What to include in your syllabus
A syllabus can serve several functions beyond outlining the grading procedure and the topics to be covered. Slattery and Carlson (2005) identify 3 different kinds of goal that a syllabus can have:
- Motivational. A good syllabus motivates student engagement by welcoming students to the classroom with a friendly tone and can build student self-efficacy by transparently communicating how to succeed.
- Structural. A good syllabus provides structure to course content and guides the work of both instructors and students in the class.
- Evidentiary. A syllabus is often perceived as a “contract” between students and the instructor. Despite this not being a legal reality (Runmore, 2016), students will consult the syllabus for information about attendance, late assignments, technology, and other policies. In addition to communicating policies, a strong syllabus also communicates the instructor’s teaching philosophy (often implicitly), guiding student understanding of how to navigate the classroom.
Your syllabus, at minimum, should include:
- Basic information about the subject (title, subject number, meeting time and place, credit hours, etc.)
- Contact information for instructional staff and office hour time and location
- Subject description
- Subject policies (e.g., collaboration policy)
- Calendar of assignments and exams (including activities approved to be held outside of regular class time)
- Grading criteria
- Expectations for academic conduct
- Mandatory statements
We also encourage you to take steps to make your syllabus learner-centered. A learner-centered syllabus shifts its focus away from only summarizing content-to-be-covered or legalistic descriptions of course policies to providing information that facilitates student learning and makes the design of your subject more transparent.
The first step to creating a learner-centered syllabus is to intentionally design your course so that the alignment between the goals you have for your students, the assignments they do, and the in-class activities are intentional and clearly stated.
In addition to the features listed above, a learner-centered syllabus typically includes:
Intended learning outcomes (ILOs)
Explicitly stating your goals for student learning helps students better understand what knowledge and skills they will gain from participation in your course. Over the course of the semester, students can also refer back to the intended learning outcomes to better understand where they should focus their attention and self-assess where they need to be more strategic in their learning. See TLL’s page on Backward Design for more info on developing intended learning outcomes.
Rationale for teaching methods, assignments, and policies
Providing a rationale for teaching methods, assignments, and policies helps build student buy-in.
Help students understand your approach to teaching by explaining why you use the teaching methods you use (e.g., an explanation of why active participation is important for learning). Students who have never encountered the teaching practices that you use may misinterpret their intent.
Assignments: Clarifying how a particular assignment aligns with the subject’s goals can help students better understand why they are doing the work they are assigned and can help them reflect on their learning as they complete assignments.
Policies: Policies intended to benefit student learning, like an attendance policy, may be perceived as punitive. Telling students that they will miss rich in-class discussions if they are not in attendance helps them directly connect the policy with learning.
Guidance on how to meet the course goals and succeed in the course
Once goals are stated, students may not have a clear sense of how you expect them to achieve them. Transparency in this regard, whether in terms of clearly stating what achieving your ILOs looks like or guidance on how to complete an assignment, or even how to comport themselves in class, builds students’ self-efficacy and facilitates their attainment of learning outcomes. Additionally, your students may need advice on study skills, depending on their prior experience and disciplinary background. (What should their approach to the assigned readings be? Where should they go if they have questions?)
In addition to traditional statements directed toward course policies (e.g., expectations for academic conduct, collaboration policy), you can also include statements that show your students that you care about their well-being in the course. These might include tailored inclusivity statements, statements about mental health, and others detailed below. See MIT’s DoingWell site for additional statements.
Beyond providing additional transparency and support for your students, several studies show that in classes with learner-centered syllabuses, students are more likely to view the instructor as creative, caring, and reliable and that students themselves are more motivated to succeed in the course (Richmond et al., 2016).
How to communicate inclusive norms
A key requirement for student motivation is to foster a supportive classroom climate (including fostering a growth mindset and academic belonging). Communicating inclusive norms in your subject begins with the syllabus.
Many of the guidelines given above to make a syllabus more learner-centered will also make it more inclusive. In general, write your syllabus with a friendly tone, striking a balance between welcoming and inviting language and prohibitions or policies. This communicates to students that you care about their success, and they will perceive you as warmer, friendlier, and more motivated to teach (Hanish and Bridges, 2011).
You can also explicitly state a commitment to inclusivity through a syllabus statement (example below) and explain to students your expectations for their behavior in class and during discussion. Creating a warm classroom climate is important for learning, as socioemotional issues often interact with students’ intellectual work (Ambrose et al., 2016, 170ff.).
Review your syllabus (or ask a colleague to review it) for moments where you may invoke a “hidden curriculum” or a norm of higher education that may not be fully understood by all students, particularly first-generation college students or students from traditionally excluded groups. Office hours, for example, may be a new concept for students not used to higher education norms in the USA: students may not know what office hours are for, how to prepare for them, or what they gain from attending them. The syllabus is a place where you can make the value of this and other learning tools clear to students.
You can also model inclusive language and practices in your syllabus. You may choose, for instance, to include your pronouns on your syllabus along with your name and email (the author of this page, for instance, uses he/him/his pronouns). This can contribute to normalizing stating pronouns in your classroom, since we cannot always know what pronouns a person prefers by looking at them.
Beyond the tone of your syllabus and course policies, students will perceive your classroom as more inclusive, and feel more welcomed and motivated to succeed, if they feel that their perspective is represented in the content of the course. Review the learning resources and concepts you have selected and ask yourself, which perspectives and voices are present and which are absent. Does this mirror the perspectives and voices in your class? Are you exposing students to new perspectives or voices?
Subject and institute policies
We recommend that policies and procedures be explicitly stated on the syllabi for the subjects that you teach. For example, you might include language in your syllabus that clarifies:
- Homework submission guidelines (including policies for late work)
- Expectations for attendance and participation
- Permitted technology use
- Permitted collaboration
- Expectations for academic conduct
In line with the guidelines for inclusivity and learner-centeredness, help students understand the rationale for these policies.
It is important that students are aware of services available on the MIT campus to support the holistic student, particularly where to go if they need accommodations for disabilities and where they might seek help if they are experiencing stress or mental health challenges. While you are free to tailor the language on your syllabus, example statements from Disabilities and Access Services and Student Support Services are provided below.
Emergency changes to learning environment or delivery
The COVID-19 outbreak during the spring semester 2020 caused all classes to pivot online. As of this website’s publication, we do not know when or if classes will return to normal in the fall. In light of these unique times, we recommend that in your Fall 2020 syllabuses, you put some thought into a statement addressing the uniqueness of this situation and how your specific class will address it. Here is an example from UNC Chapel Hill.
Example syllabus statements
The following statements are tailored for use at MIT. You may use and modify them as you see fit.
Special accommodations for students with disabilities
Student mental health
- Nuclear Systems Design Project (22.033/22.33)
- Thermodynamics of Materials, Brown
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, W. B., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010) How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.
Hanish, R. J. & Bridges, K. R. (2011) Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 14(3), 319–330.
Richmond, A. S., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N., Morgan, R. K. (2016). Can a learner-centered syllabus change students’ perceptions of student-professor rapport and master teacher behaviors? Scholarship of teaching and learning in psychology 2(3). 159–168. [htlp://dx.doi.org/10.1037/910000066]
Richmond, A. S. (2016). Constructing a learner-centered syllabus: one professor’s journey. IDEA Paper 60. [https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED573642.pdf]
Runmore, M. M. (2016). The course syllabus: legal contract or operator’s manual? American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 80(10). Article 177.
Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus. College Teaching, 53(4), 159–164.