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How to make a syllabus

January 3, 2008, 3:01 pm

Since the majority of college professors out there are just about to begin spring semester courses, let’s talk about that course document that is as ignored by students as it is referenced by faculty: the syllabus. The syllabus is the central document of a college course, but many professors either give their syllabi no thought at all, leading to a document that doesn’t contain much useful information and therefore gets ignored by students; or else they put too much in it, and it suffers the same fate. I’m going to take a couple or so articles here to give my ideas about what a syllabus is for; what ought to go in one; how it ought to be formatted; and what role it plays in the course after the first day.

This first article will focus on my philosophy behind the syllabus and some issues about the status of a syllabus as a legal document.

It’s helpful to understand first what an academic course is supposed to accomplish. Obviously a course is supposed to accomplish learning and broadened intellectual horizons on the part of the students. A great college course challenges students and takes them to an intellectual, and one also hopes a moral, place that is further along than when they started the course. These are lofty ideals — and not very concrete ones. And the problem is that we can’t create a course that is simply lofty. We must also have a structure that explains how we will know if the students have learned what they are supposed to be learning, and parameters that describe how the conduct of the course will proceed.

That structural, parametric information is housed in the syllabus. The syllabus is the skeleton of the course, supporting and giving form to all the things in the course which the professor and (hopefully) the students want to do. But like a skeleton, the syllabus for the course is not really meant to be seen. It supports from within. Therefore it must be strong and dependable and fitting together well at every joint. But at the same time, the syllabus cannot be so prominent or gaudy that the course is mistaken for it. It must be reliable and well-built but also unobtrusive and clear.

That’s my philosophy behind the syllabus. One other important thing to consider is the syallbus’ status as a legal document. This helpful guide titled “Legally Sound Syllabi” from Hampton University in Virginia spells out the legal standing of a college syllabus. From that web page:

In constructing course syllabi that are legally sound, you are basically focusing on avoiding educational malpractice. Just as a background, “Educational Malpractice” is a claim generally based on contract law and is a claim which is generally unsuccessful for the student/plaintiff. The claim arises from the duty assumed by a professional not to harm the individuals relying on the professional’s expertise. You, as a professor are required to exercise that degree of skill and knowledge usually had by members of your profession.

Although a syllabus is not considered to be a legal document, it is a good safe practice in this litigious society, for you as a professor to treat it as one.[...] [I]n constructing syllabi that are legally sound, and in turn avoiding educational malpractice, it is first and foremost important for you to comply with the contractual documents of the institution, such as the Faculty Handbook and the student catalog. Courts view these as legal contractual documents. Make sure that the description of the course in your syllabus is consistent with the description of the course in the student catalog.

So in other words, it’s not the case that syllabi are legally binding contracts — but it is possible to misrepresent university documents which are legally binding, and that will get you into a lawsuit. Tip: Universities don’t like lawsuits.

Apart from the actual legal standing of the syllabus, a well-constructed and clear syllabus is the professor’s first line of defense against the disgruntled student who brings a charge of unfairness or obscuring information against the professor. A syllabus which spells out the grading policies of the course in clear, definite language will make the professor immune to charges of favoritism or unfairness in grading (provided the professor follows the syllabus; more on that later).

Or put more positively, a clear and well-constructed syllabus makes it very easy for the student to understand her/his standing, roles, and expectations in the course at any time, and relieves the student of having to guess at these things all the time. So in other words, a good syllabus is just an extension of good teaching. And it makes a powerful first impression — a student who receives a bloated or carelessly-made syllabus on the first day will think of the course in the same terms. Similarly if the syllabus is well done.

So that’s what’s at stake when making a syllabus. In the next article we’ll talk about what goes into one — and what shouldn’t go into one.

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