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Developing a Good Syllabus

This teaching-ette will provide specific suggestions for developing a syllabus that effectively communicates information to your students. In addition, strategies will be presented for facilitating students' understanding of the syllabus and encouraging them to use it as a resource throughout the semester.

"Include more rather than less [in a syllabus]. Specificity and detail are valuable learning tools and reduce initial anxiety." (Davis, 1993)

"While including basic information, the learning-centered syllabus can be an important learning tool that will reinforce the intentions, roles, attitudes, and strategies that you will use to promote active, purposeful, effective learning." (Grunert, 1997)

Components of an Effective Course Syllabus

The official LCC course syllabus requires items 1-13. In general, these are the minimum requirements, and under several items there is space for additional information from the department or section instructor. Numbers 14-27 are items to consider but may not be applicable to all courses. Checking with your own department about additions to the syllabus is advised because guidelines vary across departments within the college. View various course syllabi at the college.

  1. The name of the instructor, course, department, and institution.
  2. Instructor contact information, including office location and office hours, phone number, e-mail address, and any other method you prefer students use to get in touch with you.
  3. Days, times and location of class meetings.
  4. Any prerequisite, co-requisite, or recommended courses, as well as any restrictions for the course.
  5. A detailed course description that clearly explains the focus of the course and the content that will be covered. The following is the course description for the Criminal Justice course, Local Detention, CJUS 130.

    The course explains operations of local detention facilities and their unique role in the criminal justice system. Emphasis is placed on Michigan jail and lockup operations, as well as the organization, management, policy environment, and emerging issues confronting American jails. Differences in jails and prisons regarding operations and differing clienteles are also covered.

  6. Required or recommended texts or other instructional materials for the class.
  7. Student learning outcomes explaining what students will know and be able to do as a result of taking this course.
  8. Methods of instruction that will be used in the class.
  9. Methods of evaluating student achievement and progress in the class. This section should clearly explain the assignments that must be completed by students, the weight of each and the grading scale used in the course.
  10. College policies on attendance, withdrawals and incomplete grades. These are stated in the Lansing Community College Catalog.
  11. A detailed outline of course content and the sequence of information to be covered.
  12. Information about the transfer potential of the course.
  13. College policies on student academic integrity. The following definitions are found in LCC's College Catalog, 2008.

    Each student is expected to be honest in his or her work. Plagiarism is dishonest. Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, the use, by paraphrase or direct quotation or the inclusion of electronic sources, of the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgment. When producing work for a course, students are expected to present their own ideas and to appropriately acknowledge the incorporation of another person's work. Not doing so is dishonest.

    Each student is expected to be honest in his or her work. Cheating is dishonest. The term "cheating" includes but is not limited to:
    1. Use of any unauthorized assistance, including electronic devices/media or on-line resources, in taking quizzes, tests, or examinations;
    2. Dependence upon the aid of sources beyond those authorized by the instructor in writing papers, in preparing reports, in solving problems, or in carrying out other assignments such as those involving sounds as well as moving or still images; or
    3. The acquisition of tests or other academic materials without permission of the faculty or staff to whom the material belongs. Any interaction with any person other than the instructor or proctor in a testing situation may be interpreted as cheating.
    4. Academic honesty is twofold on the part of the student; first, not to cheat, and second, not to enable others to cheat.
  14. A clarification of the distinctions between plagiarism, paraphrasing, and direct citation. You may want to provide students with examples of correct and incorrect ways of using their sources. (Davis, 1993)
  15. Expectations for time spent on homework and/or group work, in addition to in-class time. For example, if you assign a group presentation and expect that students prepare for this outside of class, clearly state that they will need to make arrangements to meet with fellow group members on their own time.
  16. Specific expectations for student behavior in class. These may include your expectations such as: cell phones off, eating limited to break times, etc.
  17. Contact information for other resources such as the library, computer help desk, assessment center, or tutoring center.
  18. A table of contents so that students can quickly reference desired information in your syllabus. (Grunert 1997)
  19. Include in the syllabus a letter written to the students addressing some common questions or concerns. (Grunert 1997)
  20. Include a list of frequently asked questions about your course and the answers.
  21. Any additional information on your attendance policies, including the consequences to a student's grade for non-attendance.
  22. Your policy on "excused absences" versus "skipping" class and what constitutes each.
  23. The instructor's policies on making up exams or completing missed work.
  24. Any penalties for late assignments and the circumstances under which these penalties will or will not be applied.
  25. A clear definition of the students' responsibilities in the class. For example: "Students are responsible for completing all of the assigned readings and worksheets prior to the time the class meets to cover that material."
  26. A clear definition of the instructor's role and responsibility to students. For example: "It is the instructor's responsibility in this class to evaluate student work fairly and to give feedback on assignments in a timely fashion."
  27. A clearly stated extra credit policy, which includes whether or not extra credit will be used.

    "Beyond the content of the syllabus is its tone, which can give welcoming or hostile messages...Syllabi that contain humor and enthusiasm can create good first impressions." (Teaching Handbook, Ohio State University)

Getting Your Points Across to the Audience that Matters

  1. Keep in mind the impact on your students when choosing the wording in your syllabus. Rigid policies and a focus on the penalties for every possible infraction of the rules may be intimidating, especially to more vulnerable students like those right out of high school or those returning after several years away from school.
  2. Use humor and/or a lighter touch when going over the syllabus in class. This will likely make students feel that you are a "real person" and that they can approach you with questions or concerns. Of course, be certain that any humor you use in class is not sarcastic, racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise derogatory to an individual or group. (Teaching Handbook, Ohio State University)
  3. Communicate your enthusiasm for your subject and for teaching. If you are passionate about 19th Century Literature, then maybe they will think there's something to it. (If the instructor seems bored by the material, why should students bother?)
  4. Communicate your teaching philosophy to the students.
  5. Consider including some information about yourself both in the syllabus and/or during the first class meeting. Students are interested in your background and knowing more about your approach to teaching the class. An introduction may reduce some of their anxiety and develop a rapport. (Teaching Handbook, Ohio State University)
  6. Point out your office location and hours. Emphasize your willingness to help students individually and your desire to hear student concerns.
  7. On the first day of class bring enough copies of the course syllabus for each student. This models the behaviors you'd like to see in your students.
  8. Use a three-hole punch or print your syllabus on punched paper so that students can place it in a binder for reference throughout the semester.
  9. Before making copies for each student, carefully proofread and/or have someone else proofread your syllabus for typos, grammar and clarity. Students will notice mistakes.
  10. If any changes are made to the syllabus, be sure to give those changes to students in writing. (Teaching Handbook, Ohio State University)
  11. Post an electronic copy of your syllabus online where students will have access to it at any time.
  12. In your online syllabus, create an email link to the instructor so that students can easily contact you. (Keys to an Effective Hyper-Syllabus)
  13. You may want to create links within the syllabus to a discussion board, where you regularly post questions about the course material and invite or require class discussions. (Keys to an Effective Hyper-Syllabus, 2003)
  14. Looks matter. Use a quality printer and paper. Pay attention to print size, margins, and spacing. Use bold or italics, different fonts, or underlining to focus attention on certain items. (Becker and Calhoon, 1999)
  15. Bring extra copies of the syllabus to class with you for the first two weeks for any students who are late additions to your class.
  16. Spend part of the first class period discussing the course syllabus with your students. This emphasizes the importance of the document. Passing the syllabus out without taking time to discuss it gives the impression that it's not really important.
  17. As a discussion topic or icebreaker on the first day, divide students into groups and have them list questions they often have when starting a new semester. Have them review the syllabus looking for answers. Follow this up by addressing questions not answered in the syllabus.
  18. Another way to review the syllabus is to divide students into groups and distribute to each group several prepared note cards with questions about the class. Have the groups hunt for the answers in the syllabus.
  19. Throughout the semester, when students ask a question for which there is an answer in the syllabus, gently remind them that the syllabus is a resource for them to use and that most questions are addressed there. If it is a question that is frequently asked, or one that you suspect other students might have, you could invite anyone in the class to find the answer. However, use caution and perhaps a bit of humor if appropriate, as some students might feel criticized and reluctant to speak up in the future.
  20. Encourage students to refer to the course syllabus often with respect to due dates, explanations of assignments, and the grading policies.
  21. Involve students in setting ground rules for the class, using the parameters of the guidelines you've presented in the syllabus.

    For example: If you have a written policy that students be respectful of the instructor and other students, invite the class to work in small groups to construct two lists of behaviors. One list indicative of desirable behaviors and the other not. They may decide that the ground rules include raising one's hand to speak and not interrupting another speaker. Reach consensus in the large group, type up the ground rules and bring enough copies for all of the students. If you notice that students are not adhering to the ground rules, remind them to review the rules from time-to-time, and/or have the students as a group review and revise them as necessary.

Resources for Syllabus Construction

Altman, Howard B. & Cashin, William E. Writing A Syllabus.

Becker, Angela H. & Calhoon, Sharon, K. (1999). What Introductory Psychology Students Attend to on a Course Syllabus. Teaching of Psychology, 26 (1), 6-11. Cited in The Teaching Professor, Volume 14, Number 1. (January, 2000).

Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Grunert, Judith (1997). The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. Bolton, Massachusetts: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

"Material Prepared by Lee Haugen" (April 1998). Learning-Centered Syllabi Workshop. Center For Teaching Excellence at Iowa State University.

Lowther, M. A., Stark, J. S., and Martens, G. G. (1989). Preparing Course Syllabi for Improved Communication, Ann Arbor, MI: The National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning.

Mager, R.F. Preparing Instructional Objectives. 2nd edition. (1984). Belmont, CA.

McKeachie, W. J. (1986). Teaching Tips, 9th Ed., Lexington, MA: Heath.

Perlman, Baron & McCann, Lee. Writing a Good Course Syllabus. (May 1998).

Stage, Frances K. Muller, Patricia A, Kinzie, Jillian, & Simmons, Ada. (1998).

George Washington Univ. Washington DC. Graduate School of Education and Human Development., ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC. Wright, Delivee L. The Most Important Day: Starting Well. Teaching and Learning Center, University of Nebraska. (July, 1999).

Keys to an Effective Hyper-Syllabus. (2003). OTEL Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Teaching Handbook, Chapter 3. Ohio State University. Office of Faculty and Teaching Assistant Development.

Speaking of Teaching. Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching. (Winter 1998; (9), No. 2).

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