The quality of the syllabus is a fairly reliable indicator of the quality of teaching and learning that will take place in a course (Woolcock, 2003). Therefore, it behooves instructors to make the effort to construct a high-quality syllabus. The results of that effort can benefit the instructor as well as his or her students.
A syllabus lets students know what the course is about, why the course is taught, where it is going, and what will be required for them to be successful in the course (Altman & Cashin, 2003). By clearly communicating expectations, instructors can circumvent a whole host of student grievances and misunderstandings during the semester. It also shows students that you take teaching seriously (Davis, 1993). Finally, remember that your syllabus may be some students' first exposure to your course, and its contents may determine whether or not they take the course.
The process of developing a syllabus can be a reflective exercise, leading the instructor to carefully consider his or her philosophy of teaching, why the course is important, how the course fits in the discipline, as well as what topics will be covered, when assignments will be due, and so on (Eberly, Newton, & Wiggins, 2001; Grunert, 1997). This can be an enlightening experience that results in an improved course. The syllabus is, thus, both a professional document and a personal document. When a syllabus reflects the instructor's feelings, attitudes, and beliefs about the subject matter, teaching, learning, and students—as well as setting out the “nuts and bolts” of the course—the syllabus can serve as a guide to the instructor as much as a guide to the class (Parkes & Harris, 2002).
Note: All instructors of courses at the University of Illinois are expected to provide a syllabus to their students clearly stating expectations for student learning outcomes.
Purposes and content of a syllabus
The purpose of the syllabus should drive the decision as to what content to include. Three major purposes that a syllabus should serve are as a contract, a permanent record, and a learning tool (Parkes & Harris, 2002). In many cases, items are essentially required—especially for General Education courses, according to the Provost's Office guidelines for General Education courses.
The syllabus as a contract
A syllabus should make the rules for the course clear. It should set forth what is expected to happen during the semester, delineate the responsibilities of students and of the instructor, and describe appropriate procedures and course policies. To do this, a syllabus should include the following:
- Topics and readings to be covered in sequence with dates
- Important dates (e.g., assignment due dates, exam dates, and holidays)
- Standards and criteria for graded assignments
- Description of how the final grade will be computed with a breakdown of the ranges for each letter grade and whether or not pluses/minuses will be used
- Policy on late assignments, incomplete assignments, and revisions
- Academic integrity policy (see the Student Code, Article 1, Part 4)
- Attendance policy (see the Student Code, §1-501)
- Accommodation policy for students with special needs (see the Instructor Information page on the DRES website)
- Expectations for classroom interaction. For example, you may point out that you will be incorporating active learning strategies throughout the semester in the form of group work, in-class writing assignments, etc. Or if you address controversial topics, you may want to lay out some guidelines for discussion.
The syllabus as a permanent record
A syllabus should serve accountability and documentation functions. It should document what was covered in a course, at what level, and for what kind of credit. Such a syllabus contains information useful for evaluation of instructors, courses, and programs, and can thus be useful in course equivalency transfer situations, accreditation procedures, and articulation. To do this, a syllabus should include the following:
- Basic course information (course by number, section, title, semester, meeting times, days, place, format)
- Instructor information (name, title, rank, office location, office phone number, e-mail)
- Description of the course content
- Course goals and objectives (linked to professional standards if appropriate)
- Required purchases for the course. You may also want to note where else texts will be available (e.g., the library, online, electronic reserves)
- Pre- and co-requisites for the course (not just courses; what skills are expected also)
- Names and contact information for teaching assistants
The syllabus as a learning tool
A syllabus should help students become more effective learners in the course. While many of these items are not required for syllabi at Illinois, adding them can greatly improve students' ability to learn the material. To do this, a syllabus should include the following:
- Ways of contacting the instructor (office hours, availability for appointments, time within which students can expect a response via email, phone number)
- Conceptual structure used to organize the course, why it is organized the way it is
- Instructor's philosophy about the course content, teaching, and learning
- Relevance and importance of the course to students (e.g., how the course fits into the college or department curriculum, why the students would want to learn the material)
- Campus resources available to help students' learning (tutoring, writing, counseling, etc.)
- Estimate of student workload
- Hints for how to study, take notes, etc.
To see recommended information to include in a syllabus, use the checklist in Guidelines to the Organization and Contents of a Syllabus.
- Richmond, A. S. (2016). Constructing a learner-centered syllabus: One professors' journey (IDEA Paper 60). Manhattan, KS: IDEA Center.
- Anderson, L., & Krathwohl, D. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Addison, Wesley Longman.
- Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Eberly, M. B., Newton, S. E., & Wiggins, R. (2001). The syllabus as a tool for student-centered learning. Journal of General Education, 50(1), 56-74.
- Grunert O.Brien, J., Millis, B.J., & Diamond, R.M. (2008). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Parkes, J., & Harris, M. B. (2002). The purposes of a syllabus. College Teaching, 50(2), 55-61.
- Woolcock, M. J. V. (2006). Constructing a syllabus.Providence, RI: Brown University, Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning.