Designing A Syllabus Students Understand

I designed my first syllabus while I was still a student. It was an assignment for an independent study course I enrolled in as a graduate student. It’s an assignment that I am very grateful for today. Designing the syllabus with the perspective of a student has proven to be very valuable. I remember assembling all of the syllabi I had collected over the years and trying to combine the best aspects of each one. Years later I attended a workshop during Skip Downing’s annual On Course Conference on best college teaching practices. The workshop looked at guidelines on making a syllabus accessible for students with special needs, and how these tips can be very beneficial for all students. The ideas below are those implemented in my ever-evolving Introduction to Sociology syllabus. The main goal is to make information clear for students in an effort to make their lives easier as well as mine. 

  1. Use a table of contents. Many instructors design syllabi that are 5 pages long or more, a short table of contents at the start makes it easier for students to navigate.
  2. Include an image of the textbook. Along with the standard information regarding the author, edition, and publisher, a small visual can be help to eliminate a lot of the “Did I get the right book?” confusion.
  3. Use icons. I have a few simple icons that I include in my syllabus for dates that we have a test, an assignment, or a paper. This way, a quick glance at the syllabus allows students to see that there is a test or quiz coming up.
  4. Supplement with a website. One way to avoid having a 10 page long syllabus is to describe an assignment briefly on the syllabus and post the details on the course website.
  5. Keep the wording direct. I try to write my policies in wording that comes across as official, but also straightforward enough for students to understand. Each semester I revise the policy section to make it as succinct as possible. Below is an example of a revision: [ATTENDANCE POLICY]
  6. Original attendance policy:
    Attendance and Punctuality Policy: Attendance is an essential aspect of the course. Attendance points can only be earned for coming to class on time and staying in class for the entire duration. In accordance with ECC policy, 4 absences can lead to being dropped from the course. Being tardy to class results in unnecessary distractions for your classmates. First 2 tardies excused, after which each instance of being late to class will lead to 2 points being detracted from your grade. Students who miss the first day of class will be dropped.

    Revised attendance policy:
    Attendance and Punctuality Policy: Come to class and be on time. Two absences excused, two tardies excused. In accordance with ECC policy, 4 absences can lead to being dropped from the course. Students who miss the first day of class will be dropped.

  7. Create a syllabus contract. I don’t go over the syllabus word for word on the first day of class. I highlight some of the most important points (late work policy for example), but then use the rest of class time for introductions and a group activity that sets the tone for the class. I assign a simple syllabus contract assignment that requires students to read the syllabus in detail and also visit the course website. This low-point, first assignment also sets up all students to start the course successfully.

Designing an organized and detailed syllabus is one of the first steps to planning a strong course. Keep in mind that the more helpful your syllabus is for your students, the more helpful it is for you. Find more syllabus suggestions from the Carnegie Mellon Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation.

Mediha Din teaches at El Camino College

– SociologyInFocus.com –