The Purpose and Structure of a Syllabus
A syllabus is both a map of your course and an agreement between you and your students. It’s a resource that you will likely refer students to throughout the course. Having an organized, approachable, and accessible syllabus helps to set a positive tone for the course and support students’ confidence in you as the instructor. According to backward design, writing the syllabus is one of the last things you do because, until you have worked through your outcomes, assessments, activities, and content, you wouldn’t have the information that you need to write one. You are basically translating your course map into a syllabus at the end. If you made a visual course map you may want to include that in your syllabus as well.
Review Syllabi Essentials
The essentials for a good syllabus center on the need for it to be very clearly written, well organized, readable, and complete. The syllabus needs to convey the necessary information in a way that students can understand.
Research into syllabus construction and the influence of the syllabus on student motivation and retention has influenced growing popularity of a learning-centered syllabus (in contrast to a coverage-centered syllabus). While still containing much of the standard information, a learning-centered syllabus also communicates enthusiasm, mutual accountability, and a belief in students’ learning potential, as well as respectfully socializing them to the roles and norms of the class (Habanek, 2005; Sulik & Keys, 2014).
Palmer, Bach, and Streifer (2014) developed and validated a rubric for learning-focused syllabi review reflecting the importance of learning outcomes and alignment as well as Fink’s Significant Learning taxonomy. Their rubric criteria include items such as:
- Well organized and easy to navigate
- A positive, respectful, and inviting tone
- Directly addresses the student as a competent, engaged learner
- Indicates a learning environment that fosters positive motivation (see teaching approach section below)
- Clearly communicates high expectations and projects confidence that students can meet them through hard work.
Set Clear Expectations and Responsibilities
As noted in the rubric, it is important to define expectations and responsibilities up front as much as possible. Making sure participation expectations, as well as other expectations such as writing quality, citation format, etc., is quite helpful to both your students and to you as the semester progresses. While spelling out these sorts of expectations in the syllabus may seem odd at first, you will appreciate taking the time to do so – and doing so in a positive, encouraging manner – as you refer students back to that pre-written section.
Having a complete syllabus at the beginning of the course is important for all students. Changing the focus of a week, swapping out an assignment, replacing readings and resources can be a challenge for some students to manage. Students who are balancing school work with jobs and families are less amenable to change and lack of evidence of clear planning tends to make them anxious. Lack of visible proof that the course is fully planned can be unsettling – especially to students that have had the experience of being in a course that was only built a week or two in advance.
Create Distinct Sections of your Course Syllabus
As you have seen over your time as a student and an instructor, there are some standard items that are on most syllabi . Instructor contact information, required textbooks, course grading scale, and university, school, and department policies are almost universally included. Other sections recommended to make your syllabus complete, and sufficiently detailed include:
- Measurable learning outcomes which are then referenced throughout the course
- Brief module descriptions - these are especially important if your modules are not all open to students at the beginning of the semester
- Technology requirements such as needing a headset with microphone, a webcam, or specialized software, if applicable
- A clear statement about types of academic misconduct, their consequences, and the Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct.
Detailed assignment instructions should be kept with the Canvas Assignment, Discussion, or Quiz and only a brief overview of the assignments needs to go in the syllabus.
Faculty also often write up a schedule and include it as part of the syllabus. In Canvas, as you put due dates in published Assignments, Discussions, and Quizzes, they are automatically added to both the course Calendar and at the bottom of the Syllabus Tool. When you change a date in one place it is automatically updated everywhere else in the course where you would have entered it in a due date field. Wherever you type a due date in a text box or a document, if you change it you have to manually find every instance where you typed it in and change it yourself. By using these automatic schedule tools you know everything will be consistent and students will not see different due dates for the same assignment.
Other important items to pay attention to in a syllabus include:
- When and how are you available to your students: Many instructors find that holding office hours is less effective than asking students to request a meeting and finding a mutually acceptable time. It’s also helpful to have options for how to meet that include both phone and video. Providing more than one option for contacting you, as well as stating how quickly you will respond to requests for a meeting provides a signal to students that you are accessible to them should they have a question or a concern.
- How the course progresses through the semester: Making sure they understand the pace of the course from the beginning helps to set realistic expectations for student participation. If you have 1-week modules with more than one regularly occurring due date (for example, initial discussion posts are due every Friday and quizzes are due every Sunday) it is critical for them to understand the pace and rhythm in that first week.
Provide a Student Support Section of your Syllabi
There are also some specific sections that should be included on every syllabus that you may not automatically add:
- Disability Accommodations
- Technology Support
- Academic and Student Support.
Accommodations for Students with Disabilities
Every attempt will be made to accommodate qualified students with disabilities (e.g. mental health, learning, chronic health, physical, hearing, vision, neurological, etc.) You must have established your eligibility for support services through the appropriate office that services students with disabilities. Note that services are confidential, may take time to put into place, and are not retroactive. Captions and alternate media for print materials may take three or more weeks to get produced. Please contact your campus adaptive educational services office as soon as possible if accommodations are needed.
Technology Accessibility Information
For accessibility information for persons using adaptive technology with Canvas, please visit Canvas Product Accessibility.
For each external tool you are using you also need to provide a link to the accessibility information for that tool.
Provide detailed information on contacting your technology support services including their hours, phone numbers, email, and if they have it, live chat information.
The Academic Support and Student Support sections are recommend in cases where these services are realistically accessible and useful to online students. Availability of online academic support on each campus will vary.
The following are suggested items to include in each section that you would customize to your campus.
Academic Support Services
Here you would list any academic support services available to students on your campus including how to contact the offices providing the service. If there is a specific person they need to ask for please include that information as well.
Student Support Services
Here you would list any student support services available to students on your campus including how to contact the offices providing the service. If there is a specific person they need to ask for please include that information as well. These services can include campus-wide services such as:
- Dean of Students office
- Academic and Career Advising
- Mental health services including coping with academic anxiety
- Policies regarding attendance, withdrawals, conduct, and religious holidays
And also any student services contact information for your school or program.
It is highly recommended that you do not print out, or make students print out the syllabi.
The content found here was designed by Indiana University and adapted for use by the Institute for Faculty Development at Vanguard University. This material is offered under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license and should be considered under this license unless otherwise noted. The original content was imported from “Designing and Teaching for Impact in Online Courses” from within Canvas Commons.