The Effective Syllabus
Engaging students and communicating content.
What is an Effective Syllabus?
An effective syllabus is one that clearly outlines a student’s path to success in any course. The syllabus is often both the introduction to a course and its backbone, returned to continuously by instructors and students for guidance. The traditional syllabus has evolved from a short page describing the schedule and grading policy to a complete framework that helps students understand how to interact with your course in the most successful way possible. It also orients students to the participatory features and expectations of the course.
It also serves as a document that can outline services that students may reference if they need additional assistance, such as disability accomodations as well as other institutional policies.
How Can I Use This in My Course?
UAF’s Faculty Senate has established syllabus requirements for all courses as well as helpful checklists and examples. eCampus offers the eSyllabus, a template that includes all the Faculty Senate requirements as well as a section on “Student Effort,” which was developed for online courses.
- UAF Faculty Senate requirements: A list of UAF-wide requirements, checklists, and examples
- eCampus’s eSyllabus: An outline of requirements with boilerplate sample text and guidelines; template for proposing new courses
UAF requires that a schedule of class topics and assignments (with due dates) be included in the syllabus. The schedule helps students navigate the course materials, assignments, and expectations. Think of it as a map and try to make it as readable as possible. Limit yourself to one page for easy reference and be specific (e.g. rather than list “labs,” give each lab a title that describes its content).
Policies regarding how you evaluate students in your course are required elements of your syllabus as well. Clearly communicate your policies on grading student work, accepting late work, and tabulating final scores. Explain how you will use points, percentages, weights, and/or letter grades in your grading scheme. Provide information regarding university policies on withdrawals, incompletes, and no-basis grades.
Student Effort (for online courses):
The UAF Faculty Senate has determined that one credit hour [of non-laboratory instruction] represents “800 minutes of lecture (plus 1600 minutes of study),’ which, for the standard 14-week semester, equates to a minimum of 1 hour of lecture (instruction) + 2 hours of study per credit hour.
Because we want all student activity to be meaningful, UAF eCampus asks instructors to further document where student effort goes by percentage of effort into four categories that expand on the simple lecture/study ratio. These categories will demonstrate how the student will be spending their required time in the course. The four categories are:
- Instruction (minimum 33%: things like lectures, readings, teacher-student conferences)
- Individual Research (individual research for papers, projects)
- Assignments (actual projects and assessments)
- Collaboration (discussion, groups projects, blog commenting)
- Instruction: Lecture/Readings 35%
- Individual Research: Final project 10%
- Assignments: Quizzes, Homework, Blog posts 35%
- Collaboration: Discussion Board, Blog comments 20%
You may choose not to publish this information to your students, however, it is a necessary element to think about in the course development stage.
Particularly for eCampus courses, it’s helpful to give students specific instructions on how to get started: where to go, what to look for, what to do first. Some students might not click around the course so giving direction up front will get them started.
Include guidelines for submitting assignments. What types of files are acceptable? Do you have file naming conventions? Should students submit on Blackboard? Google Drive? A class blog? Be specific and be prepared to guide students through the submission process.
Particularly for eCampus courses, let students know how you expect them to move through the course. Do you have weekly deadlines? Are there any big projects or deadlines worth highlighting?
Response Time and Feedback
Clarify your policies on response time and feedback to students as part of your course policies. Set expectations for students by providing a specific window of time they can expect to hear back from you concerning email communications. Feedback on class assignments will likely be more time consuming, so clarify when you will be grading and when students should expect feedback on their coursework.
eCampus offers proctoring for exams in eCampus courses. If your course includes a proctored exam, tell students in your syllabus and let them know how to take the exam if they are in Fairbanks or elsewhere, which involves designating a proctor.
Technologies and Technology Support
If students are expected to use particular technologies in your course, provide links to where students can find those technologies. Include links to support services for these technologies when they are available. Outline any technical specifications for required software (Windows and Mac OS) or hardware.
If you are using 3rd-party tools in your course, provide links to support resources such as tutorials, accessibility information, and privacy policies.
Questions and Considerations
Can I create a syllabus that is effective and engaging for my students, but also fulfills the requirements my department and others set for syllabi? A syllabus is a complex document, serving multiple purposes as well as multiple audiences. One way of accommodating this complexity is to create multiple documents — one syllabus that looks like the traditional, black-and-white text document with all the headings required by Faculty Senate, and another that includes all the same information in a different format and voice for students. You might also decide to keep the traditional information, but shift your form to include more images and opportunities for interactivity.
Your syllabus is one of the first communications you’ll have with your students. You have the opportunity to set a tone — make sure it is reflective of the relationship you hope to maintain with them.
There are a number of tools that you might use to build a dynamic syllabus, including:
- Prezi for an interactive presentation format
- Thinglink for creating an annotated, interactive image
- Pixton for making comics
- Pictochart for reating infographics
- Google Docs template for a “magazine-style” syllabus
A syllabus is no good if no one’s reading it. Being specific, succinct, and organized are the first steps to readability, but design matters too. Check out the examples below for creatively designed and organized syllabi:
- Introduction to Managerial Accounting, UAF with Ruth Prato – clear information on technology use, requirements, and support
- Introduction to Homeland Security, UAF with Sean McGee — simple PDF that uses image and design for clear organization
- PR Writing, Marquette U — a syllabus as FAQs
- Northern Lit Syllabus, UAF with Madara Mason — a syllabus as infographic
- Web Graphics & Multimedia, UAF with Christen Bouffard– Clear policies regarding communication
- “The Unthinkable Mind,” UW-Madison with ‘¨Lynda Barry — hand-illustrated syllabus
- ‘¨Chronicle of Higher Education list of Creative Syllabuses
- Chemistry Major’s Lab, Georgia College’¨ with Julia Metzker — a syllabus in the form of a Prezi
- Barry, L. (2014) Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Instructor. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.
- Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices (PDF). College Teaching.
The Illustrated Syllabus
UAF Instructional Designers
This page has been authored collectively by the experts on the UAF Instructional Design Team. Let us know if you have suggestions or corrections!