Teaching Tip: What's in a Syllabus?
Your course syllabus is an important document because it explains policies, expectations, and assignments to your students. Some people like to use the term syllabus to refer specifically to the master syllabus for a course—a document created by the department—and prefer to use the term course outline for the document you prepare for your students. Whatever you call it, we've provided some suggestions for what kinds of content should go into your syllabus or course outline. Be certain to check with your department, though, since there may be specific guidelines you are expected to follow.
This typically comes from the master syllabus or course catalog—a general description of the course and where it fits into the curriculum.
Contact Information and Policies
Provide at least your name, office number, office phone number, e-mail address, and office hours (check with your department for office hour expectations). Some faculty also include home or cell phone numbers; if you do, be certain to indicate the acceptable hours for using those numbers, or you will end up getting calls later in the evening than you would anticipate. Also include some guidelines for how soon they can expect replies to e-mail, including during the evening and on weekends; many students expect near 24/7 coverage unless you indicate otherwise.
These will likely come from the master syllabus, although some faculty members will also add some additional objectives based on their specific approach to the course. Remember that students should be able to match up almost everything you do in the course to one of these objectives.
Required and Recommended Texts and Supplies
Be clear about book editions, particularly if there has been a recent revision, since some bookstores may still be selling used copies of previous editions. Clarify, too, if students should be buying bundled content—one section may be using just the textbook, while another might also be using software or a workbook bundled with the text. Used textbooks are often not bundled with these extras. It's worth a trip to the bookstores to find out if any of these issues exist.
Provide an overview of how their grade is broken down (tests = 60%, term paper = 20%, etc.), along with the information they need to calculate their grades (A = 95%+, A- = 92%+, etc.). If you use grading rubrics or other guidelines for grading individual assignments, consider putting them online and pointing to them from this section of the syllabus. Include any additional policies that impact grading, like extra credit, late work, etc. For more details about developing simple grading systems, see the corresponding teaching tip.
Attendance Policy / Lateness / Late Work
Include specific rules governing attendance in your class, including the consequences of missed classes (e.g., reduction of final course grade by X points at each absence over three). What is your approach to absences due to illness? Do you even make a distinction between "excused" and "unexcused" absences, and do you care about doctor's notes? What happens if a student is absent when an assignment is due? What about students who repeatedly show up late for class? It is important to clarify rules here, since you cannot retroactively punish poor attendance if there are no rules in place up front. That said, try to strike a balance here between a thorough policy and a reasonably brief one; a two-page attendance policy sets a police-state tone for the class. And consider talking to departmental colleagues about their policies; not only does it help to be consistent within a program, but they also may provide insight into students that will help you craft your rules.
Some faculty members also like to include a brief rationale for their attendance policy—something about the important of collaborative learning, in-class group work, impromptu shifts in topic or assignments, etc. Including such a statement—and talking about it in class—can help reduce the perception that these are just arbitrary rules.
For details about attendance policies, see the corresponding teaching tip.
Academic Integrity Policy
Provide a brief statement of the importance of academic integrity in your class, and state the consequences of cheating on tests, plagiarizing papers, etc. If there is any room for misinterpretation of what is acceptable or not (e.g., collaborating on homework or take-home tests), make the guidelines clear. Point to other documents that clarify these policies, including departmental guidelines and the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. If you will be assigning term papers, you might want to include a statement here that clarifies what plagiarism is, and that they should as you in advance if they have questions about proper use of sources.
Rules of Conduct
This section is becoming more important as students start bringing more electronic equipment to class. Clarify your rules about the use of cell phones, iPods, and laptops in class. You might include a rationale for these rules, including the disruption they cause to other students. You might also include a statement about civility and respect, especially if discussion plays a significant part in your class. If you teach a class with clear professional connections (nursing, education, etc.), consider drawing on professionalism for behavioral guidelines.
Special Needs Statement (Disability Statement)
This is one section where you should use a standard statement provided by the university:
If you need adaptations or accommodations because of a disability, if you have emergency medical information to share with me, or if you need special arrangements in case the building must be evacuated, please make an appointment with me as soon as possible.
Student Assistance / Tutoring / Tips for Success
Many faculty members provide information about available academic resources, such as tutoring in the Learning Center, supplemental instruction or review sessions, GAs available for additional help, etc. Some also include additional tips for success that are unique to that class—maybe a place where previous students have had problems, or an approach that has worked well for previous students. If you teach freshmen, you might also include a reminder that there is counseling help available for students who are dealing with excessive amounts of stress.
Provide a schedule of assignments and due dates, but emphasize that this is a tentative schedule so you still have some room for adjustment. Do your best, however, to keep the dates for exams and major projects unchanged. Some faculty members prefer to give out a partial schedule on the first day, allowing them to adjust for the current group's needs. In such a case, try to lock in the major due dates, and give out daily assignments two weeks in advance so students can still plan their workload.
This section is optional, but some faculty members like to have a tear-off sheet that students can sign and turn in—something that states that they have read and understood the syllabus. Even without such a statement, students are still responsible for understanding class policies listed on the syllabus, but some teachers like the reinforcement that such an affidavit provides.