How to Create a Syllabus

by Dr Davis on June 13, 2008

You have to know what you want to do. If you have had the class, you can use that as a launch point. You can also go online and search for syllabi for your class or a similar class.

However, you need to be careful what school the syllabus is from. If you teach at an inner city community college (like my CC2) a freshman composition syllabus from Yale is going to frustrate you and possibly give you unreasonable expectations.

The best thing to do is find similar syllabi from teachers at similar schools.

Ask for copies of other instructor’s syllabi at your college.

Because of accreditation these get kept now for years. The college might even have duplicate copies for new teachers at hand (CC1 does.) and all you need to do is ask for them.

They don’t even have to be for the course you are teaching (although that is significantly more useful), because even for a different course you can learn things about the department, the school, and the teachers. You might learn that while the department requires seven papers, other teachers require only four with a re-write.

Getting other syllabi will help you keep your expectations in line with the other teachers’.

Then you can start working on yours.

What if yours is the first class of that type at your school?

If there are no expectations, for instance this is a new class for your college (like Developmental Writing at my SLAC), then you need to think about the things you think ought to be in there. This is a great time to get in touch with friends from grad school. Ask them what their schools are doing. Again look for similar schools and syllabi on the net. If there is a school near where you are that has a similar demographic, call and see if you can set up an appointment with their chair or the head of Developmental Writing. Get feedback.

Don’t be afraid of this. Most teachers like to teach. They will be thrilled to share their knowledge with you. Offering to buy them lunch, usually somewhere off campus with reasonable food, is good if you can afford that. But make it after the discussion time, because you want them to be able to pull things out of their files as they think of them.

It’s also good, if you have to come up with the syllabus on your own, to know what level of student you are going to have. My first class of Developmental Writing was for students who did not know that sentences started with capital letters and ended with periods. If I had started that class with the five paragraph essay, we would all have been in a world of hurt.

Make sure that everything that your department/college requires is included.

For my college this means:
course description
number of hours
complete number of the course
dates and times of class meetings
policies on absence, late work, make-up work, plagiarism

But it could include a non-discrimination statement or other things. Ask your department secretary (if they’ve been there a while they know everything), your chair, or a strong teacher.

Then put those things in. You might be surprised at what you forget to include if you don’t start building the syllabus right away.

I batch the things the school requires together, so that I can easily copy and paste from one syllabus to another. This is also often the part of the syllabus I gloss over in my presentation time. It’s there. They need to have it.

However, if this is something particular to me, for instance my late policy, then I have all those together as well and I go over them very carefully. Sometimes students hear from friends about other teacher’s policies and assume those are departmental or school policies. I try to make an end run around that problem by emphasizing my unique policies.

Add in caveats.

If this class is new to you, you will not know exactly what you can get done. I prefer to plan too much and reduce the work if it overfills the time we have.

I put this caveat into my Early Brit lit syllabus:

This syllabus may be revised as the term progresses. No additional reading will be added. Some readings may be deleted or shortened in the interest of sufficient coverage.

For my freshman composition classes and my composition and literature classes, I always put in “This syllabus is subject to change.” I usually intend for this to mean I take something out, but every once in a while, I will find the perfect reading online or a great exercise that was not in the syllabus which I think will enrich their classroom experience. So I do add that in.

Put in a class calendar.

I have seen syllabi which read “Week 1: Intro to class and paper. Week 2: Revision and discussion.”

I personally do not find those very helpful. So, while you may have to start out with that, since you may not yet know what you are doing, I would recommend getting beyond that quickly.

Once you have the calendar, you will need to fill it.

Start with what you know.

If your college requires seven papers, but that includes three rewrites, then you know you need four papers and three rewrites. If the college requires a research paper, then you know you need to schedule a library tour, research time, discussion (at least) of how to read, take notes, and write the paper.

If your college has a required textbook, then look through that to see what the text covers the best. I often switch papers based on how good the text is on different subjects.

What goes in the syllabus for your class schedule.

At least have every day listed and the topic that will be covered that day, with relevant page numbers.

I usually have a list of what we will be doing in class, including relevant page numbers, and the specific homework. For example, from my three week Early British lit course, the first day says:

begin class, present self, introduce students, hand out syllabus.
Students discuss:
What is a hero? Define courage. What qualities should a good leader possess?
Why is generosity important? Why is loyalty important? Why is reputation important?
English history timeline- geography of British Isles, Viking homelands
presentation on the history, background, language of the poem.
Introduction to Beowulf
5 declensions and 7 conjugations, epic, kenning, scop, wergild, comitatus
Beowulf 34-46 -get to Grendel’s Fight.
For homework:
Read pages 46-72, up to “Beowulf Returns Home.”
Answer 22 questions. (The question in italics is optional for extra points.)
Note: All homework other than essays may be used on the final exam. So do them well.

And I do that for every day of the class.

What if I don’t know all that we are going to do?


Fill in what you know.

When I have had a new course at a new college with a new text, I have had no trouble at all creating a three week schedule. I figure the first three weeks will let me get to know the students and gauge the class. Then I can work on the rest of the schedule when I understand more what can be done.

Do not let this be an excuse to put off your syllabus though.

I can spend one hundred hours on a new syllabus for a course. I don’t want to have to be fitting that in on a weekend. Of course, one hundred hours is pretty intense. Most syllabi can be put together in quite a bit less time than that. You don’t want to find out that your syllabus can’t, though.

I try to have a strong plan for what I want to do and work around the reality to get as much of that done as I can.

What if I put in too much?

Students are happy to take things out of a syllabus. They just are not too thrilled to add things in. So it is better to put in too much and have to take things out than to have to add work for the students.

What if I put in too little?

I have additional information which I bring to class in case I put too little work on the syllabus.

For instance, in that class I did a significant introduction to the difference in status of women between the Old English and the Middle English period. This presentation was not on my syllabus because I had changed the syllabus and did not know if I would have time for it. But I had several places it could have been used and one of those days I had too little work scheduled. So I was able to use it there.

What this does for my class is two things. One, it makes sure my students get the value of their time recognized. They paid for the class and they ought to have their money’s worth. (Yes, even when they’d rather just get out quickly.) Two, it gives “value added.” The presentation I gave helped them on a later paper. If I had not had the presentation, their later work would have been more difficult. Because of the presentation though, assuming they took good notes and were involved in the discussion, that later work will be easier.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Marjory Thrash 07.01.09 at 11:17 am

Great introduction to this topic. Several years ago in I created a lesson plan on creating a syllabus and a semester plan, which reiterates your comments.
I suggest two more items:
1) Resources needed for the course (textbooks, computer access codes, other supplies). I teach via Blackboard software for all my courses – traditional/hybrid/online, so students must learn to access and navigate within the program by the 2nd meeting.
2) Review the published and “real” campus calendar for progress report, cut out dates, and final exams. There will be a few unpublished but traditional days too; for instance, the “job fair” at my community college campus is sponsored and promoted by the college president. Instructors are encouraged to allow students access, which means class attendance will be low. When I have that date in my calendar, the classes won’t meet that day, in favor of individual conferences at my office.

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