Beyond the Guidelines - Writing a Great Syllabus

All instructors of record create syllabi, and many professors ask that their GTAs develop syllabi and course policies for individual discussion, recitation, or lab sections. Approach your syllabus as a reflection of learning outcomes: What should your students know? What skills should they develop? What mastery should they have by the end of the course? Your syllabus tells your students what your course is about, what the learning objectives are, and the ways a student can be successful in your course. A complete and well-designed syllabus can help set the tone for a positive teaching and learning environment and acts as a contract that clearly details both student and instructor responsibilities. For detailed guidelines for constructing a syllabus, see: faculty.umd.edu/teach/syllabus.html

Note: Major changes in a syllabus midway through a semester violate the contract shared be­tween instructor and student. While adjustments in the schedule are sometimes necessary and aspects of a course plan may require change, it is generally not fair to alter significant elements of the syllabus (e.g., grading formulae, major assignments, expectations for class participation). Too often a syllabus simply includes the instructor’s contact information, a list of topics that will be covered in the course, and various due dates. Such a cursory approach fails to satisfy Uni­versity expectations for syllabus content. Consider separating the rules, course policy, expecta­tions, and grading policies from the schedule of course topics and instead provide the schedule of course topics as a separate document.

Beyond the minimum University requirements, many good syllabi include the following:               

  • Information about learning objectives and course structure, rationale for course plan, and a description of various types of assignments.
  • Specific course policies regarding lateness, class participation, missed exams or assign­ments, lab safety, academic honesty, and grading specifications. All of these must comply with University policies.
  • A list of additional materials needed in the course (e.g., lab materials, supplies, calcula­tors, software) and where these materials may be obtained.
  • Support services available to the student that might be useful during the course (Learning Assistance Service programs and short courses, the Writing Center, library facilities, Division of Information Technology computer facilities and helpdesk, etc.).
  • Explanation of how students will be notified of any changes in the course plan (e.g., via email or course management software, or with a new hard copy of the schedule). Please note that with the current Learning Management System (Canvas), students choose how and when they are notified of announcements and receive messages. Thus it is important to set clear guidelines and expectations about course notifications.
  • Discussion of proper electronic communication protocol. Talk with students early in the semester and tell students how quickly they should expect a response to emailed queries. Also, provid­ing a small statement in the syllabus about appropriate etiquette when drafting an email or addressing the instructor can serve the student as a “reminder.”

In order to help establish a classroom climate that values diverse perspectives and experiences while working toward shared academically rigorous goals, consider, if appropriate, including a statement of diversity and inclusion in your course policies. The following were adapted from Mark Brimhall-Vargas:

Statement on Perspective

This course, like all courses, has a point of entry into debate; i.e., something it wants to show you, a position, and/or a perspective. Like many courses, it is not neutral or objective. Given this fact, it is important that you understand that you need not embrace the course perspective in order to be successful in it. You are strongly encouraged to be a critical thinker about everything in this course, including its perspective.

Language Statement

In the discussion of politically complex and charged issues, it is often necessary to explore terminology and concepts that, on occasion, may make us uncomfortable. Please understand that it is necessary to engage in these discussions in order to come to a critical and comprehensive understanding of our topic so that, subsequently, we can learn how to deconstruct and assuage the themes contained therein. If you become particularly distressed about any discussion, please speak to me immediately.

These are of course samples that may be better suited to some disciplines than others. You may, as you write course policies, adapt one or both to reflect the place of student diversity in your course.