Skeleton of a Syllabus

By Matthew Chase

syllabusAn academic career often requires one to prepare a portfolio, especially in the realms of teaching. I discussed this topic earlier, as I addressed the teaching philosophy statement. This time around, I want to talk about the bare bones of the syllabus. A syllabus by definition is an outline of a course. It is an important tool for not only the students to understand the expectations and requirements of the class, but also for the instructor to organize and communicate how they intend to teach the class. As with the teaching philosophy statement, many colleges are requiring a sample syllabus from job applicants seeking a faculty position. Each syllabus is different depending on the instructor’s unique teaching approach as well as the course itself. However, based on what I have researched and learned, here are what I found to be the core features to the skeleton of a syllabus.

Course and Instructor Information

This section should be at the top of the syllabus. It presents the student with all the necessary and basic information about the course they have just enrolled in. It is here that the instructor should provide the course name and number (e.g., Sociology 100: Introduction to Sociology), their name and their role in the classroom (including academic credentials is optional), class time and room location, office hours and location, their contact information, and how students can make an appointment to meet them.

Course Overview, Learning Outcomes, and Course Objectives

Instructors should offer a brief description of the course and its purpose, optimally no more than a paragraph. Learning outcomes are also important to this purpose. Typically related to and drawn from the goals of the particular program or major, these outcomes act as clear general statements establishing what the student is expected to learn by the end of the class. Course objectives are then developed from these outcomes, addressing the specific measurable skills students will be learning. Both learning outcomes and course objectives can be written in a bullet-point fashion.

Readings and other Materials

In this section, instructors list all of the materials the course will be requiring. If they are meant to be accessible online, then it should be listed how students can access them. This list should have the readings’ title and author at the very least. A list of recommended and supplementary readings can be offered as well if found appropriate. Books, journal articles, and other forms of media can be required and recommended so long as they inform a better understanding of the course topics in line with the learning outcomes and course objectives.

Assignments and Activities

This is one of the more in-depth sections as you describe each of the activities and assignments involved in the course in concise detail. I would suggest each description be limited to a paragraph if possible, but nonetheless remain detailed about what is required such as page or word counts, formatting, questions or topics to be answered, and so on. This is also where instructors can discuss class attendance, acceptable absences, and penalties. It is important to balance the work and the learning involved in a class, so that students are challenged but not overloaded. Developing assignments that relate to the course objectives is essential in order to assess a student’s performance and learning, which is discussed in the section below.

Grading Rubric and Assessment

Grading rubrics help not only students understand the expectations of the course, but also assist instructors with providing a clear and definite reasoning behind student grading. This is particularly useful for situations involving students disputing their grades. To create a simple rubric, instructors can list the graded assignments and explain their individual percentages toward a student’s letter grade, always totaling at 100%.

Academic Honesty, Classroom Decorum, and Campus Services

This section of the syllabus is essential, as it helps prevent certain issues from arising over the course. It is important to stipulate the university’s rules and regulations on academic honesty, and the penalties of committing plagiarism. Instructors can provide links to these policies involved as well as any resources that the university might offer.

It is key to reinforce the principles of classroom decorum, of maintaining a respectful space for civil conversations and discourse. This issue is all the more pertinent to sociology courses, where students often navigate controversial or sensitive topics in discussion. Instructors should provide explicit examples of disruptive behaviors in the classroom (e.g., answering phone calls in class, having side conversations, etc.).

Instructors should also make students aware of the different services available on campus such as Disabilities, Student Health and Counseling, etc. They can offer the names of organizations, their contact information, and office hours.

Course Schedule

While often the last section in a syllabus, the course schedule remains very important in establishing the pace and structure of the whole class. It is commonly formatted on a weekly basis, listing the specific readings for a given week as well as any assignments due by then. Although this schedule is useful, it can be problematic and confusing when trying to change it in the middle of the course. To help avoid this issue, instructors can state that the schedule is tentative and subject to changes depending on their assessment of class progress. This tentativeness can also be made explicit regarding the whole syllabus, as the instructor might need to readjust assignments, readings, etc.

As I mentioned above, each syllabus is different depending on the class and the instructor’s preference. Yet these bare-bone sections can form a solid foundation for a potentially great syllabus. You can find more resources for syllabus writing in our Professional Development. If you feel I missed a part of the syllabus that should be addressed, please leave your thoughts in the comments.


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