Putting Together a Syllabus

Putting Together a Syllabus

This is fourth in a series of blog posts from the Course Design Institute (CDI), a 4-day workshop for faculty on how to design and teach a course from the ground up. In Part 3, I discussed how rubrics improve the quality of assignments and feedback.

Another discussion from the CDI was how to create a syllabus with your students in mind.

During the Course Design Institute, we learned about “backward course design,” starting with the desired outcomes and objectives for the course and working back from there to choose topics and create exercises that lead to these goals.

In this paradigm ­ which isn’t really “backwards” at all ­ the course syllabus is not the starting point, but rather a final product.  It’s the student­facing document that summarizes the goals and aims of the course, as well as the logistics.  It’s usually the first document that students will see from your course ­ often even before they walk into your classroom ­ and so it plays an important role in setting the tone for the quarter.  A well­crafted syllabus will welcome intellectual curiosity, make them feel comfortable, and guide them through the quarter.

To that end, consider what you want your students to hear and think as they read your syllabus.  Does it get them excited about the course content and what they will be able to do when they complete it, or does it merely inform them about how their final grade will be calculated?  Does the schedule and topic list make the content feel accessible and interesting, or is it just a pile of jargon that might make sense by the end of the quarter?  While it’s very easy to structure your syllabus as if it were an outline for another professor, remember that its primary readers are the students who have just entered your classroom for the first time – many of whom are probably still course shopping.  When they first pick up your syllabus, they know very little about your course or its subject matter, and thus, it should meet them at that level.

As such, your syllabus ought to begin with a brief introduction and the learning objectives for the course.  You also need some basic nuts-and-bolts: details on the textbook or readings, your contact information and office hours, information about units and grading, the Office of Accessible Education’s syllabus statement, and a description of the Honor Code.

Beyond this, there are dozens of things you might include, such as the following.

  • Prerequisite courses or specific skills students need to succeed in the course
  • A detailed schedule of readings
  • Release dates and due dates for assignments
  • Information about course projects
  • Directions to the lab or studio space
  • Information about online resources or discussion forums

A practical way to start improving your syllabus is to look at what others have done.  You can view hundreds of syllabi from past Stanford courses at syllabus.stanford.edu.  Browse through some from your own discipline, perhaps from similar courses, and review others from entirely different disciplines.  Note which ones draw you in, which ones have special qualities you’d like to emulate, as well as those that are less desirable.

A syllabus, like your course itself, is not static.  It will evolve from year to year, or maybe even during the quarter. While it might not be perfect on your first attempt (or even your second or third), ensuring that each iteration is crafted with your students in mind will help drive you towards its improvement.