How to write a strong syllabus

There are two main purposes for a syllabus. The first purpose is to guide students and the teacher through the course. The syllabus should show what the course is about, what things will happen, when things will happen, and how to succeed. This first purpose focuses on the future. The second purpose of a syllabus is to be a contract:  attendance policy, determining grades, penalty for late work. This second purpose usually focuses on the past because the syllabus is often looked at when there is a dispute after grades are distributed.

Writing a syllabus for the first time is a challenge. Where to start? Start at the top of the page and work down one line at a time.

Writing a syllabus for the first time is a challenge. Where to start? Start at the top of the page and work down one line at a time.

There are four short questions that will help you write a good syllabus.

The first question is “Why?”  Start off the syllabus by showing the reader why your course matters. Keep this to one or two sentences.
Example:  Everyone in the ad business needs to know how to think strategically, how to think creatively, and how to write wonderfully. It all starts in this course called Story (MASC-201).

Next, focus on the “What?” Specify what you want students to learn (these are called “learning objectives”). Try to have three (or less) learning objectives because they will keep you and the students focused on what’s important. Write them to show the things that you hope students will learn (not what you will teach). A good way to write them is to say, “I hope you will learn… (and continue the list).” Be specific. These are the broad strokes of your course.
Example 1:  The primary goal for this course is for you to learn to engage consumers through writing. The hope is that you will learn to inspire people to change their opinions (and their behavior!) while following the strategic direction of the brand.
Example 2:  In this course we hope: 1) You learn more about your creativity. 2) You learn how to generate ideas. 3) You learn how to evaluate ideas. 4) You learn to present your ideas in multiple media.
Example 3: In this course we hope you gain a working knowledge of InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator. The secondary goal is for you to learn the basics of layout design.

The third question is “How?” Start flushing out the learning objectives. Describe how students will learn the things specified in the learning objectives. This can be in a narrative or just a list of bullets. Things to include:
– Books, movies, online videos, and other resources.
– Projects, papers, and other assignments.
– The number of tests and quizzes.
Someone once said, “There is no learning when there is no assessment.” So, in this section describe how the grades will be determined. Include information on these three aspects:
1) Indicate the value of each assignment or test toward the final grade (Example: “Each test accounts for 20% of your final grade.”).
2) Describe how work will be judged. Describe what A-level work is like (“Exceptional”), what B-level work is like (“Real good”), and C-level work (“Average”)… and so on.
3) Include your grading scale. I use a ten-point scale for simplicity (100-90 is an A, 89-80 is a B, and so on).

The last question is “When?” In this section, show the schedule for the class. Indicate the topics covered in each class. Highlight the test days and the due dates for projects. To help students determine if they are on the right pace, breakdown large assignments into smaller stages. Example:  If the first test is on the first half of a book, give weekly reading assignments of a chapter or so.

What’s left to do? By answering these four questions, you’ll have the basic structure for a good syllabus. To make a great syllabus, follow these tips:

–  Inspire and engage. After reading the syllabus, students should feel inspired to want to take your class and want to learn. Pique their interest. Show your passion for the subject. Make your syllabus engaging.
–  Don’t say “don’t” (or “no” or “never”) too much. Try to spin things around to the positive side (or at least to the non-negative side). Focus on what everyone should do (instead of focusing on what everyone should not do).  Example 1:  “No hats in class” could be written as “To promote blood flow to your brain, please remove your hats before class.” Example 2:  This is positive: “Meet all deadlines and you’ll earn a 5% bonus at the end of the semester.” This is negative: “Do not miss deadlines; late work will suffer from a 25% penalty.”
–  Will you take attendance? It is up to you. You might believe that students are paying for the right to take the class or to skip it. So you aren’t going to require students to attend the class. Or, you might believe that your mission is to help people learn, and people learn more when they come to class. So you will take roll and include attendance as part of the course grade. It is up to you. If attendance will be graded, make it clear. Is there a penalty for coming late to class? Every day?
–  Can you measure participation? We want students to participate in the classroom. I find it hard to accurately assess class participation. Consider these two examples:  Student 1)  Mildred participates by coming to every class fully prepared, being a strong teammate, turning in great work, and keeping up with all work. She is a quiet, contemplative student who doesn’t voluntarily share lots of thoughts in class. Mildred doesn’t smile very often because she is self-conscious about her missing front tooth. But she is a great writer and thinker. In many ways, her class participation grade might be a 50%.  Student 2) Brittany participates by always sharing her thoughts in class (even when her ideas aren’t fully baked). She can be counted on to share a funny story. Her wonderful mojo wakes up the class. She makes class interesting. Brittany often flashes her bright eyes and gleaming smile. But, she is a below-average writer and thinker, and a mediocre partner. In many ways, her class participation grade might be a 100%.
–  Tell your career stories. Students will enjoy learning about your day-to-day professional life, your learning experiences, your passions, and your avocations. Tell about the career journey you took. How did you get your first job and your first promotion? Tell the story of when you were fired.
–  Give advice for succeeding in the course. Most courses aren’t only about showing up for class and turning in the assigned work. What little things will add up to make a difference?
–  More about the work. How should work be turned in (typed, mounted, bound, hard copies or email submissions)? What about late work? What about extra credit?
– Write the syllabus in a way that shows you respect students. Talk with them instead of talking down to them.
–  Set high standards. Inspire students to reach past their potential, and you will be impressed. It’s easy to reduce the rigor in mid-semester if it was initially set too high. It’s hard to turn a cakewalk into a rich learning experience.
–  Inspire. I like this quote, “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud” (Alex Osborn). I strive to be rigorous and inspiring.
–  Phone a friend:  Please let me know how I can help you with the syllabus and with the rest of the course. Post your questions in the comments section (below), and I’ll get back with you.

That’s it. Four short questions plus some other things to consider. Keep it simple. Focus on what you want students to learn.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”  (William Arthur Ward)