The Importance of the Course Syllabus

A great way to start the semester is to begin by properly appreciating the role that syllabi play in higher education.  The syllabus should be an instrument to get students and faculty starting on the same page for the semester.

"The syllabus is a small place to start bringing students and faculty members back together." Sharon Rubin, "Professors, Students, and the Syllabus," Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 7, 1985, p. 56.

A successful semester begins when both teachers and students are brought together through the course syllabus.

Tips for Faculty about creating an effective syllabus that helps students to learn.

The syllabus is a great place for faculty members to begin helping students appreciate the nature of a given course.  As educators, we must not assume that our students explicitly understand why they are taking a given class, how it relates to the college curriculum, or what is meant by the requirements that we carefully outline in our syllabus.  The stereotypical response that students give about the course being required, while humorous, reveals the need for faculty to become more explicit in their syllabus construction as a teaching tool.

Sharon Rubin outlines several questions that many syllabi fail to address.  Carefully crafting our syllabi to address some of these questions would help our students as they learn in our courses.

1. Why should a student want to take this course? How does it make a difference as part of the discipline? How does it fit into the general-education program?

2. What are the objectives of the course? Where does it lead, intellectually and practically?

3. Why do the parts of the course come in the order that they do? Most syllabi note the order in which topics will be discussed, but make no attempt to explain the way the professor has chosen to organize the course.

4. What is the purpose of the assignments? Students are frequently told how much an assignment will "count" and how many pages long it must be, but they are rarely given any idea about what it will demand of them or what the goal is. Will students be required to describe, discuss, analyze, provide evidence, criticize, defend, compare, apply? To what end? If students are expected to present a project before the class, are the criteria for an excellent presentation made clear?

5. What will the tests test? memory? understanding? ability to synthesize? To present evidence logically? To apply knowledge in a new context?

6. Why have the books been chosen? What is their relative importance in the course and in the discipline? Is the emphasis in the course on primary or secondary materials and why?

When we make explicit such information to our students, they become better learners.

CTE Resources on Syllabus Construction

Tips for Students about the importance of the syllabus in the learning process.

A great discovery that I made early in college was that the course syllabus was like a roadmap with directions for succeeding in the class.  Try to think of the syllabi as maps that give you directions to arrive at the end of the semester successfully.  Here are a few tips to navigate your semester using the syllabus.

1. At the beginning of the semester, carefully read the entire syllabus and take note of the important dates when exams, assignments, and papers are due.

2. Just as you check a map or directions for various intersections along your journey, check the syllabus before each class for reading assignments and to gain an idea of the day's topic.

3. If you have ever used something like Mapquest, you know that directions and maps can sometimes be confusing or even mistaken.  When something about the syllabus is unclear, talk to the professor.  Ask them to help you to understand an assignment, or why a certain topic is being covered at a given point.

4. Professors put a lot of time planning their syllabi, and nothing disgruntles a professor more than a student who does poorly because they failed to consult the syllabus.