Dancing With Kate Smith

Rob Weir offers advice on how to prepare a syllabus.

February 26, 2009

The first time I taught U.S. history from 1870 to the present, I never made it past the New Deal. That’s because I had a lousy syllabus. Some professors regard syllabi as annoying typing exercises and begrudgingly crank out a perfunctory list of topics, readings, and exams. A smaller group produces documents that rival War and Peace in thickness. Neither is the best role model, but the second group is closer to the mark. Forget the seduction of slick and thin; when it comes to a syllabus, you’re better off dancing with Kate Smith than with Kate Moss.

A good syllabus is the organizing structure of a course, an unambiguous statement of expectations, and a professor’s first line of defense in disputes over policy, procedure, and grades. Your syllabus should lay out what you expect students to do, why you want it, when you want it, and what happens if students don’t comply. Assume nothing and spell out everything. The more you put in your syllabus up front, the less you’ll have to negotiate or explain later.

The first reason for a detailed syllabus is that it’s your personal roadmap. I often sketch a syllabus before I begin formal course preparations. It’s a way of grasping what can realistically be done in a semester, and it helps me be more efficient in preparing material. It will also keep me on task during the semester, so I don’t end up seven decades short of where I’m supposed to be!

But a more important reason is this: A well written syllabus functions as a contract between you and your students. After laying out the basics -- your name, contact details, course information, books to purchase -- tell students exactly what you want from them. Develop and state your policies on matters such as attendance, late work, missed assignments and exams, and academic dishonesty. Put in a separate “Due Dates” sub-section (and reiterate in the “Assignments” section). Follow with one on how you will calculate student grades. Then you can get down to the task of listing course content and assignments.

A syllabus shell might look something like this:

1. Your name, the course title, and the course number (If you think all students will remember these, think again!)

2. Office location and the hours you’ll actually be there.

3. Contact information (Give an e-mail and telephone number you want students to use.)

4. A list of books and materials assigned for the course, plus details on where these can be purchased or consulted.

5. Course overview (State your objectives, the course pedagogy, and your expectations.)

6. Attendance policy

7. Grading criteria

8. Due dates

9. Late and missed work policies

10. Content topics with corresponding readings and assignments. (It works best if you map these by class meeting dates rather than merely listing them.)

11. Special instructions for things that are not self-explanatory. (For example, you might want to lay out parameters for an oral report, spell out lab etiquette, or explain the logistics of required discussion sections.)

12. Supplemental information such as suggested reading lists, possible research topics, useful Web sites, etc.

There’s nothing etched in stone about the order in which you place these things in a syllabus, but it is imperative that the document is clear, that you lay out criteria you intend to follow, and that you leave little room for ambiguity. New instructors often get into trouble by trying to be too “reasonable.” You should long for goodwill, but never assume it. A few suggestions:

  • Limit contact information to your comfort zone. If you don’t want students to call you at home or on your cell, don’t give out the numbers. Set parameters. Many students are night-owls, for instance, so I tell them that I won’t read e-mails sent after 8 pm and that I reserve 24 hours to respond on weekdays and 48 on weekends
  • Many colleges have dispensed with blanket attendance policies, but you don’t have to. Develop your own attendance policy with specific consequences for violating it. (You might, for example, drop the final grade by a half letter for each class missed over your limit.)
  • Avoid ambiguous grading criteria. Evaluating student work is hard enough as it is, and students will challenge grades. Make sure you can calculate grades objectively. It’s probably a bad idea to give a lot of weight to a subjective factor such as class participation, unless you’re teaching a small symposium and can clearly justify how you assess each student’s achievement.
  • Stress academic honesty. Don’t assume students have read their handbooks on this, so reiterate it. If you have personal policies — such as automatically reporting plagiarism to the honors board — state this as well; state what will happen if they violate the code.
  • Develop a cast-in-stone policy on excuses. The less wiggle room, the better. My own policy — stated in the syllabus — is that the only accepted excuses for late work or missed exams are documented medical emergencies or requests from an academic dean. No exceptions. All others receive a half letter-grade deduction for every 24 hours (or portion thereof) an assignment is late. Sound unreasonable? I get fewer complaints than when I made case-by-case decisions. Everyone thinks his or her excuse is legit. Do you want to judge? Not I.
  • Tailor the syllabus to the course. The person who lists dozens of “suggested readings” on a 100-level syllabus is wasting good TV time. On the other hand, a syllabus for a research seminar that doesn’t list such titles is short-changing students.

Don’t be afraid to spice up the syllabus. They don’t have to be dry as dust, and small doses of embedded humor can’t hurt. But make sure your syllabi are robust, not lean. Remember: Kate Smith, not Kate Moss.


1. Tips from the University of Southern California

2. Seven steps from eHow

3. Template from University of Southern Indiana.

4. Syllabus for an online college algebra course at Utah State University


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