The Helpful Syllabus

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.

Why Think about the Syllabus?

 Traditionally, the syllabus reveals the content and theme of each class meeting (Snyder, 2010; Parks & Harris, 2002). At present, the standard content of course syllabi contains four categories of information: 1) Professor contact information; 2) course information; 3) Grading information, and, 4) Information about policies (Snyder, 2010). Contemporary thinking about the syllabus reflects interest in improving the quality of teaching and learning and embodies two important assertions:

  • Teaching and learning in higher education ought to engage students in activities beyond those of listening and memorizing declarative knowledge delivered in lectures
  • Instructors ought to improve the transparency and specificity of the purpose of the course, expectations of student work, grading procedures and standards, and scope and sequence of the course

This tutorial will address:

Syllabi as Teaching Ancillaries

Suggestions for Building Syllabi

Additional Resources (including sample syllabi)

Syllabi as Teaching Ancillaries

The syllabus is often the first contact students have with the course and the professor and represents an opportunity to introduce students to the university’s and the profession’s goals and expectations; it is also an “implicit contract” that articulates the students’ responsibility for their own learning (Eberly, et. al., 2001).

In the student-centered paradigm of teaching and learning, the syllabus is a teaching tool (O’Brian, et. al., 2009) as it may offer:

  1. A statement of the professor’s philosophy of teaching and learning
  2. A rationale for course work and standards of assessment that is grounded in the standards of external agencies (such a state nursing board or professional organization’s statements on professionalism)
  3. A statement about how the course articulates the mission of the program or university
  4. A statement describing student obligations accompanied by a rationale that links course expectations to expectations of professionals in a given discipline
  5. Tips on how to manage course assignments and research

For most students, the information regarding grading is the most important information contained in syllabi (McDonald, et. al. 2010), and so statements regarding the philosophical views, statement on ethics, or the standards of professional agencies and accrediting state boards helps the instructor justify the rigor of grading and the course content. Students are sensitive to real or perceived ambiguity and inconsistency in grading. Linking grading policies to criteria and standards that originate beyond the classroom, may help students regard instructors as representatives of a profession in which students hope to work.

The format of the syllabus is also a teaching tool as it models scholarly communication by presenting information in a manner which is properly organized, written with complete sentences, and in which appropriate section titles are used to cue the reader to key content (Matejka & Kurke, 1994).

Suggestions for Building Syllabi

  1. Collaborate with departmental colleges in order to ensure that the course work is current, the objectives and student learning outcomes are aligned with overarching departmental and university objectives, and that grading procedures are commensurate with external agencies standards where appropriate (such as a state board of nursing or social work) and consistent with departmental standards
  2. Provide a description of the purpose of the course that will help students understand the relationship between the course and the professions to which they aspire
  3. Provide a statement of academic integrity that explicitly identifies students’ responsibilities for managing their work and learning, and clearly identify the consequences for failure to do so
  4. Explicitly state expectations relative to improving students’ scholarship and ensure these expectations are supported by students learning outcomes and assessment that also appear in the syllabus
  5. Embed required statements (see )
  6. Be clear about what policies and procedures are negotiable and which are not
  7. In cases where there is an abundance of direction and protocols for field work, lab work, or internships, consider providing a course guide in addition to the syllabus
  8. Provide a clear course schedule that includes deadlines for projects, homework assignments, test days, and last day for withdrawal without penalty
  9. Provide information about how to get tutoring 
  10. Provide information about how to get assistance with technical support and access to computers in the event that students lose or damage their computers
  11. Provide clear guidelines for projects and assignments, grading rubrics, and samples of correctly completed work
  12. Post syllabi and documents essential to successfully complete course work in appropriate places in course management system such as iLearn


Eberly, M. B., Newton, S. E., & Wiggins, R. A. (2001). The syllabus as a tool for student-centered learning. The Journal of General Education, 50(1), 56-74.

Matejka, K., & Kurke, L. B. (1994). Designing a great syllabus. College Teaching, 42(3), 115-117.

McDonald, J., Siddall, G., Mandell, D., & Hughes, S. (2010). 19. Two Sides of the Same Coin: Student-Faculty Perspectives of the Course Syllabus. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 3.

O'Brien, J. G., Millis, B. J., & Cohen, M. W. (2009). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach (Vol. 135). Wiley. com.

Parkes, J., & Harris, M. B. (2002). The purposes of a syllabus. College Teaching, 50(2), 55-61.

Snyder, J. A. (2010). Brief history of the syllabus with examples. Dereck Bok Center for Teaching, Harvard University.

Additional Resources