Revisiting the Syllabus

Syllabus and curriculum plans drawn out in a notebook

The syllabus—most of us use them, many of our students don’t read them.  We wondered if this venerable artifact of teaching might merit a revisit.  So, last fall we issued a call for ideas, opinions, examples and samples, and you responded, sharing a treasure trove of syllabus materials. Thank you!  I spent most of December trying to get them organized into a useful set of resources which are now being published on the Teaching Professor

We launched with a potpourri of innovative syllabus options drawn from materials you shared—some simple yet really significant things, like Lillian Nave’s (Appalachian State University) syllabus that lists “student hours” as opposed to “office hours”—a one word difference makes it clear that this time isn’t just about being in the office, it’s about time in the office that belongs to students.

I’ve really enjoyed looking at sample syllabi that were submitted.  I also reviewed some online syllabus collections—many of our professional association websites now host syllabus repositories.  The major sections of the syllabus are pretty consistent across courses, but the content of those sections and the design of syllabus varies widely.  Lots more of us now are “illustrating” the syllabus with a variety of infographics.  The tone of the syllabus is another interesting feature.  Most often it’s professional, rather impersonal and quite directive. But there are syllabi where the tone is more welcoming, less authoritarian.  All the essential content is still included but the syllabus reads like an invitation to an interesting learning experience.

Research does indicate that the tone of the syllabus influences first impressions of the course and its instructor.  In fact, various aspects of the syllabi have been studied and written about including a nice collection of articles describing how students can be involved in developing the syllabus.  It turns out if they have a say in deciding some things about the course, their commitment to it increases.  An annotated collection of published material on the syllabus is one of the resources that will be shared on the website.

We’re also publishing several articles authored by readers written in response to our request for material.  Jeanne Slattery (Clarion University, PA), who’s done some excellent research on learner-centered syllabi, describes a syllabus revision focused on helping students succeed, and Ginger Fisher and Susan Keenan (University of Northern Colorado, Greeley) write about making the syllabus more responsive to first-generation college students.

We asked this question in our call: “Have you solicited feedback on your syllabus from students?”  It was the only question to which we got no response.  We asked because we think student input can be an important part of creating a syllabus.  So, we went ahead and developed a pool of potential questions for soliciting syllabus feedback.  Here’s one of my favorites:  “Say you had the chance to design the syllabus for this course.  What would you put in it and leave out of it?”

The syllabus plays an important role—we use it to accomplish a lot of different goals.  It’s also easy to get into a recycling rut.  Some syllabi have been known to grow old and tired.   We hope this collection of resources helps to prevent that. 

If you’re interested in this syllabus resource collection and other similar articles, check out our Teaching Professor subscription! Right now, we’re offering 20% off with promo code TP20. For only $120, you’ll have 12 months of innovative articles, access to a 20-Minute Mentor video each month, and multiple resource collections. This offer will end on February 14.