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Preparing an Effective Course Syllabus

The following is a transcript of the "Preparing an Effective Syllabus " multimedia presentation available here.

Welcome to this presentation which provides an overview of "Preparing an Effective Syllabus."

I'm Janet Giesen, Instructional Design Coordinator of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at Northern Illinois University. This presentation will provide NIU faculty and staff the basics of preparing a course syllabus including what to do before you design the syllabus and general items to include in the syllabus. An easy-to-follow checklist is also available to get you started!

Before you actually develop your syllabus, you should plan its contents and purpose.

Begin by considering the purpose of a course syllabus. Think of a syllabus as a roadmap you and your students can follow as you navigate the course throughout the semester. The syllabus, then, is a primary source of information to guide your students throughout the semester and should carefully explain course components.

Most likely, your syllabus will be one of the first substantial means of communication between you and your students. The ultimate goal of a well-designed syllabus is to ensure students understand what is expected of them throughout the semester. Therefore, the syllabus should be easy to read, understand, and follow.

Find out whether your department/school and/or college have policies that require specific information to be included on the syllabus. This might include policies on grading, attendance, make-up work, make-up exams and information related to standards and accreditation or other requirements.

If you are preparing a syllabus for a course which has multiple sections, check with your department chair to see what content, books, and other course components should be consistently provided in all sections of the same course.

If you are teaching a course for the first time, review the approved course proposal to adequately represent course goals, objectives and content.

Goals and learning objectives are the heart of your instruction and should be carefully written. Course goals and objectives represent what students should be able to do after successfully completing the course; they should be observable and measurable and be stated in terms of student outcomes. Plan activities, assignments, and outcomes which help students achieve the goals and objectives. When planning assignments and class activities, consider listing with them which course goals and objectives will be achieved when these tasks are completed. By showing relevance of course requirements with related goals and objectives students will better understand why they have been assigned.

Select appropriate teaching methods, activities, assignments, and assessment strategies you plan to use throughout the semester and make sure they reflect the course goals and learning objectives. Also, consider way to present course content in different ways (visual, auditory, and hands-on) to meet the varied learning preferences of your students.

Consider including in the syllabus a teaching philosophy that conveys your enthusiasm for teaching and subject and respect for your students. Explain the importance and benefits of why students should take the course. Adding a positive and optimistic teaching philosophy statement to your syllabus can send an important message to your students of your love for the subject and that you are truly interested in students’ success in the course!

Decide upon a grading system and check with your department chair, if necessary, to make sure it is consistent with departmental standards. Choose a grading system that is suitable for the course and communicates to your students your expectations about what is important and what you expect from them. Grading criteria can be made available in the form of rubrics and can increase objectivity when grading students' work

Adopt appropriate textbooks and resources and relate required readings to course goals, objectives, activities and outcomes. Contact the bookstore for book order deadlines and ask your department chair if certain books are required for the course.

Many faculty provide a format that clearly lays out the course meeting dates, assignments, readings, exams, and due dates for each requirement which can be very useful to help students plan for the semester

Course schedules also help faculty stay on task, too! If you plan on developing a course calendar or schedule, refer to the NIU calendar to carefully sequence quizzes, exams, projects, and assignments to avoid overlapping due dates and other potential conflicts.

Decide where you plan to put statements on students with disabilities or academic integrity – some faculty place these statements toward the end of the syllabus. Faculty Development and Instructional Design has developed online tutorials, one for faculty and one for students, which can be useful in preparing an academic integrity statement and can be reviewed online at http://www.niu.edu/ai.

Now that you have planned the overall content of the syllabus, it's time to put it all together and develop it!

You can customize your syllabus to match your subject and teaching style and making it personal does not mean it shouldn't be organized and thorough. The order in which the sections are presented here follows many syllabus models but can be arranged to fit your needs.

Course information: Course designator and number, section number, title, credit hours, classroom location, course day or days and meeting times, any related lab or recitation session locations and course Web site URL if you have one.

Course description: Include the catalog course description and its prerequisites.

Instructor information: Your name, title, office location, phone number, email address, office hours, and other ways in which students can contact or interact with you.

TA information, if one has been assigned: His or her name, office location, phone number, email address, and office hours and the role the TA has in the course.

Course requirements: List appropriate and meaningful assignments, readings, quizzes and exams and describe the requirements for successful completion of these activities. Samples of projects and assignment can be made available in your office or be made available electronically.

Course assessment: Provide a list of standards and criteria for each graded course component such as assignments, exams, and class participation so students know your expectations. State how much each graded course activity will count toward the final course grade. Include the course grading scale so students can keep track of their progress.

State how students be rewarded for effort and progress and if you will allow extra credit—how will these be used toward a student’s final grade?

State specifically how final grades will be determined and provide information such as whether you weight letter grades, use accumulated points, or if you will you grade on a curve.

Course resources (required and recommended): Provide full citation and edition number for textbooks and other course resources. State where students can purchase these resources, their cost (if known), and if using e-books or alternative sources is acceptable. Include any course-related Websites and Blackboard links if applicable.

Provide information on support services such as the NIU Writing Center, Learning Centers, and ways students can obtain peer tutoring (this is especially helpful for undergraduate students).

Course policies and accommodations: Provide clear and succinct information on attendance, late arrivals and early departures, late work, missed quizzes and exams, and make-up work. Also include information on use of copyrighted materials, individual and group work and classroom comportment such as mutual civility, respectfulness, use of cell phones or electronic devices, and eating and drinking in the classroom. Finally, list policies related to lab work such as safety, human subjects, university property, and so on.

Receiving assistance: Include a statement requesting that students with disabilities contact you regarding accommodation needs. Visit the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR) website at www.niu.edu/access for further information on ways to provide this information to students who request such assistance.

Also, you could include a statement that says something about how student success is important to you and that any student who has a disability or any other special circumstance that may have some impact on their work in the class, and for which they might require special accommodations, to contact you early in the semester so that accommodations can be made in a timely manner.

In a separate and prominent location of your syllabus, include a University Plagiarism Statement and Conduct and Discipline Regulations statement. Both of these statements can be found in the NIU Undergraduate Catalogs in print form or online or through NIU's Judicial Office at (815) 753.1571 or 1572, or the Office of Ombudsman at (815) 753.1414. Also, list the URL for the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center's Online Tutorial on Academic Integrity. That URL is www.niu.edu/ai/students.

Course calendar and schedule: If you have planned to include course information in a calendar or schedule, provide a list of topics, chapter readings, assignments, exams and other requirements with their due dates. Indicate that the schedule is subject to change.

Finally, let's talk about the overall appeal of the syllabus: Use headings, short sentences, outlines, lists, charts and diagrams for organization and quick reference.

Use welcoming and encouraging language and what you will do to help students throughout the semester.

Instead of completely filling the page with dense text consider incorporating some open areas of blank space or even some content-related visuals.

After your syllabus has been created—ask a colleague or your department chair to check it for accuracy and clarity.

Then, file the syllabus with your department as a record of your course, to be used for accreditation purposes, and as a reference when students search for course information.

Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center provides handouts, checklist, as well as face-to-face workshops which can help you prepare an effective syllabus in greater detail. Visit the Faculty Development web site for more information about these and upcoming programs and resources for NIU faculty and staff at www.niu.edu/facdev/.

Last Updated: 9/10/2014