Five tips for drafting a syllabus

Catherine Turner, a director of faculty programming and pedagogy for CETLI, offers advice on crafting or revising a syllabus.

Keyboard and paper on desk with image of graduation cap and tassel.
Image: iStock/Tero Vesalainen

The syllabus can be an amorphous document: It sets guideposts for a semester and provides academic resources, yes, but it also sets a tone for the time ahead. It’s a welcome mat that also happens to be a bit of a crystal ball. 

“What’s the rhythm in the weeks? Will there be low-stakes exams? Discussion board assignments every week? Students turn to the syllabus to know what the workload is going to look like, and that’s really helpful for them," says Catherine Turner, director of faculty pedagogy and programming for the Center for Excellence in Teaching Learning and Innovation (CETLI), which is a resource for assistance with syllabus development. “I think it’s very useful to set expectations around what students will be doing,”

The syllabus is, Turner adds, an opportunity—a crucial one—to set expectations for what happens when plans go wrong, which she emphasizes “saves a lot of headaches” later. What might seem obvious to a faculty member, she says, often is not to students.

Beyond that, the syllabus serves as a tool for instructors to consider what it is they want to accomplish, and what slices of their knowledge are most useful. 

“You obviously can’t teach your students everything you know in 14 weeks, but the syllabus is an exercise in thinking about what is interesting and valuable in the course, and how you can shape this knowledge for new learners,” Turner adds.

Shannon Mattern, the Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, takes a creative approach to her syllabus-making. For her, the goal is to chunk an otherwise linear document so that it’s easy to navigate and less daunting to students. 

“I put a lot of thought into the actual experience design, the aesthetics of the syllabus, because I want it to embody the spirit of our work together,” Mattern says. “I want it to adopt a tone that is invitational, conversational, and gives a sense of possibility rather than just being about requirements and the consequences for not adhering to them.”

For her course Cinema and Media Studies Research Methods, she’s created an online resource organized into a visually appealing grid, with some of the supplemental course materials compiled in a separate web space to avoid clutter. A lengthy, more traditional syllabus format is provided in Google Docs for those who prefer it. 

But her course websites, she says, are resources that students often go back to years later for reference. In that sense, her syllabus lives beyond the initial learning experience; communities, she says, have formed in recent years to discuss this in some depth, rethinking how syllabi function, appear, and exist beyond the weeks of a semester—or even beyond the walls of academia.

“I really do look at course design as a creative enterprise,” she says. “It’s like composition, collage, cooking—a synthetic, generative endeavor that invites us to consider the needs and desires of our collaborators, and I love that there’s a greater discourse around that. You could say the syllabus has been democratized and regarded as a document that’s not purely administrative and not purely academic; there are a lot of communities of practice, mutual aid groups, artistic collectives, activists who have co-opted the syllabus and made it into a document that serves intentional learning communities in different contexts.”

Below, a few considerations from Turner for crafting an effective, welcoming syllabus. 

Is the syllabus written for students?

“It’s so important that the syllabus be a document written for students, and I think the first thing students go to the syllabus for is to find out what the dates are when major things are happening or due,” says Turner. Midterms and other exams should be clearly labeled so that students clearly understand when in the semester will be their busy times. In short, consider what you would want to know first when browsing the document (or web page). 

What will grading look like? 

Students also look to a syllabus to understand how their grade is calculated. “Particularly if you’re including things like class participation, give students some idea of what it is you expect in terms of class participation,” she says.

How strict is attendance? 

Turner says this is important for all students who know they might get sick or have other responsibilities during the semester. It is especially important for student athletes who often know that they need to travel during the semester. If a student can miss just one class in the semester, for example, some students may decide not to take the course. 

What happens when things go wrong?

Turner says students and faculty have become increasingly aware of unexpected events since the pandemic, and it’s helpful for there to be mention of what happens if someone falls ill during a major date in the semester. An instructor might list alternative exam options for that student. 

It’s also helpful to have a policy on extensions. 

“That’s often times super helpful for students to know that if they look ahead and have this paper due on this day, and three others on that same day, they can request an extension as long as it’s 48 hours ahead of time, or something like that,” says Turner. 

What is your policy on AI?

Having a section in the syllabus about generative AI and your interpretation of it, says Turner, will add clarity to how students can use it. For example, she says, some students may intend to use it as a tool to enhance the writing of a paper, essentially using it as a tutor. “Try to be clear about whether that is or isn’t OK,” she says. “Because students don’t know. We’re all here to learn, so if you assume all students know any use of generative AI is cheating, it’s not true that they do all know, and you want to consider what you mean.”