Oz Behind the Curtain, Part 4: The Syllabus

By February 5, 2012

Here’s the premise of this post: a syllabus should be more than a boring, text-laden legal contract. If you let it, it can also be 1) a thing of beauty, and 2) a tool to think with about your teaching and your students’ learning.

At this point I hope you can see why this post comes late in my series about course and syllabus design (you can read part 1, part 2 and part 3 plus a part 3a if you care about the nitty-gritty of governance and assessment). Actually putting the stuff into a document necessitates having stuff to put, and all the course planning should happen long before you decide what font to use and what color paper to print it on.

First, let’s establish what a syllabus needs to contain, at a bare minimum. Your college/university might have a template (heaven forbid) or a list of required elements or text that must be included. In the absence of centralized control of this kind (although, unfortunately, it’s becoming common), here’s a list of things to put on a course syllabus.

Must Have

  • Basic identifying information for the course including number/name, section number, meeting times and location, and Gen Ed or departmental requirements it fulfills.
  • The semester and the name of the institution (I’m amazed at how many syllabi posted online lack one or the other of these things).
  • Basic identifying information for the instructor including contact info and office hours.
  • Course description and/or student learning outcomes. I.e. what this course is about and what you’ll learn if you take it.
  • Required textbooks (and include the ISBN numbers. It is now mandated by federal law to give this information to students if your college/university is receiving federal student aid. Plus, it aids the go-getter students who want to order their own from online booksellers and you want to make sure they get the right edition).
  • Course requirements, including how grades will be determined, dates of exams and assignment deadlines.
  • Course assignments, in at least nominal detail, or say that more detailed guidelines will follow.

Could Have, or Might Need to Have

  • A detailed breakdown, day by day, of topics and readings
  • Guidelines about how to turn things in, and your policy on late submissions or missed work
  • Legal language about disability accommodations
  • Legal language about academic honesty and plagiarism consequences
  • Strategies or advice for course success
  • Campus resources for help: tutoring, study sessions, library reference help, Writing Center, or whatever is applicable to your class
  • Your course policies on attendance, food in class, etiquette or civility, technology use in class, or anything else you care about a lot

It cannot have escaped your notice that if you add this all up and include everything on both lists, the document could easily run 8-10 pages — maybe even more. Yikes. I assure you, this doesn’t escape students’ notice either, although it remains a common complain among faculty that students don’t read the darn thing. In my view, there are some things we can do as professors to make our syllabi less turgid, dull, and lifeless.

1) Subject it to peer review

…preferably to a peer with a commanding grasp of the English language, who will catch your typos, muddy spots, and indecipherable jargon. Another pair of eyes is helpful: Am I making sense? Do all my grade percentages add up to 100%? Do I sound too punative or didactic?

2) Make it look nice

Yes, appearance matters. Students will notice not only your typos but if it looks like it’s been xeroxed crooked off something printed on a dot-matrix printer 11 years ago, it will signal that the professor doesn’t care about looking polished or up to date. It doesn’t have to be professionally designed, but it should look like you know your way around a word processing program or a newsletter template. Don’t feel locked in to portrait format or text-only. A syllabus could be in landscape format, or a trifold brochure, or legal-sized folded in half like a menu. Tables, sidebars, charts, even images can help organize information in helpful and visually appealing ways. On the other extreme, don’t adorn it with pointless clip art or strange fonts. And if a hyperlink is longer than a full line, use a URL shortener to make it look nicer or add a QR code if you know your students use smartphones.

3) Provide it in multiple formats

You may choose (or be required) to provide students one plain-text hard copy document on the first day of class. But that needn’t be all. At the very least, post it as a PDF somewhere for students to download to their own computers or mobile devices. You could parse the document into smaller pieces and put those elements of your syllabus on the web as webpages, on Google site, or in a series of nested Blackboard folders. If your campus uses Google tools, create a Google calendar for your course’s meetings and deadlines, and your students can subscribe to it. Personally, I like to create a second, prettier version of the syllabus, using one of the many standard newsletter templates in Pages for Mac, and then save it as a PDF that looks nicer on a screen. It would be prohibitively expensive to print a 6-page full color document that looks like a magazine, but it costs nothing to distribute it as a PDF.

I also really like Flipsnack, which publishes any PDF as a online “flipbook,” complete with page-turning sounds if you so desire. I appreciate the way they display on a computer monitor (although very cumbersome to use on a mobile device). Here are a couple of examples of my current syllabi that started as plain-jane text and ended up published as Pages-for-Mac PDFs on Flipsnack: Citizen Nation, The US Since 1945, US History II. They look stunning but are not that hard to do.

In a future post, I’ll be talking about some of the other behind-the-scenes infrastructure that I set up for each of my courses, including record-keeping spreadsheets, my folder organization system, and WordPress course sites. I’ll say something about Blackboard also, because it’s the default course management system on my campus, but don’t expect me to say anything nice.

4) Give students some choices

I think it’s wise not to plan every minute of a course ahead of time. I like to leave some openings in the syllabus: student presentations scattered throughout the term, topics or readings TBA, or open-ended “workshop” days that are a chance for some just-in-time instruction on whatever students need practice with when we get to that date. In my survey class (US History II Since 1877, every semester, regular as clockwork), I’ve taken this so far that the syllabus my students get on day 1 is really skeletal. I will have split the course into 5 or 6 units, each containing a workshop, a writing assignment and an exam. But that’s all. Within the first week, the class votes on the main topics for each of the units (I give them 3-5 choices per unit), and then in a mad scramble over that next weekend, I fill in the syllabus.

This works because I really do have that many things I’d be willing and ready to teach on in greater depth. Whether this really creates better buy-in to the class, I can’t say for sure. But I like leaving some blanks to be filled in later because I believe it sends an important dual message: first, what I, the professor, have to say is not all there is to know, and second, I am willing to emphasize or explore what students are curious about. Together we make a far more interesting class than I would have dreamed up on my own.

And lastly,

5) Show, don’t tell, your teaching philosophy

No student cares about reading your teaching philosophy. But your tenure committee will, and your approach should be evident in your syllabi. The time and effort you spend on making syllabi well-organized, clear, and centered on your students’ learning is not wasted. It’s part of your ongoing development as an educator. Since you have to make one of these for every class, every semester, you may as well become more conscious about it, and use it for active recurring reflection on your pedagogy. Not to mention, making the world a more beautiful place, one syllabus at a time.

Further Reading:

Mano Singham, “Death to the Syllabus!Liberal Education 93(4)

Jason B. Jones, “Creative Approaches to the Syllabus,” Profhacker 26 August 2011 (disclosure: mine is one of the featured syllabi)

Brian Miller, “Syllabus Bloat,” Legally Sociable 4 Sept 2011

Thomas Bertonneau, “The Amazing Colossal Syllabus,” Pope Center for Higher Education Policy 31 Aug 2011

Maria Anderson, “Does Syllabus = Document in the Online World?Teaching College Math 20 August 2007

Tona Hangen, “Extreme Syllabus Makeover” on my blog 3 January 2011 [where this is cross-posted]

Article filed under Pedagogy


  1. Thanks, Tona. This series is invaluable, especially for some many of JI’s bloggers and readers, who are either just beginning to teach or preparing to do so for the first time. I’m impressed at the amount of effort you put into things as simple as the syllabus.

    Comment by Christopher — February 6, 2012 @ 8:46 am

  2. Love, love, love this post. Lots of great advice here that I hope to use. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, now that I’m outlining my syllabuses for summer term.

    Comment by Ben P — February 6, 2012 @ 9:38 am

  3. I love this idea: “making the world a more beautiful place, one syllabus at a time.”

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 6, 2012 @ 10:56 pm


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