What should a syllabus consist of?

What should a syllabus consist of? One answer, which we are all familiar with, is that it should provide information about the course in a summary form that can fit in 3 to 5 pages. Why this length? Answer: Because students do not read a longer syllabus. But let us think more about this convention of limited-length syllabi. First note that students are required to read texts that are far longer than five pages. So students are capable of reading a long syllabus, provided we can ease them beyond an initial reaction based on what they are familiar with, a reaction evident in comments that the syllabus is too long if it goes beyond 5 pages.

Second, let us recognize that key information about the course needs to be accessible, not buried in a long syllabus. To this end, it is possible – indeed necessary – to demarcate the different components of a longer syllabus so that students can find what they need, when they need. My current syllabi distinguish five components:

1. Quick access to key info, including (for online version) a link to a set of class-by-class links;

2. Overview: Information to get started, orient yourself, and refer back to from time to time;

3. Contract: What is expected overall;

4. Schedule of classes: What is expected each session & why — how each session fits into the unfolding of the course;

5. Bibliography.

(For students who like to work from the printed syllabus, a helpful instruction is to Post-it the start of each component.)

Third, notice that the components are different kinds of text and are read at different times or intervals. Component 2, for example, should be read at the start to orient oneself to what’s ahead. After then, it need be read only as a refresher. Component 3 needs to be referred to when ever the student wants to take stock of what is required for them to get a good grade. Component 4 is the schedule that every syllabus includes, but the additional narration of how each session fits into the unfolding of the course is included to counteract the unfortunate pattern of students expecting to cut to the chase, often at the last minute, and get done what is required for the next upcoming class. The short syllabus gives a license to that expectation, which I do not find is conducive of learning.

Fourth, the short syllabus also sends a message – or affirms an already existing attitude – that there is a hidden curriculum, that there are assumptions and guidelines that the student needs to tease out of the teacher in the classroom or through out-of-classroom conversations. Of course, some instructors use handouts and these provide the additional guidelines. OK, but it is worth taking up the challenge of conveying to students the overarching pedagogical framework or rationale for the course. This overview helps train any student who goes on to be a teacher themselves, and it also provides a basis for students to become more self-conscious agents in the teaching/learning interactions of a course, not passive recipients (or, even worse, informal behavioral managers of their teachers).

Fifth, the inclusive, five-component syllabus is an initiative in changing conventions and corresponding expectations. We shouldn’t expect this to be easy, to be without resistance. Yet note that for many students the convention has already been changed—if they have taken courses on typical Learning Management System, the course materials will have been broken into modules and menus give access to the assignments out of the context of the session it emerges from and, similarly, access to a session out of the context of the sequence of sessions and how each session fits into the unfolding of the course. As far as I can tell, the design of such Learning Management Systems has been driven by the logic of websites, not pedagogical best practices.

Sixth, the logic of websites does lead me to put at the very top component I—Quick access to key info, before any text that needs to be read and digested. Given that most students access course materials online, I want the key info to be visible when they bring up the course webpage, without any scrolling down needed. In my experience, a student who gets an attitude that it is hard to find things, that something they found once is hard to find again, is a student who needs more time than instructors can afford in hand-holding and recovery of trust.

Finally, there could be a sixth component of the syllabus, an extension of what is summarized in the contract, in which the details of what is expected for work submitted and for participation is given.  This would allow students to refer across from the overview to the contract to what is on the schedule each session.  As of this writing, I still provide this material as separate “Notes on assignments and participation,” but I may soon label this as an Appendix to the syllabus.  This appendix might be in the syllabus printed out by the student and then marked with its own Post-it, yet it might be omitted in versions of the syllabus submitted to the department or outsider reviewers.



About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

One Response to What should a syllabus consist of?

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    I was wondering if there could be a “one sheet” of a syllabus, the bare minimum of a flexible outline, overview, contract and schedule. What if the students had to write the 3-5 pages of what was observed in the teaching pedagogy or the purpose for each lesson? How would the syllabus look if it was constructed by the end of each course instead of given at the beginning?

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