Tips on Syllabus Design

On Friday, December 14, 2007, the Teaching Resource Center sponsored a session on Syllabus Design. Several VU faculty members contributed their ideas in this forum. You may find their tips useful as you create your own syllabi.

Mike Longan, Geography and Meteorology:

  • Be sure to include your full contact information up front, including office hours.
  • Course Goals: This is the most important part of your syllabus and should be right up front.
  • Be sure to list your texts. ISBN numbers and price information are useful additions.
  • The syllabus describes all of the assignments for the semester.
  • Grading: Based on suggestions from student evaluations, Mike uses a point system. The syllabus lists the points for each assignment and gives a point spread for grades (for example: A= 372-400 points) so that the students always know where they stand.
  • Conceptual diagram: Mike sometimes includes a diagram of the content of the course so students can see at a glance what the course contains.
  • Course Schedule: Mike does his schedule on a grid. He makes explicit what work students are expected to do between classes, by having a column labeled, for example, “Between Classes Tuesday.”
  • Bottom line: The syllabus is the primary way you communicate with students. The more you put into the syllabus, the clearer you are communicating.
  • Sample of Mike Longan's GEOG 320 syllabus.

Lissa Yogan, Sociology and Criminology:

  • Borrow good ideas. Subscribe to teaching listservs, ask colleagues for copies of their syllabi, browse the Web and borrow good ideas for your own syllabi.
  • NOTE: Your syllabus is your contract with your students, therefore be explicit about what you expect - include goals, policies, and how you grade.
  • Make it your own. Use pictures, quotations, etc. to personalize your syllabi.
  • For new classes, she keeps her syllabi short. For classes she has taught many times, students get the long version, including copies of assignments and grading rubrics in advance.
  • Hand out your syllabus at the END of the first class instead of the beginning. Don’t discuss it in class, instead assign them to read it before the next class, then give a quiz on day two.
  • Get out of Jail Free: She gives each student two “Get out of Jail Free” cards to be used for an extension on an assignment due to a missed class.
  • Blackboard: Post to Blackboard copies of the syllabus and any course documents you hand out. This prevents the “I lost my assignment” excuse.
  • Sample of Lissa Yogan's SOC 110 syllabus.

Stan Zygmunt, Physics and Astronomy:

  • Your syllabus should “sell” the course to the students by showing them exactly what they are getting.
  • Give some short written assignments early on so students can get an early idea of your grading policies for written work.
  • Provide a brief, specific outline of the issues to be covered in the course.
  • However, always be willing to deviate from your outline, to shift and revise a few weeks into the course based on how the class is going.
  • The Honor Code should always appear in your syllabus.
  • Remember that enthusiasm covers a multitude of sins!

John Bernthal, Music:

  • Adjust your syllabus based on students’ reactions.  If they need more information up front, give it to them.
  • Give a bird’s eye view of the entire semester in one page.
  • Give a one-page list of graded assignments.
  • Know when the crunch times are in the semester–midterms, weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas–and get your important assignments in before crunch time.
  • Mid-terms and Final Exams are excellent opportunities to test the students’ ability to synthesize knowledge. However, there may be other opportunities as well, such as a more creative assignment (composition of a musical piece based on guidelines, etc.).
  • If possible, get to the harder topics earlier in the semester.
  • Don’t make your syllabus too detailed. You need some flexibility, especially with ungraded assignments.
  • For other ideas, see “Some Thoughts on Writing an Effective Syllabus.”
  • Sample of John Bernthal's Music 263 syllabus.

Question and Answer Session with panel:

  • Write in two days that are filler, movable “snow days” that allow you to be flexible.
  • Extra credit - build it into your course but do not use it to make up for students’ lack of responsibility or to allow them an easy out.
  • Students sometimes do not check email, but live on Facebook. One professor created a Facebook account to more easily communicate with students.
  • Drop the lowest grade or, for an exam, allow students to retake and then average the two grades. (One professor did this for the entire class when they all did poorly on an exam. It had the effect of making them really strive to learn the material for the retake!)