The Dual Life of a Syllabus

by Steve Volk, August 4, 2015


Shark Syllabus – Jack Dowell – CC/Flickr

If you’re ahead of the game, your syllabi for the fall semester are finalized and ready to go. If you’re like me, they are hardly ready for prime time and you’re probably feeling like the guy in the photo. In either case, particularly if you’re new to syllabus writing, here are a few things to think about as you prepare, revise, or tweak your syllabi.

The syllabus is a strange animal: it is conceivably the most important (and complicated) teaching document you will prepare each semester and yet, after you hand it out, most students use it for one thing only: to find out the readings assignments or when papers are due or exams scheduled.

The root of the problem is that the syllabus is really two different documents serving two different purposes. On the one hand, it is the most comprehensive guide that you will prepare detailing how you plan to organize a body of information in such a way as to reach your educational goals while having the greatest impact on student learning. On the other, it is seen as a quasi-legal contract that sets out your responsibilities to the students and what they must do in order to successfully complete the course. The first purpose is most often invisible and implicit; the second needs to be explicit and unambiguous.

Syllabus as Contract


ignature: Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Since it is the second purpose that often gets the most attention, I’ll turn to it first. The syllabus traditionally serves as a contract setting out rules, regulations, and expectations: when assignments are due, how they will be graded, what is allowed and what is prohibited. To the extent that faculty want to use the syllabus-contract to cover every eventuality, from policies on laptop use in class to the rules for acceptance of late papers, the contractual part of the syllabus can take a lot of space and, often, become both intimidating and unwelcoming: Is your syllabus a long list of what students can’t do or will be penalized for?

Further, as David Parry points out, students will “read” that part of the syllabus about as thoroughly as we “read” the End User License Agreement that comes with new software. Still, the contractual part of the syllabus is important and thinking it through clearly can help you avoid headaches down the line. Kate Susman, a biology professor at Vassar, offers some additional useful advice on the syllabus as a contract. The syllabus divides the course into weekly, daily or other units, informs students what they are responsible for in each session, when assignments are due, where they can find required readings, where they can get help, and how to contact you, as well as college policies on academic integrity, accommodations and matters concerning class conduct.

[How you actually get students to read the syllabus so that they will be aware of all of these issues is a different matter altogether, and I’ll save it for a later post.]

Syllabus as Course Architecture

But it is the first, invisible, part of the syllabus, what has been called the “learning syllabus,”  that is more important both for you, the instructor, and ultimately for the students. As teachers, we develop a set of goals and objectives for every course, and the syllabus should not only state these goals clearly, but embody them in the basic design of the course. The goals set out what we want our students to have accomplished over the 15 weeks they are taking the class. To be sure, we want them to master a body of knowledge, become more skilled in a variety of ways, develop a greater awareness of themselves as individuals, members of a group, and as thinkers. The syllabus is both the road map guiding your students to achieve these goals (and therefore it needs to describe your responsibilities toward the students: this is what I will do to help your learning) and they yardstick you will use to measure whether they have met the goals: this is what you, as a student, must do to succeed in the class. (And, when the course is over, if you find gaps between your expectations and the students’ success rate, you will want to think about ways of changing the course the next time you offer it.)


Residence “Belltrees” for Messrs M. E. A. and V. White – Cultural Collections – CC/Flickr

A good way to approach the syllabus, then, is to start at the end, with your course goals and objectives. Backward planning is a central concept in learning design. It suggests that you start with where you want your students to be at the end of the course (what they should know, be able to do better, have thought about, etc.). I modify that somewhat and imagine what I want my students to have retained from the course some ten years after they took it. I have found this to be an important exercise in thinking about student learning and recall in the digital age where so much information is available instantly on your smartphone. Concepts, approaches, and skills have become so much more important than memorization.

With your goals specified, the next question is how you will know if the students have met the goals you have set. For example, if one goal is the ability to analyze and evaluate conflicting secondary sources and you only give exams in which memorization is the key component, you will have a hard time assessing student learning vis-à-vis your goals. So the next step is designing assignments to flow logically from goals.


Scaffold – Andreas Levers – CC/Flickr

But how can you assure that your students are best prepared to succeed in meeting your final goals and that these goals are scaffolded appropriately, moving from easier to more difficult tasks, providing opportunities for recovery after failure? Perhaps one of your goals is to develop greater skills at collaboration. We know that our students will have to collaborate productively if they are to succeed when they leave school. How do we best prepare them? If collaboration is one of your goals, but the only activity you have that requires collaboration is a co-authored final research paper, it’s quite likely that many will not succeed. Collaborative writing is difficult, and unless students have more low-stakes practice at it, they will have an unreasonably hard time with that final project. Go back over the syllabus and find those occasions where you can insert more group work, opportunities when the students can write short, non-graded collaborative memos, etc.

With your goals determined and your assignments properly scaffolded, you can then go back to the task of determining which content best fits into which week and how that builds on the learning from the previous week.

The thought that goes into your syllabus, the architecture that supports learning in your course, will remain largely hidden from the students. What they see are the contractual elements and their weekly obligations. Because of that, I have always found it useful to make explicit what is hidden: tell them why that assignment is scheduled when it is, what its purpose is at that moment, and how it will help them achieve the course goals. Continually engaging students with the underlying structure of the course helps them both understand the work that went into preparing it and what its goals are beyond the transfer of knowledge.

Back to the Document

A few more thoughts on syllabus preparation:


Carry On, Marc Johns, Serious Drawings:

Paper or Digital: We are required to provide our students with a syllabus for the course, but that can be either in paper or online. Many faculty have moved to online syllabi as a way of saving paper, permitting direct access to online materials, allowing instructors to make alterations in the course as it evolves, and sharing it with a wider world. (Many of these points require further discussion, but I’ll save them for a later discussion.) There are numerous web-building sites (or here, or here), for example, beyond Blackboard, that can allow you to develop an attractive online syllabus with no technical skills. (If building a digital site, make sure that it is fully accessible to students with disabilities.)

Putting it all together – here are some things to keep in mind, many of which come from Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning.

  • Use accessible, inclusive language. Students may not yet be versed in your field, so avoid unnecessary jargon and technical terms.  Make sure your syllabus (and your course) is accessible to students from diverse backgrounds and does not inadvertently make some feel excluded.
  • Set the right tone. Think about the learning environment you want to create in your course and use your syllabus to help you do this. Consider whether you want to include language on preferred gender pronouns in the syllabus. Try to avoid writing a syllabus which is largely a list of things that students can’t do in your class.
  • Articulate the course goals and communicate what students can expect to learn. Communicate to students what they will know, understand and be able to do upon completion of the course.
  • Make your syllabus is visually appealing. Make it easy for students to skim the syllabus and find key information.  White space, indenting, bold, italics, underline and large/small caps can help make your syllabus easy to read.
  • Think about questions and concerns students might have about your course.  Use the syllabus to answer as many of these as you think appropriate.
  • Include basic information about the course and the instructor. Syllabi typically include the course title, course number, meeting times, classroom location and URL for the course website.  They also include the instructor’s name, office location, office hours, phone number and email address. I strongly recommend that you also include how you prefer to be contacted (email, text, in person) and when  (e.g., “The best time to reach me by email is before 9:00 PM. I cannot guarantee that I will read any messages after that time”).
  • Use the course description to provide a brief introduction to the course. Clarify the scope, purpose and relevance of the topic.  Introduce the course format and organization.
  • Let students know – in detail – what you expect of them. Have explicit course policies that communicate – again, positively if possible – what you expect in terms of attendance, tardiness, laptop use in class, class participation, missed exams, etc.  This will save you time later in the semester.
  • Let students know what materials are required and where they can buy or access them. Beyond these required materials, you may also wish to provide students with recommendations of additional resources for those who are interested.
  • Explain how students will be evaluated. Build in opportunities for low-stakes feedback and scaffold assignments carefully.  Explain how final grades will be determined.  Clarify how grades will be weighted or if you grade on a curve.
  • Include a section on Academic Integrity and the Honor Code: Provide a link to Oberlin’s honor code.
  • Clarify the kinds of academic support available. Make sure students know about campus resources that support their learning.
  • Include a statement about disabilities and accommodations: For example: “If you have a documented disability and wish to discuss academic accommodations, please contact me as soon as possible.”

The Blank Syllabus

There are other possibilities to syllabus writing, which I’ll just raise here and return to in a later post. Some faculty co-create a syllabus with their students. This can involve only parts of the syllabus, for example selecting readings from an anthology, inviting students to submit a number of units that students would like to see covered but aren’t on the syllabus (and what they would replace by adding new material), information on contract grading (also here), an invitation to students to establish their rules of conduct, etc. For those interested in co-curating a class with their students, the syllabus can be a great starting point.

Other advice? Send it along.

(Modified on August 5 to add information about digital syllabus preparation.)

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