Developing Your Syllabus and Career

When you give a syllabus to your new students, remember that the syllabus that you develop influences your class and your teaching career.  Studies about syllabi show that they play a role in students’ perceptions of the instructor and student motivation.  However, syllabi also play a role in administrative decisions about hiring, promotion and tenure.

Student Perceptions of the Instructor

Your syllabus makes a profound first impression on students.  The tone of your syllabus influences students’ perceptions about you as a teacher and the nature of their participation in your course.  “Syllabi differ widely in the tone they adopt: warm and friendly, formal, condescending, or confrontational” (Slattery and Carlson, 159).  Your syllabus sets a tone that defines the social context of learning in your course.  Research shows that students learn best in a supportive environment of trust and respect.

Effective Syllabi

Ineffective Syllabi

• Clearly explain expectations • List assignments without directions
• Positively discuss classroom behaviors in relation to learning • State classroom behaviors in legalese
• Encourage and motivate students in relation to course goals (“You will be able to . . .”) • Make the “course” the agent of learning (“This course will teach you . . .”)
• Anticipate student involvement • Predict student apathy or failure
• Act as a roadmap of the semester and show how topics relate to the big picture • Fail to show the relationship of topics to the overall course via a list of unconnected topics
• Convey a desire to help students individually and give multiple ways to contact • Simply state office hours, or worse, “ . . . by appointment only”
• Use bold and italics to highlight important information, dates, etc. • Use bold to yell at students about dislikes and pet peeves
• Emphasize the importance of the student’s active role in the learning process • Emphasize the importance of the instructor’s role in bestowing knowledge


Effectively written syllabi influence student motivation, performance, and perception of the instructor.  Some studies suggest that they also play a role in student retention.


Effective Syllabi

Ineffective Syllabi

• Increase students’ motivation • Decrease students’ motivation
• Raise student expectations and outcomes • Lower student expectations and outcomes
Impact • Easily remembered and consulted • Likely forgotten by students through the semester and  not consulted
• Instructor viewed as approachable • Instructor viewed as unapproachable
• Higher student retention • Lower student retention

“Remember that the syllabus is also communicating an overall tone or personality.  A technically detailed, unimaginative, ‘cold’ syllabus is usually a precursor of a boring class” (Matejka and Kurke, 116).

Keep in mind that small changes in how you word your syllabus can influence the way your students view you as a teacher.  Ishiyama and Hartlaub (2002) conducted a study to determine how the wording of a syllabus affects students’ perceptions.  They constructed two identical syllabi with one key difference: one used “punishing language” and the other used “rewarding language.”



If for some substantial reason you cannot turn in your papers or take an exam at the scheduled time you must contact me prior to the due date, or test date, or you will be graded down 20%. If for some substantial reason you cannot turn in your paper or take an exam at the scheduled time you should contact me prior to the due date, or test date, or you will only be eligible for 80% of the total points.

First-year and second-year college students indicated that “they were uncomfortable approaching the faculty member after reading the punish syllabus as opposed to the reward syllabus.”  Students with higher GPAs (3.00 and above) were “more likely to view the instructor as unapproachable under the punish-syllabus condition, and significantly more likely to view the class as more difficult under the punish condition.”

Your Career & the Syllabus

Syllabi are playing an increasing role in academic careers.  Albers describes the syllabus as “an artifact for teacher evaluation” (Albers, 62).  Search committees often require course syllabi along with CVs and cover letters from applicants to determine teaching experience, style and appropriate academic rigor.  Syllabi are a fixed part of academic review used to evaluate faculty for promotion and tenure.

Given the importance of syllabi to your career, Seldin (2009) suggests that you ask the following questions:

  1. What does the syllabus say about my teaching and learning beliefs?
  2. What do I want it to say?
  3. Does it speak to the tools and information that I provide students to help them learn?
  4. Is it a learning-centered syllabus?
  5. What does it say about the course and my way of teaching that is specific to me?

Remember, your syllabus impacts your students’ perceptions and class performance, but it also impacts your career and becomes an artifact of your teaching.


  • Albers, C. (2003). Using the Syllabus to Document the Scholarship of Teaching. Teaching Sociology, 31, no. 1, 60-72.
  • Ishiyama, J. & Hartlaub, S. (2002). Does the Wording of Syllabi Affect Student Course Assessment in Introductory Political Science Classes? PS: Political Science and Politics, 35, no. 3, 567-570.
  • Seldin, P. & Miller, E. (2009). In The Academic Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Documenting Teaching, Research and Service (p. 14). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Slattery, J. & Carlson, J. (2005). Preparing an Effective Syllabus. College Teaching, 53, no. 4, 159 - 164.
  • Matejka, K. & Kurke, L. (1994). Designing a Great Syllabus. College Teaching, 42, no. 3, 115 - 118.