The Syllabus - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Write the Syllabus

Syllabi serve several important purposes, the most basic of which is to communicate the instructor’s course design (e.g., goals, organization, policies, expectations, requirements) to students. Other functions commonly served by a syllabus include:

  • To convey our enthusiasm for the topic and our expectations for the course
  • To show how this course fits into a broader context ("the big picture")
  • To establish a contract with students by publicly stating policies, requirements, and procedures for the course
  • To set the tone for the course, and convey how we perceive our role as the teacher and their role  as students
  • To help students assess their readiness for the course by identifying prerequisite areas of knowledge
  • To help students manage their learning by identifying outside resources and/or providing advice
  • To communicate our course goals and content to colleagues

What's in a syllabus?

When should you write your syllabus?

General advice on writing a syllabus

Creative syllabi

What’s in a syllabus?

A syllabus usually includes the following components:
COMPONENT
(Labels link to components of real syllabi.)
DESCRIPTION
(See also samples of whole syllabi.)
Title page Course number and title, semester and year, number of units, meeting times and location, instructor and TA information (e.g., name, office, office hours, contact information)
Course description A brief introduction to the course: scope, purpose and relevance of the material.
Course objectives Skills and knowledge you want students to gain.
Course organization Explanation of the topical organization of the course
Materials Required (and/or optional) books (with authors and editions), reserve readings, course readers, software, and supplies with information about where they can be obtained
Prerequisites and co-requisites Courses students need to have taken before yours (or at the same time); prerequisite skill sets (e.g., programming languages, familiarity with software). Provide advice on what students should do if they lack these skills (e.g., drop the course; get outside help; study supplementary material you will provide)
Course requirements What students will have to do in the course: assignments, exams, projects, performances, attendance, participation, etc. Describe the nature and format of assignments and the expected length of written work.  Provide due dates for assignments and dates for exams.
Evaluation and grading policy What will the final grade be based on? Provide a breakdown of components and an explanation of your grading policies (e.g., weighting of grades, curves, extra-credit options, the possibility of dropping the lowest grade)
Course policies and expectations Policies concerning attendance, participation, tardiness, academic integrity, missing homework, missed exams, recording classroom activities, food in class, laptop use, etc. Describe your expectations for student behavior (e.g., respectful consideration of one another’s perspectives, open-mindedness, creative risk-taking). Let students know what they can expect from you (e.g., your availability for meetings or e-mail communication).
Course calendar A day-to-day breakdown of topics and assignments (readings, homework, project due-dates)
Advice How to use the syllabus; how to study for the course (how to read efficiently and effectively, whether readings are to be done before or after the class they pertain to, when to start assignments, approved forms of collaboration, etc.); how to seek help.


When should you write your syllabus?

Writing your syllabus should come late in the process of course design, after the course is essentially planned, but well before the first day of class. You’ll notice that of Fink’s 12 questions to ask oneself when designing a course (below), the question pertaining to the syllabus comes in #11! (Fink, 2003)

General advice on writing a syllabus:

Creative syllabi:

Syllabi do not have to be simple, typed documents, but can incorporate graphics (photos, comics, designs) and other creative elements. Some instructors design creative syllabi to embody course goals; for instance, the syllabus for a typography class might itself reflect design elements that are part of the course content. Some instructors develop graphic syllabi, which represent the organization of the course in graphic rather than text form. As long as your syllabus serves the functions you intend, have some fun with it!

References

Fink, L. D. (2003)
Creating Significant Learning Experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B. G. (1993)
Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.