Guest Contributor Jennifer Hurd, Ed. D.

Your syllabus represents your plan for the term, and communicates your expectations to your students. But what, precisely, should that syllabus include? Here, Jennifer Hurd shares her thoughts on the essential elements of a thoughtfully crafted, useful syllabus.

Do you have suggested strategies for crafting an effective syllabus? Please share them in the Comments section below!

Instructors teaching in higher education institutions are expected to provide a syllabus for each course being taught. Some departments have a template syllabus for faculty to use, but many are on their own. The syllabus is like a contract between the instructor and the student. It is also sometimes used by the registrar to determine if a transfer course can be considered an equivalent to the course being taught at the new school. When considering these two important purposes of the syllabus, there are certain items that need to be included.

Let’s begin with the essential information for the syllabus. Remember we are considering the syllabus to be a contract between the instructor and the student. Essential parts of a syllabus should include:

  • Title of the course/course number
  • Location/time of the course
  • Name of the instructor/Office location/Office hours/Office phone/School e-mail
  • Required text/materials
  • Catalog description of course/perquisites (if any)
  • Course objectives/learning outcomes
  • Attendance policy
  • Late work policy
  • Students with disability statement
  • Grading scale
  • Assignments with points possible or % grade weight
  • Calendar of assignments with due dates
  • Message from instructor
  • Disclaimer stating that this is a plan for the semester that might change as class needs develop

This is a list of elements that should be in every syllabus. Depending on the discipline, there may be other items that should be included. For example, if the course is an English composition course or if the course has a writing requirement there should be a statement about plagiarism and the consequences of plagiarism. If this is an online course, the minimum number of discussion post and responses per student per week needs to be stated in the syllabus. Each week’s assignments may be part of a calendar listed by weeks.

Now let’s look at a few of the required syllabus elements more closely. The course description and prerequisites should be quoted from the school catalog. Remember this syllabus is like a contract with the student concerning what they will be expected to learn in the course. The catalog is also much like a contract between the school and the student. Each freshman class enters under a catalog for that year. Students should keep a copy of a catalog from their freshman class. If changes are made in the graduation requirements of a program while the student is enrolled continuously, the student will be held to the requirements of the catalog of the year first enrolled.

The course objectives and/or learning outcomes should be measurable. These measurable objectives will become the basis of the assessment plan for the course. Often times the objectives and/or learning outcomes will be developed by the department. As a result, the final exam for the course may also be a departmental test that all students in the course must pass in order to pass the class.

The course calendar of assignments and due dates can be as detailed as the instructor wishes. It will most likely be the part of the syllabus that will change during the semester, so be prepared to tweak the dates as the semester flies by. It is impossible to know what might come up that will require dates to be changed. It is impossible to know that when preparing the calendar at the beginning of the term.

Finally, the syllabus is a very important document for the instructor and the student. Too often the students go to class that first day, get the syllabus, and never look at it again. I referred to the syllabus often in class. I felt it was so important for the students to use this document often as a reference throughout the term. Therefore I would require the students to bring their copy of the syllabus to the final exam for five points of the final. Of course, I tell the students at the beginning of the term that this will be part of their final exam. The syllabus is the blueprint for your course, and the contract you are making with each student. This is what you are agreeing to do as an instructor, and what you expect the students to do in order to pass the course.