Sample Syllabi: Some Observations

More than 20 of you responded to our call for sample syllabi by sending yours. Thank you! It may not be a stratified random sample, but your collection represents many different disciplines and courses as well as differences in content, format, style, and tone. I’ve also been perusing syllabi collections on various discipline-based teaching sites. Again, there was nothing systematic about this look at those syllabi, which means my observations, questions, and suggestions are based on an eyeball analysis.

How long? How much detail?

Syllabi have grown in length over the years. Most I would describe as long—seven to 10 pages on average, and many of them single spaced. In the submitted samples, there was a two-page syllabus and a pair of three-pagers, both from the same instructor.

Are seven, 10, 14 pages too much? If length and detail are part of what’s preventing students from reading the syllabus, then we might say yes. Members of a faculty group at the University of Alabama shared what they heard from a student focus group discussing syllabi. Those students said that two- to five-page syllabi were ideal. What would your students say if you asked them about length? The Alabama students also pointed out that they recognize when syllabus content is boilerplate, and they don’t read it. So much for those lengthy policies we’re often required to include.

The rationale for detailed syllabi makes sense. Tell students everything they need to know about the course—describe policies in detail, list the leaning goals, lay out the grading system, develop a detailed calendar with every due date highlighted, offer study suggestions, provide contact info, and direct students to on-campus resources. There it is—everything laid out in one place, all questions answered. What a resource! If only students took advantage of it.

Math professor Nancy Schorschinsky (Penn State Schuylkill) observed in material she shared that the syllabi might well be voted “the document least likely referred to by students.” We know students don’t read them, because they regularly ask us questions that our syllabi answer. Information overload may be an issue. Schorschinsky also points out that students get a syllabus in every course, and none of them are the same, although a lot of them do cover the same content, but not in the same format.

Or, is it how the syllabus has morphed into a contractual agreement with every contingency covered in exquisite detail? How many of us carefully read our insurance policies? I don’t. The language is inaccessible, and they go on for pages. Laying out consequences for a range of behaviors allows those who craft the contract to say, look here, we told you so. Mike Cundall (North Carolina A&T State University) made these observations:

Now that syllabi are considered legal documents, there has developed a sort of “It’s in the syllabus” game. Professors now make the syllabi highly exacting with universities providing templates and required policy statements. All this responds to the worry that if it’s not clearly laid out in the syllabus and a student complains, then the student grievance stands. Deans and department heads are loathe to support a faculty if the syllabus doesn’t support what the faculty member claims. Instead of talking with students, educating them, and dealing with the unpleasantness of certain conversations, we can hide behind the syllabus. It makes all the points, so we don’t have to.

How do we determine an ideal length? Our call for syllabi material raised a question about goals: What goals is the syllabus being used to accomplish in your course? We didn’t get much in the way of response to that query, but length does have some relationship to goals. Maybe you don’t think it’s possible to make them shorter. If so, take a look at this syllabus. As you do, consider what goals it’s being used to accomplish. Thanks to Chris Heard (Pepperdine University) for letting us share it with you.

What about the tone?

“Our syllabi have the potential to set the tone for our classes for the entire semester,” Donald Saucier and Tucker Jones (Kansas State University) write. “They have the potential to excite our students—about the topics we will discover together during the course, with our teaching philosophies and practices, and about how they will learn and be able to do by end of the course. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true—our syllabi have the potential to overwhelm our students with legalistic detail and academic jargon. It’s enough to make them question why they enrolled in the class.”

Syllabi subtly set the tone with meta-messages. How something is phrased communicates a message right along with what’s being said. Some of you who shared thoughts and syllabi indicated that you’d changed the tone of your syllabi, opted for something less formal and more friendly, open, and accessible. Even so, I’d describe the most frequent tone in the syllabi I looked at as more formal than friendly, more directive than invitational. There are still lots of commands: students are told, “You will . . . ,” “You are expected to . . . ,” “You will have . . .” Granted, that language makes expectations and responsibilities clear, but it also contains a statement about who’s in charge—who gets to make the decisions about the course and those in it.

The question is whether the syllabus needs to establish the teacher’s authority quite so emphatically. Don’t students already know who’s in charge? If teacher authority isn’t asserted, are students more likely to challenge it? Conversely, do syllabi written in a friendly, invitational style encourage students to take advantage of the teacher?

Those questions are best considered in the presence of examples that illustrate a more indirect, less formal style. It’s still professional but is more relaxed, open, and I would say more engaging.

  • Example 1: “You should expect, though, that most of your in-class time will be spent in active learning, usually involving some sort of involving some sort of collaboration with your classmates. It’s my job to plan meaningful course activities and to make sure you have access to resources (including my own expertise) supporting those activities. It’s your job to prepare responsibly and participate activity to generate learning.”—from Chris Heard’s syllabus
  • Example 2: “This course is organized uniquely. We will begin, as any class about Harry Potter should, with a sorting ceremony. We will then explore a variety of critical essays and engage in discussions formulated around the issues raised in them. The first few days, I will lead the discussions. Thereafter, individuals will sign up to be the responsible ‘leaders’ for discussions twice during the semester. Others will be responsible on those days for being active participants in the discussion itself.”—from Valerie Guyant’s (Montana State University–Northern) syllabus
  • Example 3: “A major portion of the course involves working in teams and doing original research. We will use the internet to investigate changes caused by the process of rationalization. The course uses an active format, involving collaborative inquiry among groups organized into four person teams. These teams will be responsible for collecting material outside of class and sharing with their classmates during class.”—from Howard Aldrich’s (UNC Chapel Hill) syllabus

It’s important to bear in mind that tone does make a difference, and there’s evidence to support that claim. You’ll find summaries and references to those studies in an article by Jeanne Slattery and in an annotated bibliography on syllabi (both forthcoming as part of this syllabus series).

What about graphics?

Many syllabi now have graphic elements that make the syllabi look and feel different. Most common are photos that picture the work of the discipline. As with PowerPoint slides, many of us are still working to find the best balance between text and graphics. What information does each most effectively convey? What’s the purpose of each? How do the two relate to and with each other?

With graphics as with text, it’s easy to get carried away with too much. Using graphics for the sake of graphics, because they’re easy and fun, or because everybody else uses them aren’t the best justifications. Here’s another area where student feedback can provide insights and looking at how colleagues handle graphics can be instructive.

In our estimation, the sample syllabus we’ve chosen to share (Chris Heard’s above) effectively combines graphics and text.

What about the organizational structure?

Virtually all the syllabi I looked at divvied up the content and put it in sections—a content/objective section, a grading section, a policy section, and miscellaneous other sections. In some syllabi there are a lot of sections; in others only a few. Most commonly, syllabi begin with learning objectives, learning outcomes, and other course descriptive content. Often instructor contact information is also up front.      

Does the order matter? More important might be the relative amounts of different kinds of content. Is there more material content focused on learning or more on those policies that specify course dos and don’ts? There are several examples in the collection that specify student expectations and immediately after list what students can expect the teacher to do. What’s the ratio of content about what students will learn to content about how you’ll grade them? I think order and volume both convey meta-messages about what the instructor considers important.

In sum

Syllabi do benefit from regular spruce-ups, and like everything else in teaching, any syllabus can be improved. Some changes can’t be ignored: a new text, a new assignment, or new content. Other changes, such the tone or the look of the syllabus, may seem less essential but are also beneficial. Input from students and colleagues can enrich our sense of what we might need to change.

Blue Brazelton (Northern Arizona University) and Brianna Becker (independent education consultant) share how being asked to write a syllabus from scratch raises a host of questions about the syllabi we use:

During an intensive course-redesign faculty development workshop, we were asked to start from scratch with our syllabi. It seemed like a frightening prospect—deviating from a structure and style that many of us had been carrying and updating for years, but it was also provided an opportunity for reflection. We started talking about where syllabi came from—where did our familiar documents begin? Some of us had syllabus templates we had been using for more than a decade, carried from other institutions, and these foundational documents were often just copies of versions we encountered during our own studies. In many cases, we realized that we did not know where they came from. So, there we were, at the intended beginning: tabula rasa.

From that question, we moved to another central question: Who am I writing this new syllabus for? Without the limitations of previous versions offering convenience and habit, everything was debatable and in need of rethinking. Should the syllabus be written for the instructor, as a tool and resource for structuring and designing the course? Should it instead be designed specifically for the student, modeling best practices of visual design, core content, clear calendars and tables? Or is it most important to write a syllabus that outlines policies and procedures so that the document protects the instructor and institution from the creative requests, complaints, and allegations from students? Certainly, it needs to serve these functions and more, but if we were shift the balance toward one particular audience, would we choose the student as the audience?

This recent review of syllabi has convinced me that there’s great merit in looking at a collection of them. We do handle our syllabi quite differently. Some of that is a function of the kind of content we teach, but much of it is a matter of personal discretion and style. If we believe the syllabus has an important role to play in our courses, then looking at others’ syllabi might improve our own.

3 Responses

    1. Great question. I meant to add a note about this issue because Chris did spend a lot of time making the PDF supplied as accessible as possible for our readers. Still, he noted that it is “monstrously difficult” to make a bilingual document screen reader accessible—not least when, as in this instance, the text runs both left-to-right and right-to-left. Thus, he allowed that should a student need it, either an audio-only (chapterized MP3) or Braille version of the syllabus would be supplied. The multiple-language issue leads me to wonder about how foreign language instructors can most easily go about making their course materials accessible.

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