Improving Your Syllabus

Strategies, Ideas, and Recommendations from the faculty Development Literature

General Strategies

  • Look over the syllabi of other faculty members.
    Syllabi vary in format and content. If your department does not have a standard format, use your colleagues' syllabi as rough models.
  • Anticipate the general questions that will be in the minds of students.
    Course-specific information that students most often want to know about on the first day of class are likely to be:
    • Topics that will be covered
    • Number and types of tests and assignments
    • Grading system
    • Textbook and readings
    • Policies pertaining to attendance
    • Late work
    • Makeup work
    • Purpose of the course
    • Nature of class sessions
    • Level of preparation or background necessary to succeed in the course
  • Keep the syllabus flexible.
    Anticipate variations in the syllabus by indicating the topics to be covered week by week rather than session by session. Also consider issuing a revised schedule midway through the term to account for students' heightened interest in certain topics. Some classes move more quickly than others while some classes get sidetracked on certain topics.

Creating A Syllabus

  • Include more rather than less material.
    A detailed syllabus is a valuable learning tool for students and lessens their initial anxieties about the course. Use lists, informal language, and headings to highlight major topics and help students locate information. It is also beneficial to include a table of contents if your syllabus is long.
  • Provide basic information.
    Include the current year, semester, course title and number, number of units, the meeting time and location. Also indicate any course meetings that are not scheduled for the assigned name. List your name, office address, office phone number (and indicate whether you have voice mail), electronic address, fax number, and office hours. For your office hours, indicate whether students need to make appointments in advance or may just stop in. If you list a home phone number, indicate any restrictions on its use (i.e., "Please do not call after 10 p.m.").
  • Describe the prerequisites to the course.
    Help students to assess their readiness for your course by listing the knowledge, skills, or experience you expect them to have already or the courses they should have completed. Give students suggestions on how they might refresh their skills if they feel uncertain about their readiness.
  • Give an overview of the course's purpose.
    Provide an introduction to the subject matter and how the course fits in the department curriculum. Explain what the course is about and why students would want or need to learn the material.
  • State the general learning goals or objectives.
    List three to five major objectives that you expect all students to strive for:
    • What will students know or be able to do better after completing this course?
    • What skills or competencies do you want to develop in your students?
  • Clarify the conceptual structure used to organize the course.
    Students need to understand why you have arranged topics in a given order and the logic of the themes or concepts you have selected.
  • Describe the format or activities of the course.
    Let the students know whether the course involves fieldwork, research projects, lectures, discussions with active participation, etc. Which are required and which recommended?
  • Specify the textbook and readings by authors and editions.
    Include information on why the particular readings were selected. When possible, show the relationship between the readings and course objectives, especially if you assign chapters in a textbook out of sequence. Let the students know whether they are required to do the reading before each class meeting. If students will need to purchase books or course readers, include the prices and where they can purchase them. If you place readings on reserve in the library, you might include the call numbers.
  • Identify additional materials or equipment needed for the course.
    For example, do students need lab or safety equipment, art supplies, calculators, computers or drafting materials?
  • List assignments, term papers, and exams.
    State the nature and format of the assignments, the expected length of essays, and their deadlines. Give the examination dates and briefly describe the tests (multiple choice, essay, short-answer, take-home tests). How do the assignments relate to the learning objectives for the course? What are your expectations for written work? Try to keep the work load evenly distributed throughout the term.
  • State how students will be evaluated and how grades will be assigned.
    Describe the grading procedures, including the components of the final grade and the weights assigned to each component (i.e., homework, term papers, midterms, and final exams). Will you grade on a curve or use an absolute scale? Will you accept extra-credit work to improve grades? Will any quiz grades be dropped?
  • List other course requirements.
    As an example, are students required to attend an office hour or form study groups?
  • Discuss course policies.
    Clearly state your policies regarding:
    • Class attendance
    • Turning in late work
    • Missing homework
    • Tests or exams
    • Make-ups
    • Extra credit
    • Requesting extensions
    • Reporting illnesses
    • Cheating and plagiarism

Include a description of students' responsibilities in the learning process and the professor's Responsibilities. You might also list acceptable and unacceptable classroom behavior (i.e., "Please refrain from eating during class because it is disturbing to me and other students").

  • Invite students with special needs to contact you during office hours.
    Let students know that if they need an accommodation for any type of physical or learning disability, they should set up a time to meet with you to discuss what modifications are necessary.
  • Provide a course calendar or schedule.
    The schedule should include the sequence of course topics, the preparations or readings, and the Assignments due. For readings, give the page numbers in addition to chapter numbers- this will help students budget their time. Exam dates should be firmly set, while dates for topics and activities may be flexible. An updated calendar with the revisions may be needed during the semester.
  • Schedule time for fast feedback from your students.
    Set a time mid-semester when you can solicit from students their reactions to the course so far.
  • List important drop dates.
    Include on your course calendar the last day students can withdraw from the course without penalty.
  • Estimate student workload.
    Give students a sense of how much preparation and work the course will involve. How much time should they anticipate spending on reading assignments, problem sets, lab reports, or research?
  • Include supplementary material to help students succeed in the course.
    For example consider offering one or more of the following:
    • Helpful hints on how to study, take notes, or do well in class
    • Glossary of technical terms used
    • References on specific topics for more in-depth exploration
    • Bibliography of supplemental readings at a higher or lower level of difficulty in case the students find the required text too simple or challenging
    • Copies of past exams so students can see at the beginning of the term what they will be expected to know at the end of the semester
    • Information on the availability of videotapes of lectures
    • A list of campus resources for tutoring and academic support, including computer labs
    • Calendar of campus lectures, plays, events, exhibits, or other activities of relevance to your course
  • Provide space for names and telephone numbers of two or three classmates.
    Encourage students to identify people in class they can call if they miss a session or want to study together.

Using the Syllabus

  • Annotate your copy of the syllabus.
    For example, on your copy make notes of details that need special mention during the first class meeting. As the course progresses, note on the syllabus changes you would make in the future (i.e., topics that could not be addressed in the time allotted or new topics that come up during the semester).
  • Distribute the syllabus on the first day of class.
    Review the essential points and be prepared to answer questions about course requirements and policies. If you make important changes, prepare and distribute a written addendum.
  • Bring extra copies of the syllabus the first few weeks of class.
    Use these extras to replace lost syllabi or give them to students who join the class after the first day.


The Strategies, Ideas and Recommendations Here Come Primarily From:

Gross Davis, B. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1993.

And These Additional Sources...

Altman, H.B. "Syllabus Shares 'What the Teacher Wants.'" Teaching Professor,

1989, 3(5), 1-2.

Altman, H.B., and Cashin, W.E. "Writing a Syllabus." Ideal Paper, no.27.

Manhattan: Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, Kansas State University, 1992.

Birdsall, M. Writing, Designing and Using a Course Syllabus.

Boston: Office of Instructional Development and Evaluation, Northeastern University, 1989.

Johnson, G.R. Taking Teaching Seriously. College Station: Center for

Teaching Excellence, Texas A& M University, 1988.

Lowther, M.A., Stark, J.S., Martens, G.G. Preparing Course Syllabi for Improved

Communication. Ann Arbor: National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan, 1989.

McKeachie, W.J. Teaching Tips. (8th ed.) Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1986. "Preparing a

Course Syllabus." Illini Instructors Series, no. 3. Urbana: Instructional and Management Services, University of Illinois, n.d.

Rodgers, C.A., and Burnett, R.E. Student Manuals: Their Rationale and Design. Syracuse,

N.Y.: Center for Instructional Development, Syracuse University, 1981.

Rubin, S. "Professors, Students and the Syllabus." Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 7,

1985, p. 56.

Schlesinger, A.B. "One Syllabus That Encourages Thinking, Not Just Learning." Teaching

Professor, 1987, 1(7), 5.

Shea, M.A. Compendium of Good Ideas on Teaching and Learning. Boulder: Faculty

Teaching Excellence Program, University of Colorado, 1990.

"What Did You Put in Your Syllabus?" Teaching at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln,

1985, 7(1), 2. (Newsletter available from the Teaching and Learning Center, University of Nebraska, Lincoln)

Wilkerson, L., and McKnight, R. T. Writing a Course Syllabus. Chicago: Educational

Development Unit, Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center, 1978.