Designing Your Syllabus

Whether you teach full or part-time, the syllabus, an essential teaching document, should be part of your instructional tool kit. A well-designed syllabus clearly communicates to your students.

  • Prerequisite skills, knowledge, experiences or prior courses.
  • The course's learning objectives, student learning outcomes, grading system, textbooks, reference books, software, videotapes, and required supplies and equipment.
  • Instructors contact hours and a term calendar containing important assignment deadlines, days a class is not scheduled to meet, field trips; library research days, and times set aside for team meetings and reports.
  • Estimates of time required outside of class to complete assignments and to study for exams.
  • Attendance, policies and possibly, depending on the age and experience level of the students, behavior policies that apply to various in-class activities.
  • Academic standards that will be enforced, e.g. avoidance of plagiarism.

The syllabus functions as a management tool and job aid. It helps your students understand:

  • What level of academic preparation is required to be successful.
  • What material you intend to cover and to what depth.
  • The time and effort commitment that must be made.
  • How you will evaluate performance and what grading system you will use.

As an accountability document, the syllabus is vital should your performance and professionalism ever be questioned during a student conference, institutional inquiry or court hearing. A recent court case was decided in favor of two students who brought suit because they believed the instructor's assignments were unfair and unrelated to the course content. They won their case, and one of the determining factors was the lack of a course syllabus. While few instructors become involved in legal disputes, many more, according to the postings of several Internet discussion lists, are experiencing behavior problems with belligerent students and even being challenged by parents of students.

Crawford Kilian of Capilano College, North Vancouver, BC, Canada recommends adding the following statement to your syllabus. "You (the student) should be able to display a professional attitude and

If you have a precise idea of what you expect in the way of discipline, the students will accept your standards.

~Dave Bequette, part-time instructor at Butte College, Oroville, CA

Dave Bequette, part-time instructor at Butte College, Oroville, CA has learned that his students often live up to his expectations. Therefore he says, "If you have a precise idea of what you expect in the way of discipline, the students will accept your standards. Spend a few moments writing a set of rules for your class. These rules act as a guideline for your treatment of discipline problems; place them in your syllabus. For example, one instructor at my college requests students to leave young children at home. This policy is a reaction to class disruption caused by the presence of children who are best left with a baby sitter." He also includes the statement "Timelines and assignments are an approximation; the instructor may change dates and assignments as needed." It is the student's responsibility to keep abreast of any changes."

To save syllabus space you may wish to refer to portions of your college's student handbook or catalog that contain grading, behavior and academic standards and student responsibilities applicable at your institution. As an extra precaution you may choose to have students certify that they have read and understand these policies. Your syllabus is more than a routine handout; it's a critical management tool.

TFS Syllabus Checklist

Cite course title, instructor's name, and course description.

  • List prerequisite skills, knowledge and courses.
  • Define learning objectives / student learning outcomes.
  • Detail grading and evaluation system.
  • Itemize required supplies, texts and equipment.
  • Explain how to contact the instructor.
  • Construct calendar of assignments and important course events, Include statement that dates, assignments and activities are best estimates and could be changed.
  • Estimate the time that is required to complete assigned work outside of class.
  • Clarification of attendance and behavioral policies.
  • Explanation of academic standards applicable to course.
  • Provide section for students to define their course goals.

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Last Updated: 9/18/18