Assessment of Institutional Effectiveness
SYLLABUS CONSTRUCTION GUIDE
Lester A. Lefton
The syllabus is the cornerstone of your course. More
than you might have ever realized the syllabus helps
you prepare a course and your students. It serves three
- It shapes your expectations for students;
- It lays out and prioritizes your organization in
terms of substance and style;
- It lays out for students the rules, regulations, and
operating procedures of your class.
The purpose of this article is to explain these three
assertions and their importance in running an effective
When a faculty member writes a syllabus it is often
done after the fact, that is, it is often prepared after a
course's lectures have been written. When a faculty
member prepares a new course, it should be the first
thing that is considered. Through it, course objectives
can be established, specific strategies for achieving
those objectives can be ascertained, and specific tasks
for the instructor and the students can be established. I
assert that, like erecting a building, the syllabus is a set
of working drawings--it is the blueprint for the next
sixteen weeks; a contractor does not build a building
and then draw plans for it.
Drawing plans for a course, establishing goals, strategies,
and specific plans requires that an instructor be
organized. It also requires considerable preparation.
Sometimes instructors prepare a course by first writing
specific lectures; this is because they know a great deal
about a specific topic and writing about it is relatively
easy. How that specific lecture might fit into the grand
scheme of the course is not clear until all of the course's
elements are articulated.
Expectations. The syllabus lays out your expectations
for students. You tell students what they are to read and
when; through the syllabus you lay out a schedule of
events and when specific assignments are due. The
syllabus also explains grading, attendance, class participation,
and make-up policies. An instructor should
describe in detail all of the instructor's expectations.
Students should be able to walk away with a syllabus
and know exactly what they are expected to do in the
class and/or laboratory.
Priorities and organization. The syllabus should
inform students about you, your priorities in the course,
and how the course will be organized. Tell the students
who you are, what your training is, and how they might
contact you. Your office location, phone number, and
office hours should be included. Topics, exams, and
homework assignments should be prioritized so that
students know what is important. This is sometimes
done through grading schemes (e.g. 10 points for this,
30 points for that). A day-by-day class calendar, organized
by your lecture topic, is a top-notch way to let
students know ahead of time what they will be doing.
Regulations and operating procedures. Every instructor
operates class differently. Some encourage
class discussion, other instructors keep discussion to a
minimum. Some instructors have strict or loose attendance
policies; some instructors have strict policies
about when homework assignments, term papers, and
laboratory assignments are due. Policies and procedures
should be spelled out in detail in the syllabus.
Spend time explaining to students exactly how you
expect things to be run. Can they come into class late?
What happens if they miss a test? What qualifies as
extra credit, and who makes those decisions, and by
when? Tell students what qualifies as an exception to a
rule or procedure. Tell them the length of papers, how
they will be prepared, word count, and all other criteria.
If you have very specific requirements (e.g. 1.5 inch
margins or 12 point Times Roman type) tell them in the
Overall, the goal of your syllabus is to inform students
of the nature of the course, lay out your expectations,
and form a contract between you and them. Through
the syllabus, you tell the students, "This is what you are
expected to do in this course, and I will hold you to all
of this;" simultaneously, you agree not to ask for more
than what is specified in the syllabus. Instructors
should make every effort to stick to the syllabus, especially the schedule,
homework dates, and test dates.
Any changes should be announced well in advance and
put in writing. Your syllabus cannot be too long; a
three to six page syllabus is common. Syllabi that
merely list reading requirements are inadequate and a
breach of a faculty member's responsibilities.
Students like and appreciate a complete and accurate
syllabus. They feel more secure in knowing what is
expected of them. You also protect yourself if you spell
out exactly what you want from students. Lastly, a
complete syllabus keeps the chatter down; that is, students will
not be constantly asking you about rules,
procedures, and expectations. Everything is spelled out
in detail; you are able to refer students to the syllabus
and spend your class time teaching. Another great thing
about a well-constructed syllabus is that you can transfer it to other courses easily.
Here are the major topic headings and the first line or
two from each of the sections from the syllabus that I
used in my course last semester. It is not perfect, but it
served me and my students well. Most important to me,
I never get complaints or questions about course requirements.