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The Syllabus – Enhancing Education – Carnegie Mellon University

When should you write your syllabus?

Writing your syllabus should come late in the process of course design, after the course is essentially planned, but well before the first day of class. You’ll notice that of Fink’s 12 questions to ask oneself when designing a course (below), the question pertaining to the syllabus comes in #11! (Fink, 2003)

  • Where are you? (situational constraints)
  • Where do you want to go? (learning objectives)
  • How will you know if students get there? (assessments)
  • How are you going to get there? (learning activities)
  • Who and what can help? (resources)
  • What are the major topics in this course? (organization)
  • What will the students need to do? (specific learning activities)
  • What is the overall scheme of learning activities (integrating instructional strategy with course structure)
  • How are you going to grade?
  • What could go wrong? (debugging design)
  • How will you let students know what you are planning? (syllabus)
  • How will you know how the course is going, and how it went? (planning feedback)

General advice on writing a syllabus:

  • If you are new to teaching, or to a department, look at the syllabus of a colleague – preferably someone known to be an excellent instructor — as a rough model of format and style. Syllabi vary according to disciplinary and departmental conventions, and while there is plenty of room for individual variation and creativity in syllabus design, it’s a good idea to see what the norm is before you begin.
  • Anticipate student questions and concerns and try to address them in your syllabus. Research indicates that the pressing concerns for students when beginning a course are:
    • Will I be able to do the work?
    • Will I like the professor?
    • Will the subject matter interest me? Is it relevant to what I want to do?
    • Do I have the prerequisite skills and knowledge to succeed?
    • Can I handle the workload?
    • Is it possible for me to get a good grade?
    • What sorts of policies does this instructor have regarding attendance, late work, participation, etc.?
      (loosely adapted from Davis, 1993)

    Addressing student concerns will help them to align their expectations with yours, give them a sense of your teaching styles and priorities, and allow them to make more informed decisions about whether or not to take the course.

  • Distribute the syllabus on the first day of class and go over key points with students. Make it clear to them that they are responsible for everything in the syllabus, and reference the syllabus in class periodically to remind them of its content. To encourage students to read the syllabus carefully, some instructors actually give students a short quiz via an on-line course management system on course policies, instructor expectations, requirements, etc.
  • Maintain some flexibility in your syllabus: As the semester progresses, you may find that your course design was over-ambitious and that you have to scale back, or that you have to rearrange the calendar to accommodate unanticipated events. Leave yourself room to maneuver by indicating on your syllabus that it is subject to revision or by building in a few “overflow” days to catch up if you fall behind.
  • If you alter your syllabus, be fair to students: Be sure to give them sufficient advance warning so they can plan accordingly. Also, do not increase the course requirements in any significant way once the semester begins: students view the syllabus as a contract and make their add/drop decisions on the basis of what the syllabus indicates. Substantial changes once the semester begins are likely to perceived as an unfair “bait and switch”.

Creative syllabi:

Syllabi do not have to be simple, typed documents, but can incorporate graphics (photos, comics, designs) and other creative elements. Some instructors design creative syllabi to embody course goals; for instance, the syllabus for a typography class might itself reflect design elements that are part of the course content. Some instructors develop graphic syllabi, which represent the organization of the course in graphic rather than text form. As long as your syllabus serves the functions you intend, have some fun with it!


Fink, L. D. (2003)
Creating Significant Learning Experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B. G. (1993)
Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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