocate for sharing the power in the classroom and involving students in the course design process (to the extent possible given situational factors). The author problemetizes the syllabus that is delivered like a binding contract laced with punitive language and hard ‘rules’ on attendance, participation, grading, formatting of submitted assignments, etc. Opponents to the ‘controlling’ syllabus proclaim that it may stifle student motivation to learn. With this in mind, we have provided steps for syllabus design that take you one step beyond simple content organization and encourage reflection and investment in the tone you wish to set for your course.

Steps in Syllabus Design

  1. Content: First, reflect on the course you plan to teach. A syllabus cannot be built prior to course design. So, consider your course learning objectives and carefully map those objectives to your course assessments. Then, bridge these elements by considering which topics, activities and assignments will best help your students succeed in attaining those objectives (see, Course Design for a full view of this process). The result of this reflection should give you a starting framework in terms of content and learning plan for your students.
  2. Student Input: Next, consider the amount of Power Sharing you’d like to embrace in your course. At the conservative end of the scale, you will design the entire course and syllabus prior to day one and present them to the students at the start of the semester. At the other end of the spectrum, you might bring a skeleton of your syllabus to class and work with your students to develop the course and finalize the syllabus (see, Sharing Power in the Classroom for more information on this continuum).
  3. Policies: Depending on your position on the power sharing scale, you will approach policy construction accordingly. If you are sharing a lot of power, you might want to leave the policies blank for day one and discuss the options with your students – negotiating a fair policy for issues ranging from attendance and punctuality to food and technology in the classroom. Of course, if you teach a large introductory course for Freshman, you will likely want to come prepared with a set of policies in place – informed by your prior experiences with similar groups of students.
  4. Schedule: The schedule of topics to explore, presentations, guest speakers and assignments will either be in place on day one or will be negotiated with your students. Either way, you should have a clear schedule in place by the second week of the course to avoid negative student experiences based on lack of knowledge about course expectations, due dates, etc. Themes related to organization are always top points for critique by students when the time comes for end of term feedback. To the extent possible, have a schedule in place. You can label it ‘tentative’ and attach a phrase like this:  Note:  This syllabus is meant to serve as an outline and guide for the course. Please note that the instructor may modify it at any time so long as reasonable notice of the modification is provided to students. The instructor may also modify the General Course Outline at any time to accommodate the needs of a particular class. Should you have any questions or concerns about the syllabus, it is your responsibility to contact the instructor for clarification.
  5. Setting the Tone: Once the basics of your syllabus are in place, consider the tone you are setting with your students. Again, this will vary depending on your comfort zone with power sharing. You may wish to use 1st person plural (the inclusive ‘we’) when outlining policies and assignments. Alternatively, you might want to write it ‘to the students’ using 2nd person singular (familiar ‘you’). Consider your audience and how they will read your syllabus. Also, borrowing from rules of ‘netiquette’ in online classes, keep in mind that ALL CAPS IS LIKE SHOUTING. To emphasize policies or deadlines, use italics, bold or underlining to draw student attention.’
  6. Student Support: There are some groups on campus that will likely benefit from a mention on your syllabus about the support centers available to them on campus. Below are some suggested additional clauses you might consider for your syllabus. *Note: there are other resources not detailed here that you may wish to address in this way on your syllabus, depending on your discipline (e.g., Women’s Resource Center, Muslim Student Association, International Center, etc.). These are suggestions grounded in discussions with members of the following communities during trainings and workshops (examples only – links go to the University of Utah; must be adapted for your context):
    1. If you are a student veteran, I want you to know that the U of Utah has a Veterans Support Center on campus. They are located in Room 161 in the Olpin Union Building. Hours: M-F 8-5pm. Please visit their website for more information about what support they offer, a list of ongoing events and links to outside resources: http://veteranscenter.utah.edu/. Please also let me know if you need any additional support in this class for any reason.
    2. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, I want you to know that my classroom is a safe zone*. Additionally, please know that the U of Utah has an LGBT Resource Center on campus. They are located in Room 409 in the Oplin Union Building. Hours: M-F 8-5pm. You can visit their website to find more information about the support they can offer, a list of events through the center and links to additional resources: http://lgbt.utah.edu/. Please also let me know if there is any additional support you need in this class.
    3. If English is your second language, please be aware of several resources on campus that will support you with your language development and writing. These resources include: the Department of Linguistics ESL Program (http://linguistics.utah.edu/esl-program/); the Writing Center (http://writingcenter.utah.edu/); the Writing Program (http://writing-program.utah.edu/); the English Language Institute (http://continue.utah.edu/eli/). Please let me know if there is any additional support you would like to discuss for this class.

*What is a Safe Zone? The LGBT Resource Center at the University of Utah offers Safe Zone trainings for faculty, staff and instructors at the U. (Find out if your university has a similar center.) The aim of the training is to promote inclusive teaching and foster a respectful, safe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning individuals in our classrooms. Please follow this link to read more. If you plan to indicate that your classroom is a safe zone, please attend one of these trainings.

Syllabus Design Tools

I adapted a syllabus design rubric (see below) for evaluating your syllabus based on guidelines for useful and recommended content. The elements in the rubric will give you a sense of what comprises a comprehensive syllabus. Of course, a syllabus is a personal thing and we all want to add our own stamp – so adapt away! It is the ‘first impression’ on your students for your course, so start off on the right foot! Keep in mind – some Departments have discipline specific requirements for their syllabi, so be sure to consult your Department and find out if they have a template or set of guidelines you should use.

Advertisements