The syllabus is an important teaching tool to share your teaching philosophy and how your course works. It provides a necessary overview of your course and discipline to help students who are likely unfamiliar with things that you, as an expert, take for granted. The syllabus also sets the tone for the course and is the first step in creating a welcoming course climate. Additionally, it’s a planning document and reference tool that indexes the important elements, events, and policies for the course to help both instructors and students stay on track. A well-organized syllabus puts students at ease as it suggests that the professor has been thoughtful in their choices for the course.
What Goes into a Good Syllabus?
- Course Details: Course name, classroom and time or online location.
- Instructor Information: Office, office hours, phone, email, etc.
- Course Description and Rationale: What is the course about? How does it connect with the rest of the curriculum? How will students benefit from this course? What are the prerequisites? What requirements does it fulfill?
- Student Learning Outcomes: What will students know and be able to do when they complete this course? Begin your list of learning outcomes with “By the end of this course, students will be able to…”, and connect outcomes to …
- Program Learning Outcomes: Build context by linking students to your program’s learning outcomes.
- Institutional Learning Outcomes: Show how your course contributes to UMBC’s Functional Competencies.
- Format and Procedures: How will the course be structured? What teaching techniques will you use? Will online work be synchronous or asynchronous? What technologies will be required? Keep UDL guidelines in mind, as you create multiple means of engagement, representation, and communication.
- Course Requirements: What readings, participation, tests, labs, performances, papers, projects, etc. will help students achieve the course outcomes?
- Grading: What will be graded and when? How are grades distributed among the assignments? What rubrics, etc. are used to assess student work? Do you offer options for revision? Cognitive wrappers?
- Course Policies: Share your policies for late work, attendance, technology use, academic discourse (netiquette), etc.
- Institutional Policies: Include the UMBC policies. At its 8/11/2020 meeting, the Faculty Senate voted to strongly recommend specific syllabus template language that describes various expectations and resources for students that are especially important during COVID-19. (Google Doc Version | MS Word Version). The Title IX and disability information is mandatory due to legal requirements. In response to many faculty concerns about managing the length of the syllabus, we wanted to provide you with options for how you might choose to share this language with students.
- To insert the statements directly into your syllabi, simply copy the statements you’d like to use from the Google Doc or MS Word Version.
- To share one link to the entire document with all of the statements, insert a statement into your syllabus such as “Please see this Google doc for UMBC Policies and Resources during COVID-19.”
- To share only specific links for specific statements, copy the links under the Bookmarks header at the top of the Google doc. Simply right click on the appropriate statement and select “Copy link URL” to copy the link to a specific statement.
- Inclusive Excellence: Visit The Diverse Classroom and use the Inclusion By Design worksheet to ensure your syllabus contributes to a healthy classroom climate. Consider including the following statements and offering students options for self-identification by inviting them to designate personal pronouns.
- Ground Rules: Consider leaving space to collaborate on behavior expectations; research suggests that fewer negative behaviors emerge when students contribute to rules. Discuss netiquette.
- Course schedule: Includes class meeting dates, topics, readings, problems, assignments, test or presentation dates, final exam schedule, etc.
- Suggestions for Success: What learning resources should students know about to succeed in your course? What strategies have worked well for past students? What pitfalls should they avoid?
- Disclaimers: You may need to adapt your syllabus throughout the semester for many reasons, so consider reminding students that policies, deadlines, and assignments may change, and you will keep them informed.
The Syllabus as a Teaching Tool
- Mapping Your Course – A syllabus shares your teaching philosophy and how your course works. A learner-centered approach can help you engage students and build a classroom community. Begin with a description and rationale to show students how your course will contribute to their learning as a whole. A syllabus quiz or activity combined with a first-day overview can help students use your syllabus better.
- Integrating Outcomes – Connect students to what they will learn through explicit, measurable student learning outcomes (SLOs). Ask students to reflect on what the SLOs mean and how their personal learning goals intersect with the course outcomes. Help them visualize how your course will contribute to their education.
- Creating Learning that Lasts – Plan for lasting impact by showing how your course supports students as they fulfill program and institutional goals. These connections help students see how courses work together to build the transferable skills they need for success.
- Student-Centered Revising – After you review your syllabus elements with a checklist, focus on your audience by revising with a learner-centered self-assessment rubric. Research suggests that a syllabus with a positive tone, clear rationale, and space for students’ input about policies and procedures can positively affect students’ perceptions of their instructors and improve classroom behavior, motivate, and improve learning.
How Do I Get Started?
- Check out sample syllabi – Colleagues are often willing to share their syllabi, and some departments keep syllabi on file (ask a departmental administrative assistant for help). They may even have syllabi for the very course you will be teaching.
- Consider course design – The syllabus can only be as clear as the class is well designed. What are your goals for the course? What should students know, do and value by the end of the course? Once you have made these important decisions, writing the syllabus becomes a matter of communicating this information to the students.
- Get feedback from others – Ask trusted colleagues to take a look at your syllabus, or schedule a syllabus consultation with the FDC.
- Check out a book from the FDC Library – Search the FDC lending library to find books on creating and revising a syllabus and let us know if you’d like to borrow something.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is my syllabus too long? Many instructors create lengthy syllabi to capture policies, procedures, and assignments all in one place. Is this too much for students? Research suggests that students provided with detailed, learner-centered syllabi viewed the instructor as more caring, enthusiastic, and accomplished compared to instructors who provided brief syllabi (Saville, Zinn, Brown, & Marchuk, 2010, as cited in Richmond, 2016).
- How can I make my syllabus more engaging? Research suggests that a learner-centered syllabus can help you engage students (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). You can also revise some of the text with useful graphics. For example, offer a course map or create an infographic.
What is a Graphic Syllabus?
The graphic syllabus can be a dramatic and effective way to communicate your philosophy, pedagogy, and path for student learning and simultaneously share practical logistics, requirements, and resources with students, especially in online courses. You can create a full graphic syllabus or use graphics to enhance a small portion of your syllabus.
Just as any document, the graphic syllabus can, and should, be made accessible in advance as you’re developing your course materials. Many software platforms, including Microsoft Word, have a helpful accessibility checker.
In May 2020, the Faculty Development Center held sessions on Using a Graphic Syllabus to Engage Students where FDC staff provided an overview of ways to capture key elements of the syllabus in visual form and shared examples. Useful resources from these sessions include:
- WebEx recording of the session (UMBC login required)
- PowerPoint presentation (UMBC login required)
- Master Google Drive with all of the examples (UMBC login required)
- Google Doc with all of the links embedded in the presentation (UMBC login required)
- Course Map Template (See the course level map tab)
- Think Pair Share Syllabus Activity from Chris Rakes (UMBC login required)
Selected Syllabus Resources
Brien, J., Millis, B., & Cohen, M. (2008). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Diamond, R. (2008). Designing and assessing courses and curricula: A practical guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Duffy, D. & Jones, J. (1995). Teaching within the rhythms of the semester. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Filene, P. (2005). The joy of teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Fink, L. D. (2005). Self-directed guide to designing significant courses http://www.dee finkandassociates.com/ GuidetoCourseDesignAug05.pdf
Fink, L.D.(2013). Creating significant learning experiences an integrated approach to designing college courses. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hansen, E. (2011). Idea-based learning: A course design process to promote conceptual understanding. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Nilson, L. (2007). The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map: Communicating your course. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Richmond, A.S. (2016). Constructing a learner-centered syllabus: One professor’s journey. IDEA Paper #60. Manhattan, KS: IDEA.org.
Saroyan, A., & Amundsen, C. (2004). Rethinking teaching in higher education: From a course design workshop to a faculty development framework. Sterling, VA: Stylus.