Reimagining the Syllabus

Faculty can be very particular (even precious) about a course syllabus, but sometimes in all the wrong ways.

Many view the syllabus as a firm contract and a laundry list of every particular variation and question that might ever occur to a student during the course of a semester. This was the rationale behind the “Death to the Syllabus” article—a favorite of mine. Most syllabi are too long and too detailed.

You could imagine how for a student being handed a massive tome could be like being dropped into the deep end of a pool—or even five pools at once, assuming a full course load. Typically, this approach means that going over the syllabus then becomes the primary objective for first meetings. A recent innovation related to this view is having students take a quiz on the syllabus on the first day of class.

This is not very good use class, especially the valuable time related to first impressions. It would be much better to spend it getting to know your students and what interests them related to the course material. It’s also a time when you can inspire them and get them excited about what you’re going to do together. Anything you can do to get them curious or have them come to understand anything about what they don’t know is better than walking through your policy on late papers.

In place of legalese, it would be better for syllabi to sound like a document designed to promote learning. Thinking of the syllabi in terms of opportunities and promises rather than penalties and threats is a good first step.

A syllabus should not be an exhaustive handbook about every question a student could possibly ever have—not if you want students to actually read it, that is. A syllabus should be an outline of the most important aspects of a course, especially regarding policies and expectations. It should be big picture and present the course outline in broad strokes.

The finer points of most assignments can be made known as needed. There is no reason, for example, why the font style for a project that will due in three months should appear in a syllabus. That, to put it mildly, is somewhat crazed. Moreover, it would be a shame if, in the attempt to forge an ironclad contract, you neglected to leave room for the grand messiness of learning.

You should also take some time to think about how your syllabi will be presented. That too is an opportunity to engage your students.

An e-syllabus means that we can use URLs to resources and policies rather than spelling them out, which saves a great deal of space and redundancy. Using Google doc or a website with would let your students annotate or comment on it as you go along.

I’ve gone from printing it out to just sticking it on Blackboard to actually giving some thought about presentation and how that impacts the learning experience. Here’s the syllabus I used for this semester.

Regardless of the course, it’s better to imagine the syllabus as the start of a conversation about how a learning community does its best work.