How to Create a Syllabus

A course syllabus serves many purposes. Its primary purpose is to provide information to a variety of audiences, both external and internal to the university. Thus, it creates a permanent record that can be used by accreditors, other schools, licensing boards, and so on. It also provides information that can be used by the university, college, and program for evaluating the curriculum and the progress of the program. Syllabi are also reviewed as part of the faculty evaluation process.

Most importantly, however, a syllabus provides information for students. Thus, the syllabus (a) makes course goals, logistics , and policies explicit; (b) specifies course content , format, and schedule; and (c) communicates clear expectations regarding course requirements. These elements include:

  • Basic information about the course
    • ​​​​​​​Course title
    • Course number and section
    • Program and location
    • Number of units
    • Date offered (semester/term)
    • Meeting time and location, if applicable
    • Brief description of course
      • ​​​Content to be covered
      • Instructional format (e.g., lectures, discussions, active learning)
      • Instructional modality (e.g., online synchronous, asynchronous, hybrid, on ground)
  •  Communication with instructor
    • Preferred name/title/pronouns
    • How to contact: email address, telephone number
    • When available: office/student hours, other opportunities
    • Where to meet: office or other locations
    • Explicit invitation to talk outside of class time
  • Course goals/student learning objectives​​​​​​​
    • Overview of course
      • ​​​​​​​Place of course in curriculum and overall training
        • ​​​​​​​Program requirements
        • Discipline-related skills
      • Outline conceptual organization of course
      • Student learning outcomes​​​​​​​
        • Articulate specific knowledge and skills students will learn​​​​​​​
          • Course specific competencies
          • Program competencies
          • Accreditation and other external accountability requirements
          • University level competencies
        • Specify how they are related to each assignment and assessment
  •  Requirements: grading and assessment​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
    • List all assignments and provide rubrics
    • List all assessments (e.g., tests, quizzes, and exams) and provide rubrics
    • Explain grade scheme/scale
      • ​​​​​​​Provide a grading scale (e.g., 90-100 A)
      • Provide a breakdown of how much each individual assignment or group of assignments is worth in terms of the overall grade
      • Make it clear if you are using a points system or percentages
  • Course materials/readings​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
    • Provide complete reading list, with citations in appropriate format
      • List required and non-required texts including: title, author, ISBN #, edition, and where each text can be purchased, borrowed from, or found
      • List all required materials or equipment (e.g. computer programs, specific calculators, and supplies) and where to find these items
      • Include information about any required field trips or class events that have an additional cost or that will occur outside of regular class time.
      • Note how students should plan to access any digital course content
  •  Course specific policies (examples)
    • ​​​​​​​Attendance/timeliness
    • Deadlines/late or missed work (makeups)
    • Technology​​​​​​​
      • Technology etiquette in the classroom
      • Technology etiquette online
    • Ground rules for communication/discussion
    • Expectations regarding class participation
    • Policies regarding shared work/collaboration
  • University policies (examples)
    • ​​​​​​​Inclusive excellence
    • Accessibility and accommodations
    • Academic integrity/academic code of conduct
    • Respectful speech and actions
    • Professional behavior
    • Religious holidays/observances
    • Course privacy/recordings
    • Responsible to keep copies
  • University resources​​​​​​​
    • Tutoring/academic support
    • Student services
    • Problem solving resources
    • Office of Accessibility
    •  Library
    • Health/well-being
  • Course schedule and calendar​​​​​​​
    • Topics/readings/activities for each session
    • Assignment due dates
    • Assessment dates
    • May include estimates of time required to do work

A syllabus can set the tone for the course by being learning or student centered. This means that as well as providing information about the course, the syllabus (a) focuses on what the students will learn and how they will learn it; (b)  expresses high expectations and confidence that students will success; (c) motivates students by arousing their curiosity and getting them excited about the course material; (d) provides rationale for policies and requirements; (e) starts creating an inclusive and collaborative learning environment;  and (f) builds trust between the students and the instructor.

One way to set a tone that invites students engagement in a course is to include statements by the instructor that provide information about themselves and their philosophies. This might include information on:

  • Background and interests
    • ​​​​​​​Brief professional biography
    • Interest in the topic and this course
    • Philosophy of teaching
    • Approach to student evaluation
  • Diversity statement that includes (Integrating Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion into Course Content and Assignments​​​​​​​)
    • Commitment to respect diversity
    • List of relevant dimensions of diversity
    • Commitment to valuing diverse perspectives
    • Commitment to including and supporting all students
    • Commitment to civility in interactions
  • Mutual expectations
    • Instructor’s commitments to students (e.g., being prepared, giving meaningful and timely feedback, treating students respectfully)
    • Students’ commitments to instructor and other students (e.g., attending regularly, being prepared, paying attention and participating, treating others respectfully)
    • Giving and receiving constructive feedback
  • Student success
    • ​​​​​​​What students need to do to be successful
    • Best practices for maximizing learning (e.g., attending TA study sessions, taking good notes)
    • Commitment to helping all students succeed

Sources and Helpful Resources

  • How to Create a Syllabus
    This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is a very comprehensive step by step guide to creating a syllabus that includes detailed suggestions on what to include as well as examples of narratives.
  • ​​​​​​​Creating a Syllabus
    The University of Illinois Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning examines the  syllabus as a contract, a permanent record, and a learning tool and lists information that should be provided for each of these purposes.
  • Writing a Syllabus
    The Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation lists five functions for a syllabus: (a) set the tone for the course, (b) communicates what, when, and how students will learn, (c) clarify for students what they need to do in order to be successful, (d) communicate expectations in terms of student responsibilities, and (e) avoid misunderstandings about course policies.
  • Creating a Syllabus
    The University of Denver Office of Teaching & Learning lists several general guidelines for creating a syllabus based on the premise that a syllabus is a communication tool between the instructor and the students.  Additionally, the process of creating a course syllabus can help the instructor organize the course content and formulate the learning goals of the course.
  • Create a Syllabus
    The MIT Teaching & Learning Lab describes syllabi as having three goals: motivational, structural, and evidentiary. It lists the necessary elements as well as discussing how to communicate inclusive norms.
  • Creating Your Syllabus
    The University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching provides a detailed description of what to include in a syllabus as well as a syllabus checklist.
  • Course Syllabus Template
    Stanford University Center for Teaching and learning provides a very detailed Course Syllabus Template designed to optimize student learning. It gives many examples of ways to (a) make explicit course expectations and logistics, (b) start building an inclusive learning environment, and (c) get students engaged and excited to learn.
  • ​​​​​​​Survey your Syllabus
    Amherst College Center for Teaching and Learning provides a document to help instructors review their syllabi. It includes areas such as (a) learning objectives and content, (b) frame, tone, and format, (c) teaching and learning activities, and (d) assessment.
  • Syllabus Guide
    Dartmouth Center for Advancement of Learning provides a detailed Syllabus Guide that includes examples of policy statements.
  • Constructing a Syllabus: A Checklist
    Washington University in St. Louis Center for Teaching and Learning has a Constructing a Syllabus Checklist that includes a syllabus template.
  • Using a warmer tone in college syllabi makes students more likely to ask for help, OSU study finds
    This is a report on an study conducted at Oregon State University that found that course syllabi written in a warm, friendly tone are more likely to encourage students to reach out when they are struggling or need help than are syllabi written in a more cold, detached tone.