Syllabus Design

Whether you are crafting a syllabus from scratch or revising an inherited syllabus, writing your course syllabus can be one of the most time consuming parts of preparing your course. Luckily, there are some aspects of creating a syllabus that are quite similar across disciplines. Below we offer five parts of creating a syllabus that are pertinent no matter what your academic field: 1) essential elements, 2) keeping students central, 3) organizing and setting course content, 4) policy statements, and 5) syllabus review.

Essential Elements: Essential syllabus components may vary across institutions (check with your hiring department for the official syllabus requirements), but the following elements are the most typical requirements for a course syllabus.

  • Course Details: course title, course description, course and tutorial outcomes, skills students will gain from the course
  • Contact Details: your contact information and office hours, TA contact information and office hours
  • Policies: course policies, department policies, institutional policies
  • Course Work: required course readings, marking scheme, assessment due dates, weekly schedule

Keeping Students Central: It is also important to consider how your students will use the course syllabus and what kinds of questions they expect to be answerable by reading the syllabus. For example:

  • What are the course outcomes?
  • How is student success defined in the course?
  • How does the course fit into the broader learning context?
  • What does the professor expect from the students?
  • How will classes run? How will participation be assessed?
  • What learning resources are useful for the course?

Organizing and Setting Course Content: Developing content for the syllabus can be one of the most engaging components of crafting a syllabus because it requires exploring the field. Before beginning to write your own syllabus, research what others have done with the same or similar course. Look at what others in your department have done in the past or look online for similar courses at other institutions. Previewing other syllabi can help save time in the overall process and help you avoid creating an overly comprehensive syllabus or one that is too thin. You will also need to decide how to organize the material. Do you want it to be chronological? Thematic? Broad to specific? Problem-based? Methodological? Rooted in a core textbook or a collection of essential readings of the field? Consult your course outcomes in this process and ask yourself: Which course organizational structure will most help my students achieve the course outcomes?

Choosing readings will likewise require some questioning. What is a realistic amount and level of readings for first-year students? For third-year students? Choosing readings can be fun, but can also be overwhelming. The challenges for starting a new reading list will be greater than revising one, so be sure to allot an appropriate amount of planning time for this. When creating a new reading list, you will at least need to skim all readings before making a final decision. When revising a reading list, choose just one or two sections to revise instead of revising your whole reading list. Remember that teaching is an iterative process, not something that you have to reinvent with each version of a course.

Policy Statements: Most universities have sample policy statements prepared for their instructors. The University of Toronto, for example, has sample statements about academic integrity, the University’s plagiarism detection tool, accommodation, and library resources. These sample statements can be found in the Course Instructor handbook of your faculty or in the CTSI tip sheet on Developing a Course Syllabus. While most of these statements are optional, consider using them to provide additional resources for your students.

Syllabus Review: Once you have your syllabus all together, the TATP has two additional resources to help you revise your course syllabus: the Course Syllabus Checklist and the Peer Review Checklist for Course Syllabi. Each of these resources are helpful no matter your experience level at crafting syllabi. Having a peer review your course syllabus can help you see the syllabus from another perspective. Talking with a colleague or a teaching mentor provides the opportunity to see how others teach and learn, which can benefit your course development in ways that you simply cannot anticipate if you only work on your syllabus in isolation.