Lester A. Lefton Department of Psychology

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 major purposes:

  • 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 class.

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 syllabus.

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.