What this handout is about
This handout will help you write a syllabus, a document that describes the goals, policies, assignments, and materials that form a course. Here you can learn about elements commonly included on syllabi as well as a process for composing these documents.
But first: is it “syllabi” or “syllabuses”?
Many people are unsure about the correct plural form of “syllabus.” This handout will refer to “syllabus” in the plural as “syllabi” for the sake of consistency, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary “syllabuses” and “syllabi” are both accepted plural forms of the word.
Before you start writing the syllabus
Syllabi are arguably the most important documents for courses at the university level: a syllabus serves as a contract between the instructor and the students that establishes the expectations and trajectory of a course. Each syllabus that you create serves as evidence of your teaching philosophy and helps you communicate with current and future students and with colleagues in your field. As you write your syllabus, it can help to think about the larger pedagogical goals and context surrounding the course you will be teaching.
Identify the key elements of your course
First, before developing the goals and objectives, identify key elements of your course by asking yourself the following questions:
What kind of course am I going to be teaching? The goals and objectives for a 300-level class with a special focus on American Literature to 1865 will be quite different from a 100-level survey course on American literature from its beginnings to the present day. It can be helpful to read the catalog description of your course since that is what your future students will likely have read before enrolling.
Where can I find examples of syllabi for this course? Check with colleagues who have taught the course, and ask if you might look at their syllabi and talk with them about their experience teaching the course. You can also ask department administrators for examples of past syllabi (most departments keep records of syllabi developed for each course). Looking up syllabi for similar courses at other universities can also provide helpful inspiration.
What do my students know about the subject matter I’ll be teaching? Think about what your students may already know and what they do not know as you begin to plan your course. You can ask yourself the following questions:
- Are there any prerequisite courses that students need to take before taking this course? If so, how should this course build upon the knowledge my students already have?
- If I were a student about to take this course, what would I hope to learn about it on the first day of class?
- If you’ve taught this class before, ask yourself: What kind of student feedback have I received? Are there any changes I should consider making based on this feedback?
Develop the goals and objectives.
While it’s common to think of goals and objectives as synonymous, in this context you will want to differentiate between the two. While goals are more general and about what the class as a whole is intended to accomplish, objectives are key demonstrable actions that lead to the fulfillment of the larger goals for the course. In order to develop these key points, ask yourself the following questions:
What is the goal of the course? It can help to identify the larger goal for the course because this will inform your approach to crafting a unique syllabus. Aim for a goal that is clear and succinct.
What are specific objectives that students should meet by the end of the class, and how do those relate to the larger goal(s)? In addition to identifying key goals, think about what kinds of skills you want your students to be able to demonstrate by the end of the course. Do these objectives align with the goals you have set for the course? Try to use clear, strong verb choices that correlate with certain kinds of critical thinking skills. Bloom’s Taxonomy can be especially helpful to keep in mind as you connect key objectives and how students will demonstrate those objectives. (Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching has a helpful resource that explains this taxonomy, available here: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/.) Do you want students to focus on remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, or creating? How will you assess the extent to which a student has reached an objective? For example, if a goal of the course is to understand the concept of natural selection, then you might state that students will be expected to explain the process of natural selection.
How will I organize my class in such a way that my students will demonstrate these key objectives, and how will I evaluate them? When developing your goals and objectives, think about how you will be able to design your class so that these are feasibly attained. Using the model of backward design can be helpful here as you move from the larger goals and objectives to the assignments and lessons of the class. (Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching has a helpful resource that further describes this process: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/understanding-by-design/.) If you realize that some of your goals and objectives may not be feasible in the given time or context, revise your list.
What readings and assignments will help my students reach those goals? Before you sit down to write the syllabus, it’s important to have a sense of the kinds of readings and assignments that will be important for the course, and why. When thinking about the readings you may want to assign, you might consider the following: length; level of difficulty/accessibility; how your students will engage with them; relevancy to the course goals; and availability and cost. When thinking about the assignments for your course, some elements to consider include: how they will engage students with course content; how they will give students the chance to demonstrate objectives set for the course; time required to complete; opportunities for feedback; time required to grade; appropriateness for students at that education level; and any specialized knowledge required to complete.
Reflect on your teaching philosophy
While many of us are familiar with teaching philosophy statements and put time and effort into these documents, it can sometimes be forgotten that, aside from observations and student evaluations, syllabi constitute the clearest evidence of your approach to teaching. Ask yourself the following questions:
What do I say about myself in my teaching philosophy statement? If you have a teaching statement, revisit this document and identify key points of your teaching philosophy. Reflect on these points, and think about whether you might want to change any of them. If you have not yet written a teaching statement, you might consider finding some example statements and trying to write your own.
Have I designed syllabi in the past with the same teaching philosophy? What worked well, what didn’t work so well, and why? Before sitting down to develop a syllabus for a course—whether it’s a course you’ve taught many times before or a course you have never taught—it can be helpful to look back on past syllabi that you have created and think about what worked well and what didn’t work so well. Consider how these syllabi were consistent with, or were not consistent with, your teaching philosophy.
Why do I follow the pedagogical approach that I do, and how can I make sure that’s evident in my syllabus design? As you reflect on this question, you might try brainstorming some ideas before you sit down to write the syllabus.
Writing the syllabus
Now that you’ve addressed the questions above, you’re ready to sit down and start writing your syllabus!
Include the key elements
UNC’s Office of Undergraduate Curricula provides some helpful guidelines for key information to include on your syllabus, and the Faculty Resolution describes the essential components that every syllabus should have at UNC. Depending on the class, individual syllabi may follow different structures. The final order of information in a syllabus is subject to change depending on the class and the instructor; however, as you’re deciding on the order of information, you want to keep your students in mind and think about how you want them to be introduced to the course. Regardless of the structure you choose, generally all syllabi contain the following elements:
Basic course information. This includes the course name, number, and section number, and when and where the course meets.
Your name, your contact information, and your office location and office hours. It can be helpful to highlight how students should address you here as well.
Course description, goals, and objectives. This is the space where you introduce students to what this course is all about and what your students are expected to get out of the course. It can be helpful to separate the larger overall goals from the demonstrable objectives that students should meet by the end of the class.
Course materials and resources. Describe what materials and resources (hard copy or digital) students will need for the class and how they can access these materials; if there are optional materials and resources for the class, you should also include them in this section and make sure they are clearly labeled as such.
Course policies. This is the space where you detail different key policies as they pertain specifically to your course. These policies may include:
- Attendance policies (tardiness, absences, doctor’s notes, extenuating circumstances)
- Policies on missed or late assignments, tests, exams, quizzes, papers/essays, projects
- Policies on use of technological devices in class
- Evaluation and grading criteria
- Assignment grading breakdown
- Communication policies for the course (for example, a time-frame for responding to student emails)
When deciding on your policy towards student use of technology in class, consider why you are implementing that policy and the extent to which it will ultimately help your students. It can be helpful to plan your class as fully as possible and to then make decisions about your approach to student use of technology, since your approach will follow from the larger goals and objectives of the class. If you do decide to incorporate technology use in your course, it’s important to consider how technology can function differently for different students in the same class, particularly students with learning differences, and to invite students to talk with you about your technological policies.
University policies. Every university has slightly different policies. Include statements of all relevant policies as they pertain to your class. The most common policy areas include:
- The Honor Code and academic integrity
- Accessibility, documented disabilities, and accommodations
- Non-discrimination policies and Title IX
If there are other policies at your university that should be included, include those in this section.
Course assignments and calendar. While some instructors may choose to include a very detailed course calendar and schedule of assignments on their syllabus, others may choose to provide a minimalist calendar on the syllabus with more details elsewhere. Regardless of which option you choose, students should have a sense of what will happen in your course week-by-week, and they should know what the assignments are for the class and how they are weighted.
Evaluation/grading scale and method. Students must know how they will be evaluated in your course and how much each component/assignment of the class will be weighted. If participation is a part of the students’ grades, they should have a clear sense of what good participation looks like and how their participation will be graded.
Changes to syllabus. Since events can happen that require modifications to a course, it’s a good idea to include a statement that notes how you reserve the right to make changes to the syllabus if needed and that you will communicate such changes in advance.
Optional elements for syllabi. While the above elements are generally included in most syllabi, there are other elements that instructors may choose to include or not, depending on their course.
Tips and advice for succeeding in the course. This is a helpful section to include if you feel that it might further reinforce the expectations you have set for the class in the course description section; it can also be helpful to include this information if students are likely to have not had any prior experience with the subject matter of your course.
Learning resources on campus. Oftentimes students are not aware of the different learning resources on their campus. If you feel that certain campus learning resources might be particularly useful for your students, list them on your syllabus and encourage your students to use them. Examples of these resources are your institution’s library system and writing and learning centers.
Student wellness resources on campus. As with learning resources on campus, oftentimes students are not aware of resources on campus that can help them with challenges they’re facing in their personal lives (which can ultimately affect their performance in their coursework). Including information about mental health resources, for example, can be greatly helpful to students who may not know about such resources and who are struggling.
Teaching philosophy. Some teachers may describe their teaching philosophy in a separate section on their syllabus. Ideally, your teaching philosophy and your syllabus will inform one another and be consistent with each other, but you also have the option of telling your students explicitly about your philosophy in cases where it may help them understand your approach to a course.
Revising the syllabus
Once you’ve completed a full draft of your syllabus, give yourself enough time to receive and incorporate feedback from colleagues and revise it after the initial draft. Here are some suggestions for the revision process:
Get others’ perspectives
It can be very helpful to get an outside perspective on your syllabus from others who are also working on their own syllabi and/or who have written syllabi in the past. Returning the favor by providing feedback on your peers’ syllabi-in-progress can also help you approach your own syllabus with a fresh perspective.
Don’t overlook opportunities to get feedback from people who are not working on writing their own syllabus, such as a friend, family member, or coaches at the Writing Center. Regardless of whom you approach for feedback, it can be helpful to provide your reader with your specific concerns and questions that you may have for them. Our handout on getting feedback lists some suggestions for getting helpful feedback from others.
Imagine yourself as the student
Imagining that you are one of the students who will be taking your course can help you identify elements that perhaps need more clarification or are missing information. Remember that the students who have enrolled in your class do not know, aside from any general course catalog information provided, what to expect out of your course until they read your syllabus! Try creating a list of questions that students might have either before or after reading your draft and then seeing how you might answer those questions in your revisions.
Try a new revision strategy
Sometimes a new revision strategy can help you see your writing from a different perspective, which can be especially useful for a document like a syllabus, since you have your own internal vision of what your course will look like (and which may, perhaps, not be fully communicated on the page to your students!). There are many different kinds of revision strategies, but reverse outlining, reading aloud, and even webbing or drawing out how all of the different components work together are useful strategies that can help you see your syllabus through a new lens.
Go through the list
When revising your syllabus, it can be helpful to address certain key questions to ensure that your syllabus is as clear and effective as possible and that it follows clearly from your own approach to teaching. Here’s a helpful list:
- Have I included all of the necessary elements stipulated by my university and/or department?
- Do I clearly state the objectives and goals of the course?
- Is my syllabus feasible in its scope and expectations?
- Do I establish my overall expectations clearly?
- Is my assessment method clear to my students?
- Do I provide helpful resources for my students?
- Do my students know what kinds of assignments will be expected of them, and when?
Once you’ve finished the syllabus
Congratulations on finishing this important document! Once you’ve written your syllabus and taught the class, you should reflect on how well it worked, and any changes or revisions you might make should you teach the same course again. It can also be helpful to transfer these reflections to any other courses you might teach and to use your experience with a syllabus as a learning opportunity for yourself as an instructor.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Armstrong, Patricia. 2020. “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Center for Teaching. Vanderbilt University. Accessed November 1, 2020. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/.
Bowen, Ryan S. 2017. “Understanding by Design.” Center for Teaching. Vanderbilt University. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/understanding-by-design/.
Stanford University. “Creating a Syllabus.” Stanford Teaching Commons, https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/resources/course-preparation-resources/creating-syllabus. Accessed 9 July 2009.
Harvard University. n.d. “Designing Your Course.” The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Accessed 1 July 2019. https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/designing-your-course.
Harvard University. n.d. “On Learning Goals and Objectives.” The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Accessed 1 July 2019.
Reynolds, Heather L., and Katherine Dowell Kearns. 2016. “A Planning Tool for Incorporating Backward Design, Active Learning, and Authentic Assessment in the College Classroom.” College Teaching 65 (1): 17–27. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2016.1222575.
Stowell, Jeffrey R., et al. 2018. “Effects of Classroom Technology Policies on Students’ Perceptions of Instructors: What Is Your Syllabus Saying about You?” College Teaching 66 (2): 98–103. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2018.1437533.
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