OIA Mini-Primer: Writing an Effective Course Syllabus

This overview provides an introductory framework and resource to serve as a gateway for individual inquiry and as a complementary resource for a consultation or workshop on the topic.

Part 1: Make it YOUR Syllabus

Why Spend Time on a Syllabus?

A syllabus serves as a teaching tool with focus on organization and communication, as a component of your department’s degree curriculum and as a legal document in the administrative domain, and as a document on your teaching portfolio. As such, it is interpreted and evaluated by students, colleagues, administrators, and particularly search and promotion committees. Therefore, it is a tool of pedagogy that documents your scholarship of teaching. (Eberly, Newton & Wiggins, 2001)

The nature and function of syllabi keep changing. Historically, a syllabus was a list of contents or index. In the 18th century, it found its way into higher education as a list of topics that would be addressed in a course. In the age of mass printing and photocopy, rules and behaviors were added to the lists of topics, and by the end of the 20th century, the syllabi became longer and longer due to a growing number of policies and rules. It is often seen as an enculturation tool (behavioral rules) and as a contract (legal protection) by instructors and as a set of rules for a hierarchical, competitive game for points by the students.

In contrast, many faculty have begun to re-envision their syllabi as communication and learning tools. James Lang, for instance, writes about Ken Bain’s (2004) concept of “The Promising Syllabus” (2006) that consist of an explanation of the course's promise (learning outcomes), describes the activities that shall help students fulfill that promise, and serves as a starting point for an ongoing conversation about learning. Other faculty, as Lang describes, experiment successfully with incomplete syllabi that allow a certain measure of co-creation and/or choices between option by the students.

Before writing a syllabus, ask yourself: What are my goals for my syllabi? What do I want them to accomplish as communication tools with my students, colleagues, and administrators?

Who Owns Your Syllabi?

Ownership of syllabi is a gray zone, and both the institution and the instructor have claims to a syllabus. According to the UA Intellectual Property Policy, syllabi are excluded intellectual property (i.e. individually owned), but the ideas embodied in a syllabus are ABOR-owned intellectual property.

As with any other scholarly document, the ethics and rules of intellectual property rights apply. While colleges or departments may have practices of syllabus sharing, this should not lead to unreflected plagiarism. Please identify and cite original text from individual or departmental sources as such. For application and promotion purposes, please craft your own, original syllabi.

Who Can See Your Syllabi?

The UArizona administration needs access to key information in your syllabi for accreditation and assessment purposes. Moreover, federal policy requires that students can learn about course requirements and policies prior to registration via UAccess. The UA Syllabus Project pilots strategies to connect your syllabi in D2L to a syllabus repository that is also connected to UAccess. The websites provide detailed information about what parts of the syllabus ought to be shared and how to publish them.

Works Cited:

  • Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press.
  • Eberly, M.B., Newton, S.E., Wiggins, R.A. 2001. “The syllabus as tool for student-centered learning.” The Journal of General Education 50(1): 56-74. JSTOR. 21 June, 2015.
  • Lang, James M. (2006) “The Promising Syllabus.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 28 Aug 2006.

Part 2: Develop Your Syllabus

What are Required Components?

Please carefully review institutional, college-specific, and departmental requirements to your syllabi. Since not all resources may be listed here, please check with your administrators about other possible resources.

UA Resources:

Please note that according to the Syllabus Project, by placing this URL on your syllabus you no longer need to list the individual university policies, https://academicaffairs.arizona.edu/syllabus-policies.

Other Resources:

How Do You Document Your Teaching?

Syllabi are manifestations of your course design, meaning that the planning and decision-making for your course take place before the syllabus is written. If you develop a course based on syllabi of other instructors who taught the course previously, use the opportunity to analyze their syllabi first in order to trace, adapt, or freshly create an appropriate instructional design for yourself.

In regards to course planning, a syllabus should answer the following key questions:

Why should students take this course? - Readers will ask:

  • Does the tone of the syllabus affect learners positively (warm language: inclusion, motivation, personal relevance)?
  • Does the course advance the students’ learning toward the desired outcomes of their degree?
  • Does the course prepare students for doing the work in the discipline?

What are the goals (a.k.a. objectives, outcomes, results) of this course? What will your students be able to know and do? - Readers will ask:

  • How do the goals align with prescribed frameworks, e.g. outcomes of the degree-specific curriculum, defined outcomes for General Education courses, etc.?
  • Do the goals address both lower and higher thinking levels (Bloom’s taxonomy)?
  • Are the goals achievable and measurable within one semester?

What are the assessments in this course, and do they address the stated goals? - Readers will ask:

  • Are different assessment methods used to practice a variety of skills?
  • Do the assessment types reflect the work in the discipline?
  • Do the assessments produce measurable results that illustrate achieving the stated goals?

Do the teaching and learning activities indicate guided practice toward the stated goals? - Readers will ask:

  • Are the teaching formats and strategies supportive of student learning?
  • Are the activities accessible and inclusive for diverse students?
  • Are the course materials relevant for achieving the stated goals?
  • Are the technological components appropriate for the intended teaching and learning activities?

Check out webinar recordings and many great syllabus resources on our Syllabus Work Week website!

Selected resources:

  • Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. Jossey-Bass.
  • Wiggins, G. P., 1950, McTighe, J., & NetLibrary, I. (2005). Understanding by design (Expand 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Online resources:

Please contact this guide's current curator, Mascha Gemein, with any questions about writing an effective syllabus.

The D2L instructional technologies team is available for individual or group-based labs to help use the diverse functions and tools within D2L to effectively present an interactive syllabus and use it a recurring tool for learning throughout the semester.