How to Write a Great Syllabus

Back view of a senior professor talking on a class to large group of students.

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”  — Benjamin Franklin

Syllabus writing can be a daunting task, especially if you are assigned a new course to prep for just a couple of weeks before the semester begins. I didn’t recognize the importance of writing a good syllabus until I was assigned to teach a mass-lecture class of 450 students. I quickly realized how important the syllabus is for many reasons—if nothing else, to communicate my expectations for the class and what my students could expect from me. My stance is that a little extra time spent on writing the syllabus can prevent many problems throughout your semester. So, how do you write a great syllabus? A great syllabus has PROPS!

Purpose: A syllabus should have purpose. Think of your syllabus as a course-planning tool that clearly communicates your expectations to the students, provides them necessary information (like class information, office hour times, etc.) and generates interest. It also becomes a contract between you and your students regarding policies, grading, an academic integrity issues, etc. 

Required Elements: There are several required elements of a syllabus, all of which may be slightly different depending on your institution’s policies. At minimum, it should include:

— Who you are and how to interact with you

— Course objectives and learning outcomes

— Required/supplementary course materials

— How students will be assessed

— How grades will be assigned

— Course policies

— Student/instructor expectations

— How the class is organized

Outline for the Course/Course Calendar: Develop a sequence of topics and activities based on course goals and desired outcomes. Planning this in advance ensures a smooth-sailing semester.

Policies for the Course: Communicate your policies clearly and concisely on the first day of class. I make sure to communicate policies on assignments, exams, grading attendance, use of technology and student expectations. My extra tip: require students to take a syllabus quiz for extra credit that is due within the first week of class. When students start to question a course policy, I refer them back to the syllabus quiz they previously took.

Students: I believe a truly great syllabus is centered on student learning—not the institution’s policies and procedures. I encourage you to write a “promising syllabus”—one that expresses your commitment to students and to create a challenging and supportive learning environment, but also requires students to take ownership of their role in the learning process. 

Think of your syllabus as the map to an incredible learning journey you are about to embark on with your students. With a little planning, it can be a great trip!