How to make a syllabus part 2: What goes in

Yesterday we looked at a philosophy of the college course syllabus and talked some about the legal and quasi-legal roles the syllabus plays. Now let’s get down to business — what do you put in one?

First of all, remember that the syllabus is a repository of information that is supposed to be complete and well-constructed. But it’s important to realize that the level at which students attend to and comprehend the syllabus is related to the sheer amount of stuff that’s in it, and it’s not a linear kind of relationship. I see it like this:
That is, students will either ignore, or else read and then not comprehend, the syllabus if there is either too little information in it… or too much. The way in which the information is organized is also important — we’re getting to that — but the first barrier for students is simply the quantity of stuff that’s in it. We need to find that absolute maximum, the amount of content that maximizes attention and comprehension.

My personal checklist for what to put on the syllabus is the following.

1. Course logistical information. List what days the course meets and where. Possibly this could be left out since obviously that info can be found elsewhere. But it’s usually short and doesn’t contribute to the content-bloat that decreases the effectiveness of the syllabus, so why not.

2. Professor contact information. I include my name (including my Ph.D. title, which is important for freshmen who are used to calling their teachers “Mr.” or “Mrs.”), my office location, my office phone, my email, my AIM screenname, and my office hours. I’ve considered putting my Twitter info on there as well in the future. The idea is to present all the possible channels for how a student may contact me, so it’s all in one place for later reference.

3. A BRIEF — as in two sentences or fewer — description of the course. Don’t just reproduce the catalog description, because that’s printed elsewhere. Don’t go off on a multi-page rhapsody about the history of the course, its relevance to life, etc. — you can talk about that on the first day of class, and anyway that sort of thing is not really information. Boil it down to something very short and sweet, so it can be used as a platform for…

4. The goals or instructional objectives for the course. Here, you are describing to the student what s/he ought to be able to do once they have completed the course. This section is very important, because in a well-designed course everything that happens in the class meetings and in the assessments is supposed to, in some way, be directly connected to one or more of these course goals.

Note two things. First, since the attainment of a goal is measured by whether you can do something, goals need to be stated in concrete action verbs. Never, ever use the words “understand”, “appreciate”, or similar ambiguous verbs as goals. Sure, I want my students to understand and appreciate the role of calculus in their majors. But how will I know if they have that understanding? What are the students going to do that demonstrates their understanding? That is the real goal. Second, these goals are the big, zoomed-out goals for the course and not the zoomed-in content goals of individual sections out of a book. I wouldn’t put “Perform the chain rule successfully” here.

5. Prerequisites, required equipment or texts, and expectations. I think the “expectations” part of this is really important, especially for freshman courses where the students are undergoing a major shift in the way they encounter classes. Keep the expectations short, few in number, and if possible phrased in a way that makes it easy to remember. These are the advertising slogans that you will use throughout the course to remind students of their jobs.

6. The types of assessments that students will do, along with their frequencies, projected dates, and point values or relative weights in the semester grade. It also helps, although it’s not always possible, to have a calendar for the semester that indicates in a visual way when things are going to happen. I used to think that you couldn’t plan that far in advance. But once I tried creating a semester-long plan for the course and trying diligently to stick to it, a lot of problems I was having in my teaching — creating examples that were too complicated, spending too much time on one thing and not enough on another — went away.

7. A precise, formulaic description of how the semester grade will be calculated. Don’t be afraid to put formulas in the syllabus if necessary. You want to give students the means to calculate or estimate their grades at any point in the semester. Don’t hold back any algorithmic information about this. If the students have problems using the method you devise for computing their grade, then help them. (Or make your computation method simpler.) Also, include a rubric for how letter grades will be assigned.

8. Course policies regarding attendance, deadlines, makeup work, and academic honesty. It is crucial that syllabi be crystal-clear on these policies and that professors follow to the letter what they put here. Otherwise students have every right to do what they want with regard to these issues and can legitimately take issue with you if you try to enforce a “policy” that was not well-formed. Having clear rules about these things also takes disciplinary matters out of your hands and makes it a matter of policy rather one of personal liking or disliking of a student.

Example: Usually my policy on work handed in past its deadline is that I will provide feedback on the student’s work but will give it a grade of “0”. I’ve had many students over the years turn in late work and expect it to be graded. When they get the grade of “0” back, they usually want to know why. Answer: It’s the syllabus policy. If they complain about it, I just say that the policy on late work was made clear in the syllabus on day 1, and if you want me to run class that is fair and unbiased, then I am constrained to stick to what I say in the syllabus. (Which reinforces my belief that many students, although they claim to value fair, unbiased classrooms, really instead want unfairness that works to their advantage. But that’s another issue.)

9. Finally, any boilerplate that is required to be on the syllabus. Most colleges have these. For example, I have to insert a short paragraph in all my syllabi about accomodations for students with disabilities. And in classes taken by education majors, I have to insert a blurb from the state department of education explaining how the course satisfies a laundry list of professional standards. Check with your department chair, teaching/learning center, etc. if you’re not sure if you have all the information you need for this.

All this stuff, if written tightly and without fluff, should fit into four pages or so of a normal-sized font. That’s two pages front and back, which is a pleasing size for students.

Since this post has already gotten pretty long, in part 3 I’ll give some thoughts about what should not go into a syllabus to avoid the tailing-off effect of having too much content, and also some ideas for organizing this stuff.


Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Teaching

3 responses to “How to make a syllabus part 2: What goes in

  1. I think it is very helpful to put a specific semester schedule on the syllabus. I once took a course where the professor had only a very vague outline for the semester: “Week 1: [author’s name], Week 2: [another author’s name].” Needless to say, the professor never followed the syllabus, we never knew what reading or writing to do, we got off track, and the syllabus degenerated into irrelevance.

    I like the comprehension-vs.-syllabus-content curve.

  2. My cc1 requires our course description to match the one printed in the catalog.

    And, because I often find that I have been optimistic in what we will cover, even in classes I have taught for years, one of the most important sentences in my syllabus says, “This syllabus is subject to change.”

  3. Regarding your 2nd paragraph of point 4: truer words have yet to be spoken.