What Information Should Be Included In a Syllabus?
Is the syllabus a contract, documentation, or an instructional tool?
Parkes and Harris (2002) identify three purposes of a syllabus:
- A contract between you and your students
- A permanent record of the course
- A learning tool
Syllabus as a Contract
The first two roles may seem straightforward. Most of us are aware from our own time as students that the contract outlines the responsibilities and expectations of the teacher and the students. The learning outcomes, for example, describe what students will know or be able to do by the end of the course. The instructor agrees to design a course to help the students achieve those outcomes and students agree to do the work. Course and institutional policies describe appropriate behavior and other expectations for both parties. The syllabus also documents the learning activities (readings, discussions, labs, workshops) and assessments (quizzes, essays, projects, presentations) were used to give students opportunities to develop or demonstrate the knowledge and skills listed in the outcomes.
Syllabus as Permanent Record of the Course
The syllabus also serves as a record of what was taught in the course and by whom. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) reviews a sample of syllabi when Minnesota State Mankato renews our accreditation. Students who transfer from one institution to another use the syllabus as documentation of what they learned at their previous institution, and instructors at their new institution use the document to determine whether to accept transfer credits. And more recently, faculty have begun using peer reviews of their syllabus as evidence of their demonstrated ability to teach effectively in professional development reports.
Syllabus as a Learning Tool
But what does it mean for a syllabus to be a learning tool? Blair (2005) describes the symbolic message inherent within a syllabus: The presentation and content of the syllabus suggest what the teacher is like as a person and instructor, what the tone of the course will be, and contributes to the students' first (and lasting) impression of the teacher and the course itself.
Lang (2015) attended a focus group of student tutors to learn about their views of effective teaching. The students reported struggles with understanding the organization of the course, both globally (How does content connect week to week? How does it connect to the learning objectives?) and structurally (Why are some meetings lecture and others discussion? What is the role of discussions have in learning?) The students also asked faculty to share their excitement about their disciplines. Lang notes that many instructors view the syllabus as a contract, but he suggests 3 elements that create a “learning syllabus.”
- Describe the value of the course and connect what students will learn with things outside the course.
- Describe the organization and connections between topics to map out the course for students.
- Be transparent about reasons for the elements of the course.
Reflecting on Your Course
Jones (2011) suggests that if we think of the syllabus only as a contract or documentation, then we have developed a "terms of service agreement," and how many of us actually read the TOS language? Weimar (2011) suggests teachers reflect on four questions when writing or revising a syllabus:
- How would you characterize the tone of your syllabus? Weimer suggests that the tone we often use is adversarial, which sets a tone for the course and interactions with our students that we may not intend. Try using a friendly, conversational tone.
- Does your syllabus convey the excitement, intrigue and wonder that’s inherently a part of the content you teach? She encourages readers to share their excitement with students. Why did you choose to study this discipline? What excites you about the course content? How does it connect to other courses in the program? How will it prepare them for elements of the work they will do later in their careers?
- Does your syllabus indicate that all the decisions about the course have been made? Are there places in which students can participate in decision-making, such as schedules, rubrics, assignment choices, etc.?
- Have you ever asked students for feedback on your syllabus? What suggestions might they offer to help you improve the document?
- Teaching Idea: Invite syllabus feedback as a reflection activity as students near the end of the course.
Your syllabus should use a logical organization and basic document design techniques like headings and lists to help readers skim and scan for important information (Slattery & Carlson, 2005).
The Visual Syllabus: Outcome Maps
Consider going one step further by adding illustrations to help students visualize core concepts or graphics like outcome maps that help students see connections within the course or between your course and others in the program. (See examples of concept maps in the CETL Syllabus Template.)
Step 1: Think about larger context.
- Do you have program, department or college policies that affect student performance, behavior, and learning? (for example, attendance, late work)
- What university policies about student performance, behavior, and learning
Step 2: Reflect on your own interests.
- What is your area of expertise? Why did you choose to study that?
- What do you enjoy about teaching?
- What are your preferred methods of teaching?
- How would you describe your classroom persona?
Step 3: Focus on the course that you teach.
- What is the relationship of this course to other courses in your program, in other majors, and/or in the general education/diversity curriculum?
- What will your students know or be able to do when they successfully finish the course?
- Why is important for them to know or do that? How will they use it later?
- How do you recognize learning when it happens in the course? What low stakes and high stakes assessments are you using?
Step 4: Be creative
- How would you illustrate the relationship between the concepts in the course, the hierarchy of ideas, or the progression from start to finish?
The Syllabus Convergence: Academic Freedom, Intellectual Property, and University Requirements
Is the syllabus the intellectual property of the instructor or the university? It's a bit of both. At Minnesota State University, Mankato, the course description, approved learning outcomes, and institutional policies belong to the institution. Course-specific policies, assignments, schedule, and the choice of textbook and other learning materials belong to the instructor.
At a minimum, your syllabus must include the following elements:
- Course name and number
- Current semester
- Instructor name and contact information
- Course meeting dates and location(s)
- Course description
- Course learning outcomes
- Required and recommended materials
- The institution's Disability Accommodation statement
After the front page of descriptive information, Boldt (2017) suggests four sections that explain what you and your students will do in the course:
- Expectations and Objectives
- Assignments and Grading
- Policies and Procedures
- Course Schedule
If you are concerned about protecting your intellectual property, use a minimalist syllabus and move the other sections into separate documents that are available to students when they enroll in the course. But if you, like me, believe that the syllabus is just a summary of the course, consider making it available to others to view and learn from.
The sample syllabus offered by CETL is a template that can help you construct a document that meets all the roles a syllabus can serve.
- Bonus: In the comments to Weimer's blog post, readers suggest some alternatives to reading the syllabus on the first day.
Your syllabus must contain a description of the course, learning outcomes, and how your students should contact you if they need help.
In addition to the course information and instructor contact information, a syllabus should help students understand the workload, behavior expectations, and other policies or procedures that they will be expected to follow in your course.
The University policies apply to your courses whether you include them in your syllabus or not, but including them in your syllabus or teaching materials could help students understand their responsibilities.