Getting Started with Constructing a Syllabus

Getting Started

As you plan your syllabus consider these questions:

  • What do I want to teach?
  • What do I want students to learn?
  • What prior knowledge do they have and how can I build on it?
  • What are the best teaching strategies to achieve my goals?

The Syllabus as Communication Tool

Use the syllabus to communicate what students need to know about the class. This will save you time answering questions later.

Some things to include:

  • Your name and contact information.
  • If important to you, mention if you prefer Mr./Ms./Mrs., Dr., or first name.
  • Names and contacts of teaching assistants for the course.
  • Course name, number, and section.
  • Time and location of lectures, sections, and office hours.
  • Think about how accessible you want to be. Are walk-ins welcome?
  • Required and optional texts – Mention if these are available through library reserves or online.
  • Any prerequisites required to take the course.
  • Any other particularly important information.
  • Any policies of incorporating student feedback into course design.

A Note on Tone

Students can glean your intent, seriousness, and personality from the tone and style of the syllabus. Decide what kind of impression you want to convey.

  • Tell students why the course matters to you and make an argument for why it should matter to them.
  • Share information about yourself such as your educational and professional background and/or your teaching philosophy.
  • Describe how the course relates to the program, discipline, or field.
  • Express willingness to work with struggling students and provide information about campus services that can aid students with their studies.
  • Reflect on the overall tone of your writing. For example, is it encouraging or punitive?

The Syllabus as a Cognitive map

Use your syllabus to put your course into a broader academic context.

  • Explain how this course builds on what students have learned in prior classes.
  • Consider a visual or graphic representation of where your course fits into the big picture.

Outline course objectives and expected learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are what students should know, be able to do, or value as a result of taking your course.

  • Clearly articulate learning outcomes. Here is an example:
    • As a result of taking this class, you should be able to describe the characteristics of various genres of writing.
  • Mention any practical skills that students will be able to apply in the real-world after the course.

The Syllabus as a Contract

Treat your syllabus as a contract between you and the students where you outline your promises and your expectations. Discuss your policies for the class.

These could include:

  • Work expectations. Include academic integrity and technology use statements.
  • Classroom norms on participation and attendance.
  • Policies for late assignments, extensions, and make-ups.
  • Grading policies and appeals.
  • Statements on accommodations and diversity.

Based on your observations or student feedback at mid-semester, you may wish to adjust your course activities to address student learning. Adding a disclaimer in your syllabus lets students know you may revisit the course syllabus for this purpose.

The Syllabus as a Plan of Action

Present a timeline for lectures and assignments to help students plan their semester.

  • Highlight guest speakers or special events of interest.
  • List the required and optional weekly readings.
  • Make sure to include assignment due dates.
  • Include exam and review session dates.
  • Link learning outcomes with course activities and assessments.

Sample Statements that can be Included in a Syllabus

Academic Integrity Statement

For all assignments, students are required to abide by Cornell University’s Code of Academic Integrity. A copy of the code can be found at the following URL: https://cuinfo.cornell.edu/aic.cfm. Violations of the Code of Academic Integrity, especially plagiarism, may result in a failing grade in the course. Students are urged to read and complete the exercises on “Recognizing and Avoiding Plagiarism” at: http://plagiarism.arts.cornell.edu/tutorial/index.cfm.

Inclusivity/Diversity Statement

Cornell supports an inclusive learning environment where diversity and individual differences are understood, respected, appreciated, and recognized as a source of strength. It is expected that students in this class will respect differences and demonstrate diligence in understanding how other peoples' perspectives, behaviors, and worldviews may be different from their own. Adapted from the University of Colorado’s College of Education and Behavioral Science found at https://www.unco.edu/education-behavioral-sciences/about-us/diversity-equity/framework.aspx.

Disabilities Statement

From Cornell University’s Faculty Handbook—Note to students with disabilities: If you have a disability-related need for reasonable academic adjustments in this course, provide (Instructor, TA, Course Coordinator) with an accommodation letter from Student Disability Services. Students are expected to give two weeks’ notice of the need for accommodations. If you need immediate accommodation, please arrange to meet with (Instructor, TA, Course Coordinator) within the first two class meetings.

Introducing Policies to Your Class

To enhance learner autonomy and create student buy-in, consider this strategy:

  • Start off with a conversation regarding your policy. Pose a question such as “What does a productive learning environment look like? What does it mean to have academic integrity?”
  • Present your relevant policy statement to your students.
  • Ask them to discuss with a partner or in small groups. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
  • Ask students for suggestions for or additions to the policy statement. Collect these and consider revising the policy statement on your syllabus.

Group Normative Statements

Salazar, Norton & Tuitt (2009) provide the following group norms:

"Stone Norton (2008) puts forward eight group norms that can create an inclusive learning environment:

  1. Everyone has the right to be heard.
  2. Be respectful while still being critical.
  3. No name calling.
  4. One person speaks at a time.
  5. Maintain confidentiality.
  6. Hold yourself and each other to high standards of excellence at all times.
  7. Have the humility to recognize that you do not know everything and that everyone can stand to improve.
  8. Recognize that everyone will start from different bases of knowledge." (p. 214).

Additionally, Woods (2002) provides these norms:

R – be Respected

I – to Inform others about your own opinion

G – to have your own personal Goals and needs

H – to Have feelings and to express them

T – to have Trouble, make mistakes, and be forgiven

S – to Select or choose whether you will meet another’s expectations

References

Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students' perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 14(3), 319-330.

Ludwig, M. A., Bentz, A. E., & Fynewever, H. (2011). Your syllabus should set the stage for assessment for learning. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40(4), 20-23.

Perrine, R. M., Lisle, J., & Tucker, D. L. (1995). Effects of a syllabus offer of help, student age, and class size on college students’ willingness to seek support from faculty. Journal of Experimental Education, 64(1), 41-52.

Salazar, Maria D., Norton, Amanda S., & Tuitt, Franklin A. (2009). Weaving promising practices for inclusive excellence into the higher education classroom. In Linda B. Nilson and Judith E. Miller (Eds.), To improve the academy (pp. 208-226). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Thompson, B. (2007). The syllabus as a communication document: Constructing and presenting the syllabus. Communication Education, 56(1), 54-71.

Way, D. (2011). Presentation on constructing a learning-centered syllabus. Center for Teaching Excellence, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Woods, D. R. (2002, April). MPS 28 Group Skills. McMaster University. Retrieved from https://www.eng.mcmaster.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/u28-wskp_leap.pdf