Syllabus Design

What is it?

The syllabus. It’s the document that every student eagerly awaits at the start of every semester, which ends up causing overwhelming stress about the papers, projects, exams, and readings that lie ahead. It is the first impression new students have of the professor and the course into which they are about to begin.  The syllabus can often be a lot to take in on the first day of class especially when students’ brains are still on winter or summer break.

A well-designed syllabus can help ease the confusion or anxiety students have when starting a new class. Strong syllabi clearly communicate the essential information needed on the first day, without detailed descriptions of every single assignment or project throughout the semester. A strong syllabus also sets the tone for the course, which gives the students an idea of the professor, their teaching style, and expectations for the semester. Altman and Cashin (1992) suggest that the main purpose of a syllabus is beyond just a course outline and calendar, but it should effectively communicate the focus of the course, why the course is being taught, where it is going, and what the requirements of the students are in order for them to complete the course with a passing grade. 

How does it work?

Effective syllabus design begins with a planning process, where the professor has to make a multitude of decisions about the course. How do they want to come off to the students, in regards to their tone (informal vs. formal)? What teaching styles they will utilize? What is a tentative course calendar that can be presented to give the students an idea of what they will be required to do? What policies should be implemented, as far as attendance and participation are concerned? By making these crucial decisions prior to constructing a syllabus, the professor can better judge how to fit all of these pieces together in to an easy to read document. 

In addition to the actual content about the course, it is important to format the syllabus in a way that it is easy for students to navigate and understand. Slattery and Carlson (2005) recommend selecting user-friendly and attractive layouts, headers, and graphics. Kuhlenschmidt (2000) uses commonly asked questions as headers in her syllabi to increase the readability and ease of finding answers (as cited in Slattery and Carlson, 2005). Utilizing different fonts along with bolding, underlining, and highlighting, can help draw students’ attention to important dates, assignments or other critical information (Sinor and Kaplan, 1998). Dean and Fornaciari (2013) suggest breaking up long paragraphs with bullet points, color coding different sections based on content, and leaving open spaces to give the reader’s eye a break. Putting the most important information about the course at the beginning, or close to the beginning, helps ensure that students will read and know these points. Using short and sweet bits of information or bullet points allow students to get the point without all the added fluff, which potentially could inhibit what they comprehend or remember. 

Who is doing it?

Professors all over the world are revamping their syllabi yearly, or even after each semester, in order to keep up with the constant changes in technology and information about their course. Professors will often implement new practices or try something out of the ordinary for a semester to see how the students respond, and to find out if they found it helpful or not. Depending on the result, that practice may have to be omitted from next semester’s syllabi, or it might be permanently added or increased. 

A good way to judge what needs revisited or changed on a syllabus is to ask for feedback from students towards the end of the semester. What did they find helpful? What was not helpful or confusing? Did the grading system and weights of assignments seem fair or unfair? Was there too much reading or not enough? What changes would students like to see, as if they were to take this course again? By receiving feedback from actual students and knowing what works and what does not, professors can feel more confident in their ability to effectively prepare future students for their course. 

Why is it significant?

In Designing a Great Syllabus (1994), Matejka and Kurke identify four specific purposes of a great syllabus: a contract, a communication device, a plan, and a cognitive map.

As a contract, a syllabus serves as an agreement between the professor and the students enrolled in the course. It identifies the expectations of the students, and also the professor. Some professors find it helpful to actually attach a physical contract to the last page for students to sign, verifying their understanding of what is required or expected of them.

A syllabus can serve as a way to communicate any thoughts from the professor to the students, in order to avoid repeating the same information multiple different times aloud, or responding to seemingly hundreds of emails regarding the same thing. A syllabus can also serve as a way to answer anticipated questions before they arise. These possible questions can come from students from previous semesters, or from points the professor finds especially significant.

The overall action plan for a course is outlined in the syllabus. It contains the course mission, or why the course is significant, course goals, a strategy for achieving the mission, and beliefs, values, and attitudes about the course subject. By having a plan in place, students have a better idea of what they need to do to succeed.

Using the syllabus as a cognitive map allows students to gauge how the semester is going to go, as far as the work load, requirements, and the personality of the professor. Knowing these things at the very start of the semester enables students to get a head start at making a tentative schedule to outline what is due when, and where to focus their time, potentially easing their stress. Students will be confident in knowing what resources they have access to and how to do well in the course. 

What are the downsides?

Constantly having to go back to a syllabus and review every detail can be time consuming for some professors. Especially when a new semester is fast approaching, there are a million other things on every professor’s mind, other than the syllabus. Professors who have been teaching for years can get comfortable with their teaching methods and not want to change anything, or maybe they do not feel comfortable with advancing technology so they do not look into new options. There are even times where professors assume they are going to run a course the exact same way as each year prior, do not update the syllabus and find out from a student or colleague that a policy or book has been changed or updated.

Taking the time and effort to review and make changes to syllabi after every semester is highly recommended. The time is takes to make a few changes could have so much impact on students’ learning and success. 

Where is it going?

With ever changing technology, professors constantly have to stay current with whatever tools or programs are being released or modified. The syllabus is no different, and with changes in technology come changes in how students learn or retain information.  Dean and Fornaciari (2013) discuss how today’s students live in a world that is “fragmented,” resulting in short attention spans.   These students often respond poorly to complicated, long documents. One solution is to chunk information into smaller sections or to create completely separate documents for each assignment, policy, or other topics covered on the syllabus. This allows students to easily read and comprehend what they need to know. Creating separate documents can also allow for easier accessibility when they are looking for a specific date or description. 

Some students prefer to have everything electronic, and do not want to be bothered with physical paper copies of things floating around everywhere. From laptops, to tablets, to cell phones, students are very comfortable with seeing everything through a screen, so professors should take this into consideration when designing their syllabi. While it might be more work up front for professors to ensure their syllabi are formatted correctly to be accessible on all types of technology, this will allow more students to access the document in their own unique preference, increasing the chances they will continue to refer to it all semester long. 

In his blog post It’s in the Syllabus,Dr. Oliver Dreon outlines ways for professors to “teach their syllabi”, in attempts to avoid the oh-so-common phrase in which the blog is titled. Dreon suggests screencasting syllabi, in attempt to avoid spending the entire class period reviewing the lengthy syllabus. Instead, students can access a recording of the professor introducing the course and describing specific topics normally covered on the syllabus. These videos can be available 24/7 for students to access at their convenience, and breaking them up into smaller chunks allows students to refer back to only the topic(s) that they need, whether it is regarding a research assignment or the attendance or grading policy.

Another suggestion Dreon mentioned was to post videos about the syllabus and have students watch them prior to the first class meeting. During class, students would be presented with real-life scenarios and they would then have to apply their knowledge of the syllabus to find a solution or answer to the scenario. This gets the students’ brains back into school mode and enables them to be actively engaging with one another that first day. A second way to get students engaging with one another on the first day of class is to break the class up into small groups, assign each group a section of the syllabus, and have them thoroughly examine their assigned section. After some time, the class comes back together and each group presents their findings about the syllabus to the rest of the class. 

Lastly, Dreon suggests giving students a short quiz consisting of true/false and short answer questions to assess how well they know the content covered on the syllabus. A study published by Raymark and Connor-Greene (2002) from Clemson University found that students were more motivated to read and understand the syllabus if they knew they were going to be tested on its content (Dreon, 2015).

What are the implications for teaching and learning?

By creating a stronger, more effective syllabus, a professor is better able to clearly communicate the requirements and expectations to the new students. The students are better able to understand what is required of them, what to do if they have questions or concerns, and how to do well in that particular course.

Blinne (2013) lets students have more control over her syllabi, so that it becomes more of learning process for both her and her students. Her students are co-developers of the curriculum, therefore allowing them to be responsible for their learning and negotiate preconceived ideas Blinne came up with on her own. Syllabi are often created by the professors, and consist of their interests, goals, and expectations, but Blinne creates her classes “with learners, not for them”. 

Allowing students to negotiate certain details or give feedback gives the professor a chance to learn how they can better educate their future students. They can give the students a voice, which they might not have had before, and a sense of responsibility over their education. 

Want to learn more?

It's in the syllabus. 
Dr. Oliver Dreon, Associate Professor & Director for the Center for Academic Excellence

Resources for refining your syllabus
Dr. Oliver Dreon, Associate Professor & Director for the Center of Academic Excellence

Syllabus Design Resources 
CAE Reference Library

References

Altman, H., & Cashin, W. (1992, September). Center for Faculty Evaluation & Development [IDEA
          PAPER No. 27: Writing a Syllabus]. Kansas State University, Manhattan.

Blinne, K. C. (2013). Start With the Syllabus: HELPing Learners Learn Through Class Content
          Collaboration. College Teaching, 61(2), 41-43.

Dean, K. L., & Fornaciari, C. J. (2014). The 21st-Century Syllabus: Tips for Putting Andragogy Into
          Practice. Journal of Management Education, 38, 724-732. Retrieved February 2, 2016.

Dreon, O. (2015, August 18). It's in the Syllabus [Web log post]. Retrieved February 2, 2016, from
          https://the8blog.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/its-in-the-syllabus/

Matejka, K., & Kurke, L. B. (1994). Designing a Great Syllabus. College Teaching, 42(3), 115.

Sinor, J., & Kaplan, M. (1998). Creating Your Syllabus. Retrieved February 04, 2016, from
          http://www.crlt.umich.edu/gsis/p2_1

Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005) Preparing an Effective Syllabus. College Teaching, 53(4),
          159-164.