The Mentor is In: Crafting a Syllabus Your Students Will Read and Use


by Bridgett McGowen-Hawkins

All across the country, instructors answer a variety of student questions with, “It’s in the syllabus.” We all struggle with getting our students to read the syllabus and refer back to it. Today’s syllabi are long and filled with required policies designed to protect students and faculty. Each semester it seems we add at least one new paragraph to an already too-long document. As the syllabus grows, we need to examine what we choose to include in it and what our goals for the document really are.

Crafting an Effective Syllabus

Today’s research indicates that an effective syllabus is a toolbox for students that encourages them to use its tools all semester long.

The effective syllabus:

  • Is positive rather than punitive,
  • Uses personal pronouns such as “ you” and “I”,
  • Provides clear instructions for assignments,
  • Includes a course calendar that highlights the topics covered and due dates,
  • Contains a “how to succeed in this course” section,
  • Highlights the give and take relationship between students and faculty by discussing the responsibilities and due dates of each party, and
  • Lists academic services such as tutoring and writing centers that students can use.

Updating your syllabus can send a powerful message to students that you are engaged in their academic success, are prepared and organized for class, and that you too have responsibilities. Think of the message you send when your syllabus includes due dates for students and grading deadlines for you. By writing a more personalized and comprehensive syllabus, you automatically encourage your students to read it and refer back to it.



New Text, New Syllabus, No Problem

Using a new text for the first time? These simple suggestions will help you use the publisher’s resources to design a comprehensive and effective syllabus with a limited amount of time.

Check out the instructor’s companion website for the text. These generally contain chapter outlines, objectives, and lecture or topic discussions you can use to design your syllabus. While their wording may not fit your style, they are easily adaptable. Most institutions provide course objectives and then require faculty to design module or chapter objectives. Your text and the companion website usually provide objectives that are written for the student and/or instructor. You can quickly tweak these and create objectives that meet your needs. If your new text is a new edition, check for a crosswalk or content update from the author. These will help guide you through the major changes in the text. Some texts provide an ancillary specifically addressing the new edition. These will drastically cut your preparation time.

An effective syllabus includes a course outline with clearly defined assignments and due dates. The table of contents for the required text should be your pacing guide. Make sure you are covering all of the required material. The chapter outlines and instructor resource guides will help you design a comprehensive course calendar. A bare-bones calendar includes due dates, lecture topics, and reading assignments. To create a more comprehensive calendar that includes questions to look for as students read, link to online sources, key themes, or additional reading suggestions you can use with the resource provided. Your calendar then becomes more than a list of due dates; it becomes a guide for the course. The more your syllabus parallels your text, the more comprehensive it is.

As you develop your syllabus incorporate a “How to Succeed in this Course” section. Encourage students to use the online components that are provided with their texts such as chapter outlines, flash cards, tutorial quizzes, and activities. Show you care about your students’ success by walking them through the study process and giving them positive reinforcement. By spending a few minutes reviewing the resources that are provided with your new text, you can quickly design a comprehensive and effective syllabus.

To view sample syllabi complete with courses outlines, click herehere and here.

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