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Home Course DesignConstructing a Syllabus
Constructing a Syllabus

Twenty years ago, many instructors would have described the syllabus as a "table of contents" or, alternatively, a "contract." Today's books on college teaching and course design are likely to draw on different metaphors: the syllabus is a map or travelogue, as it both describes the intended destination and explains why one might want to go in the first place (Nilson, 27).

The most effective syllabus goes beyond listing the logistics and the topics covered in the course - it (a) articulates the conceptual framework for the course; (b) introduces students to the key questions or problems facing experts in the field; (c) suggests the ways in which an understanding of the course subject matters; and (d) identifies the specific skills and knowledge students will be able to demonstrate upon leaving the course.

Typical elements of a syllabus

  • Title page (Course title, semester, date written, your name)
  • Contact information including office hours
  • Course pre-requisites, description, and objectives
  • Required material
  • Assigned work
  • A calendar or events including lecture topics, assigned work, and special announcements
  • Grading policies
  • Participation rubrics when appropriate
  • Course policies and student/teacher expectations (Attendance, participation, tardiness, academic integrity, missing homework, missed exams)
  • Additional comments or advice to students

DePaul Syllabus Resources

Other Things to Consider (and Why)

The conceptual framework for the course.
In its review of recent literature on cognition and learning, the National Resource Council found that "organizing information into a conceptual framework allows for greater 'transfer'; that is, it allows the student to apply what was learned in new situations and to learn related information more quickly" (17).

The specific skills and knowledge students will possess upon leaving the course.
Articulating clear and specific learning outcomes for students will help them develop control over their own learning; they'll be able to grasp what is expected of them, measure their progress with respect to the outcomes; and seek help in the areas that continue to elude them.

The value of the course 
Consider explaining to students how they might use what they learn in your course in their other classes or, better yet, in their everyday lives.

Requirements that your course satisfies.
Informing your students of where the course fits in with their degree program and DePaul career as a whole helps create a sense of continuity and purpose.

Avoid ambiguous grading criteria
“Evaluating student work is hard enough as it is, and students will challenge grades. Make sure you can calculate grades objectively. It’s probably a bad idea to give a lot of weight to a subjective factor such as class participation, unless you’re teaching a small symposium and can clearly justify how you assess each student’s achievement” (Weir, 2009).

Develop a cast-in-stone policy on excuses
“The less wiggle room, the better. My own policy — stated in the syllabus — is that the only accepted excuses for late work or missed exams are documented medical emergencies or requests from an academic dean. No exceptions. All others receive a half letter-grade deduction for every 24 hours (or portion thereof) an assignment is late. Sound unreasonable? I get fewer complaints than when I made case-by-case decisions. Everyone thinks his or her excuse is legit. Do you want to judge? Not I” (Weir, 2009).

Additional Readings

Grunert, J. (1997). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Nilson, Linda. (2003). “The complete syllabus”. Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company. (Available at the Office for Teaching, Learning and Assessment).

Wasley, Paula. (2008). “Research Yields Tips on Crafting Better Syllabi.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(27), A11.

Wasley, Paula. (2008). “The Syllabus Becomes a Repository of Legalese.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(27), A1.

Write the Syllabus from Carnegie Mellon includes practical information on when to write a syllabus, general advice, and writing creative syllabi.