Why does the syllabus need more than just a grading scheme and schedule?
The course syllabus is more than a simple contract or informational document for the students. The syllabus serves many purposes:
- Welcomes students to the course
- Provides information (such as the learning outcomes and any required prerequisites) to let students know if the course is a good fit
- Provides information for departmental curriculum mapping and accreditation purposes to understand how the course aligns with other courses
- Outlines the method by which the student learning will be evaluated
- Serves as a resource for students throughout the course to keep track of due dates, assignments, expectations, and other resources
Designing Your Course Syllabus
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to designing a syllabus. The structure of a course syllabus will differ depending on instructor, course topic, department guidelines, and institutional guidelines. However, there are ways to structure a syllabus that are more effective than others.
We recommend using tools such as this check-list or rubric to evaluate your syllabus and identify areas for improvement:
These guides go along with the CEILS syllabus template so you can see language examples (along with resources) as you create or update your own syllabus.
These syllabi offer lots of ideas and serve as good examples for inclusive tone and helpful structure.
A syllabus scavenger hunt is a 10-15 minute in-class activity you can do, instead of just reviewing the syllabus for your students. They work in groups to use the syllabus to answer common questions that come up about the course.
Another option is to assign a CCLE quiz on the key points of the syllabus (with no penalties for incorrect answers and allowing multiple attempts), so that students are all answering the most common questions themselves on the quiz.
Dive Deeper into Improving Your Syllabus
Considerations for Designing Your Syllabus
Here are some preliminary considerations for developing your syllabus:
- What is particularly exciting, valuable, and relevant about your course in the context of the student’s life, community, and the world at large?
- What would students need to know in order to evaluate whether or not to take this course?
- How will the tone and language invite and welcome students to the course?
- What will the syllabus say about what you, as the instructor, value about the course?
- What doe students need to do in order to be successful in the course (how is success defined and measured)?
- What can students expect from you, as the instructor, to help them be successful in the course?
- Is there anything students need to do in advance of the first day (purchase a clicker, textbook, take a pre-course survey, etc.)?
- What other logistics do students need to know about how to communicate with you, where to go for help, location of class meetings, etc.?
- How will the document be organized in a way that is clear and not confusing to review
Learner-Centered Tone and Language
In addition to developing the content of your syllabus, it is critical to consider the tone and language. Here are a few tips:
- The primary audience is the student, so avoid the third person. Instead of saying “students will…” use direct language “you will…” when referring to students or “I will” when referring to yourself.
- Phrase policies in a strengths-based manner rather than framing policies in the context of penalizing students. For example “You will receive full credit for assignments when completed on time. In instances where an assignment is submitted late, you will only receive partial credit of up to 90% of the total” rather than “For each day late I will deduct 10 percent of the grade”.
- While the syllabus does contain important information about your expectations students, it should not read like a rule-book. For example, instead of a “course policies” section, you could call it “How to be Successful in this Course”.
- Have someone review your syllabus with this context in mind and give you feedback on the overall tone.
Resources for Syllabus Development
A great tool to help you plan your course and design your syllabus is Measuring the Promise: A Valid and Reliable Syllabus Rubric by Michael Palmer, Dorothe Bach, & Adriana Streifer at the University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center.
The following resource by Michael Palmer, Lindsay B. Wheeler, and Itiya Aneece provides several contrasting examples between more learner-centered language and more content-centered language, which influence the tone of the document and students perception of the course and instructor:
Resource on Syllabus Constructions (includes sample statements you can review for ideas on language):
Riviere, J., Picard, D. R., & Coble, R. (2016) Syllabus Design Guide. Retrieved 1/26/2017 from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/syllabus-design/
UCLA Undergraduate Council Course Syllabi Recommendations
The Course Syllabi Recommendations Word document contains information gathered by the UCLA Undergraduate Council regarding syllabi and suggested template language you may wish to adopt for certain topics. The Council does not wish to be prescriptive, and no faculty member is required to adopt any of the recommendations it has created.
The Council identified a number of best practices, such as:
- It is helpful for students to see early on what they are expected to learn from your course, in the form of a list of Learning Outcomes.
- It is most impactful to discuss the information on your syllabus. Doing so helps to foster greater understanding and create a more inclusive classroom environment.
- Students want as much information about the course as possible prior to enrollment. Providing a tentative syllabus, or even a previous syllabus, helps students when determining the courses in which they should enroll. Such syllabi can be marked as “tentative” or “subject to change.”
- The syllabus is a contract between you and your students. Students may attempt to litigate aspects of your syllabus. It is important to remember that it is your class and you can set any expectations you believe are appropriate—as long as those expectations are clearly articulated to your students via your syllabus.
If you have any questions, or would like to share any best practices you have discovered, please feel free to contact Professor Lazazzera at BethL@microbio.ucla.edu or Eric Wells, the Undergraduate Council Analyst, at EWells@senate.ucla.edu.
Helpful Tips for Students to Include With Your Syllabus or Post to CCLE
The following guides have been developed by UCLA WI+RE to provide tips for students on etiquette for communication with faculty:
The following campus resources can be provided to students as well in your syllabus (as a list or as a link) or posted in CCLE:
Address the use of devices in the classroom
There are many perspectives on allowing the use of devices in the classroom. Whatever you decide, we recommend including this policy in your syllabus.
University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching released a 2011 report summarizing student survey findings on the use of laptops and recommendations for faculty. Below, we list a few syllabus text recommendations adapted from this report:
- “We recommend that you limit use of your laptop if you find that it distracts from your learning during class. This 2013 study suggests that laptop use hinders not only your own learning, but that of the students around you. If you choose to use your laptop in class, please sit in the back five rows to avoid distracting those around you.” (CEILS recommendation, 2018)
- “Students are not encouraged to bring laptops to class. A closed laptop rule during lecture will be enforced and other communication devices will need to be on ‘silent’ during lecture.” (U-M Syllabus)
- We recommend adding reasoning to support this policy. This Guardian 2016 article summarizes some studies to support this policy.
- “Laptops may be used only for legitimate classroom purposes, such as taking notes, downloading class information from CCLE, or working on an in-class exercise. E-mail, instant messaging, surfing the Internet, reading the news, or playing games are not considered legitimate classroom purposes; such inappropriate laptop use is distracting to those seated around you and is unprofessional.” (Mazzie, 2008)
More student-centered: students choose weight of each assignment (within limits)
This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “How much do you want your final to count?” describes a procedure for allowing students to choose the weight of each assignment within certain ranges; students almost universally loved this approach.. If you are wondering how to do this within CCLE or your own spreadsheet program, you can contact us at CEILS for help.