On Common and Template Syllabi

When a course is offered in multiple sections, sometimes at different locations, and taught by different instructors and worthy of transfer credit, it’s important that the students taking it have the same course experiences. Depending on the course, there may be some or no flexibility with the content and some or no discretion on the part of instructors as to instructional methods, policies, and assessment criteria. Curricular consistency is usually supported with a common course syllabus or syllabus template. The common syllabus usually prescribes everything about how the course will be taught. The syllabus template usually identifies what must be covered and done in the course and what course details are at the instructor’s discretion.

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When a course is offered in multiple sections, sometimes at different locations, and taught by different instructors and worthy of transfer credit, it’s important that the students taking it have the same course experiences. Depending on the course, there may be some or no flexibility with the content and some or no discretion on the part of instructors as to instructional methods, policies, and assessment criteria. Curricular consistency is usually supported with a common course syllabus or syllabus template. The common syllabus usually prescribes everything about how the course will be taught. The syllabus template usually identifies what must be covered and done in the course and what course details are at the instructor’s discretion.

The beauty of common and template syllabi is the consistency they provide. If you’re a beginning student taking multiple courses, getting four or five different syllabi can be overwhelming. Every teacher wants something different, has different policies, and includes different information on their syllabus. Even some consistency, such as teachers across the institution including the same academic integrity or disability accommodation policy, can make the various syllabi look related. More importantly, repetition of policies underscores their importance and sends the message that they apply to every course.

Ronald Rockland, Levelle Burr-Alexander, and Howard Kimmel (New Jersey Institute of Technology) identify another value of syllabus consistency within a department or program:

For instructors teaching subsequent courses so that there is alignment with prerequisites, it is necessary to require that prerequisites mean more than just earning a grade in a previous course. Completing a prerequisite course means students have the skills and knowledge required for the next course. And completing the sequence of courses within a degree program should indicate that the students have acquired the essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes required by graduates of the program.

Syllabus templates and common syllabi not only create course consistency but are also especially helpful to part-time and adjunct faculty. These teachers don’t always have good connections with the department and colleagues who have taught the course. Providing them with syllabus material helps them deliver the course as it was designed and is regularly taught.

We raised the question of syllabus templates in our call for syllabus-related materials, and we received several templates in response. What makes a template particularly useful is a clear delineation between what goes on the syllabus no matter and what’s optional. Irene Gaither (South Mountain Community College) shared her College of Mathematics’ syllabus template, which is laid out as a two-columned table, with all the syllabus sections labeled on the left side. Required content is clearly specified: the text in the right column is already filled in. But when it comes to instructor-specific sections, such as those on teaching philosophy and extra credit, the right column includes an instruction to “insert yours” or revise a placeholder policy. (All instructions to insert or modify text are in easily noticeable red font.) Were a template like this used in every course a department or program offered, students would always see the same syllabus layout. That consistency reduces the sense that every instructor does every course differently and the best way to succeed in a course is to find out what the teacher wants and do it. Moreover, using the same format helps students find the information of most interest to them: it’s in the same place on every syllabus.

The syllabus template Myron Williams (TCM International Institute) shared also does a good job of clearly differentiating what’s required of an instructor and what’s at their discretion. Laid out in a more conventional, single-column format than Professor Gaither’s example, the template includes a mix of fixed text and guidelines for what teachers should include in each required section. In addition, it serves a developmental purpose. It makes suggestions about teaching methods, grading, and feedback and provides a bit of history about the institution. It even suggests a number of pages students should be asked to read in a course and the number of words suitable for assignments. The tone is helpful and supportive. For anyone new to teaching or new to teaching at the institution, a template like this prepares one not only to teach the course but also to be a professor.

It’s long been a tradition that syllabus creation is under the purview of the faculty member teaching the course. Decisions about content specifics, course policies, exams and assignments, and grading criteria are made by the teacher. But with more courses taught by part-time and adjunct faculty and more courses offered online and at different locations, actions that promote consistency across sections and teachers have become essential. Common and template syllabi have become part of the solution. They preserve curricular integrity. Additionally, they benefit students by creating expectations shared across courses and they benefit new and part-time teachers by providing relevant course material.