Course Syllabus and Syllabus Design
The syllabus is arguably the most important resource for students that an instructor can provide. With the increasing use of learning management systems like Blackboard, students often have access to the syllabus even before they walk into your classroom and thus, the syllabus may provide students with not only their first introduction to the course but to you, the instructor. A well-designed syllabus can be a powerful tool for communicating your expectations, setting students on the right path for learning, and laying the foundation for the type of welcoming classroom environment that is most conducive for learning. Some issues to consider when designing your syllabus:
- A well-designed syllabus goes hand-in-hand with a well-designed course. It is difficult to clearly articulate your goals and expectations for your students if you have not thought carefully about what those goals are,; it is equally difficult for students to meet those goals, and prove to you that they have, if you have not thought carefully about how your learning activities and assessment align with those goals.
- A learner-centered syllabus is one that not only contains all the basic pieces of information about a course but puts them together and discusses them in a way that reflects a learning-centered teaching orientation. One analogy that may be helpful is to think of your syllabus as an invitation, inviting students to join you in exploring the subject of your course, rather than the more common frame of syllabus as contract.
- Faculty often complain that student do not READ the syllabus. Research has shown that the reasons student neglect the syllabus typically boil down to 1) it isn’t interesting and 2) it isn’t necessary. One way to address both problems is to make your syllabus interactive: consider using an online version of your syllabus as the framework for linking to everything else in the course (i.e., readings, assignments).
- Another way to make the syllabus interactive is to “co-create” content with your students. Consider leaving some class policies (such as technology use or handling late assignments) open for the class to discuss and determine as a group on the first day. If possible for your course, you could also survey students about their interest and/or prior knowledge about course topics and use that input to determine which topics to prioritize or spend more/less time on.
- An often-overlooked aspect of inclusive teaching is making sure that important deadlines do not conflict with major holidays and religious observances, particularly of non-Christian traditions. The University of Washington maintains a calendar of these holy days, including notes about which holidays forbid work by those who observe them.
For additional guidance in designing a great syllabus, the following links may be useful:
- Rubric for a learner-centered syllabus, based on the work in Palmer, et al, 2014 (University of Virginia)
- Although there is much debate over the use of ‘trigger warnings’ (see, for example, these thoughtful arguments for and against), instructors teaching sensitive content may want to include some statement in their syllabus that alerts students and provides some context. Here are a few examples from SDSU faculty.
- "Seven Ways to Make Your Syllabus More Relevant", Faculty Focus