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A well-crafted syllabus is a crucial teaching aid that sets a course’s vision, intention, aims, tone, and expectations at the very beginning.

In a practical sense, a syllabus will usually outline the vital elements of a course, including core topics, scheduling, and assignments. Yet it can also contain much more, which we will cover in this guide.

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What is the purpose of a syllabus?

A syllabus is a document that guides teachers, students, and academic administration — in essence. It is an entire roadmap for the course. It can also be used at every educational level, from early years to college or university.

In essence, a syllabus gives students an overview of a course’s content and what is expected from them. It can also help place the course within the broader context of the program, curriculum, institution, discipline, and even the students’ life goals.

Its basic form can include elements such as a topic outline, schedule, testing, assignments, grading, and required reading. In a sense, you could see it as a form of ‘handshake agreement’ between teacher and class, where a mutual promise is made about what will be delivered by the instructor and what will be expected from the participants. But on a broader and more profound level, a syllabus can also help connect a course’s disparate elements — for instance, learning outcomes, assessment, and pedagogy.

In reflecting on how these elements connect, educators can design a more integrated course where they all come into sync. As a result, this can create a more focused approach from the teacher and a more cohesive experience for the students.

Overall, a syllabus can be practical, pedagogical, and even at times, philosophical (as it can incorporate an educator’s beliefs, ideals, and ethics about education).

In what ways can a syllabus be used?

A syllabus isn’t just one thing — it can serve many purposes. Here are some of its essential functions:

  • A roadmap of a course.
  • A course calendar.
  • A learning tool to guide students on their journey.
  • A permanent record of a course.
  • A guide to assessment, exams, and grading.
  • A guide to rules, regulations, and policies.
  • A contract between teacher and students, and teacher and institution — one that clarifies the expectations on all sides.
  • Protection for the teacher, students, and institution — for instance, in case of a complaint, the syllabus can be referred to for clarity.
  • A syllabus ensures that everyone knows what is planned and also, that everyone agrees with this. It also helps to tie together various considerations, including course learning outcomes, program aims, the demands of the broader curriculum, institutional policies, and legal considerations.

The clearer and more detailed a syllabus are to students, the less likely conflicts or complaints will arise during the course. This is because expectations and requirements are set at the very beginning. That said, a syllabus is only effective in this way if it is read in the first place. So it might be helpful to reflect on how you can encourage students to review the syllabus before commencing the course.

Also, aim to send your syllabus to your supervisors and the administration team before your course begins — and get it signed off in advance. Not only will this allow you to iron out any issues, but it will also ensure that everything is agreed upon before starting. So should a student complain about the course or its content later down the line, you can demonstrate that you got approval for the syllabus before commencement.

What should you consider before creating a syllabus?

Creating a syllabus might be pretty daunting, depending on how much freedom you have in designing your course. If you have a wide range of options and directions that you can take, how do you start?

One useful approach is to ask yourself the following questions before devising your syllabus:

  • Why is this course important? For instance, within the program, discipline, curriculum, institution, or future career paths of the students?
  • What are the key learning outcomes? What do I need my students to know by the end of the course? What skills do I need them to acquire? And how can I deliver these outcomes most efficiently and effectively?
  • What assessment forms would effectively test whether students have achieved the learning outcomes?
  • What is my teaching philosophy — for instance, my views on pedagogy, learning, and education as a whole? Or my views on the ethics of different forms of assessment and grading?

Taking this reflective approach might create better syllabi and, as a result, better courses. That is why it is helpful to see a syllabus as not just a professional document but a personal one. In other words, one that reflects your overall ideals and ethos around teaching and the contribution you want to make to your students’ lives — and even the world.

What should a syllabus include?

There are no fixed rules for what should be in a syllabus, as it all depends on the course, educational level, and institution expectations. That is why it is a good idea to consult with your supervisors or administration department before compiling yours — for instance, if you are new to an institution, there might be a set template they would prefer you to use.

Yet while every syllabus is different, key elements will usually include the following:

  • Course title.
  • Name and title of instructor.
  • Department and faculty.
  • Course dates.
  • Meeting time and place.
  • Credit hours earned.
  • Eligibility prerequisites.
  • Brief course description and overview.
  • Course aims and objectives.
  • Course texts (including any expectations of pre-course preparation or reading).
  • Schedule of topics.
  • Outline of assessments.
  • Assessment dates and deadlines.
  • Assessment procedures, e.g., how to submit assignments and guidelines for referencing sources.
  • Assessment marking standards, e.g., distribution of grades.

Beyond these essentials, here are some other elements that you might want to incorporate:

  • Instructor’s contact details.
  • Teaching assistant’s contact details.
  • Course administrator’s contact details.
  • Instructor’s office hours.
  • Brief bio and list of qualifications of the instructor.
  • Research interests and publications of instructor.
  • Institutional resources for students with additional needs.
  • Summary of teaching and learning methods, e.g., lectures, seminars, workshops.
  • The context of the course within the wider program or discipline.
  • Overview of relevance and importance, of course.
  • Statement of values of the institution and/or instructor.
  • The rationale for the choice of teaching and assessment methodologies.
  • Information on any field trips.
  • Suggestions for additional reading or research materials.
  • Guidance on managing course workload, assessments, etc. This could include advice on group work, time management, and effective study techniques.
  • Class policies, e.g., attendance, lateness, mobile phone use, food and drink in class.
  • Expectations of class behavior, e.g., civil discussion, mutual respect, and equal contributions to group projects.
  • Attendance policy and sanctions for unsatisfactory attendance.
  • Class communications, e.g., how students communicate with you and each other, such as a university platform or app.
  • Priming students in advance if contentious, controversial, or potentially triggering topics might be covered in class.

Of course, not every syllabus must include all of the above elements. It is all about context and your institution’s expectations.

Yet if there is a crucial rule of thumb to syllabus design, it is this — make it as well-thought-out and reflective as possible. Because when you have a clear vision for your syllabus, you have a clear vision for your course. This, in turn, will help you plan your teaching in a more focused and effective way, creating a better learning experience for students.