If you’re teaching a college class for the first time, making and writing your syllabus is no easy task. Be sure to consider these things before the first day of classes.

Formulating Your Syllabus

Why take that much time in developing your syllabus when students don’t read it anyway? Why not just copy and paste someone else’s syllabus who taught the class before? The syllabus is a formal statement from the instructor to the students communicating the terms of successfully completing the course. If you use word-for-word someone else’s syllabus, the syllabus you hand to students will not reflect your course (unless you prefer to handle things exactly as the person who gave you the syllabus would). Secondly, a well-crafted syllabus means that when students have a course-related complaint, it won’t be because the course policies were not communicated to them from the beginning. Third, a well-written syllabus provides a roadmap to all students for navigating the course and knowing a professor’s boundaries when making certain requests.

Syllabi Basics: What to Include?

  • A standard syllabus includes the course name, term, location, time of your class meeting, your name, office information, office hours, course description, objectives, textbook information, grading policy, and course calendar. 
  • Standard syllabi may also include administration-mandated information like policies about disability services, academic integrity/dishonesty, and deadlines for course withdrawal. 
  • Everything else is really the instructor’s course policies. Some people euphemistically call them “Student Responsibilities,” but I like to think of them as “Instructor Pet Peeves.” These are policies about attendance, class participation, make-up exams, extra credit, use of technology—basically, anything and everything that could directly or indirectly affect a student’s grade. Be very careful when crafting this part, as an ambiguous policy could spell disaster for you down the road.

Things to Remember

  • Your syllabus is not a legal document and should not be treated as such. Just be mindful of the language that you use in your syllabus to avoid potential “educational malpractice” problems. See Hampton University’s guide for “Constructing Legally Sound Syllabi” for more discussion on syllabus language. 
  • You can have the most beautifully crafted, water-tight syllabus, and there will still be that one student who sends you an email asking you something that has already been covered in your syllabus. It happens. Just be prepared to deliver a calm response (if any) when it does. 
  • You cannot replace a syllabus for instruction—that is the responsibility of the instructor. If there is a complicated process for completing an assignment, you will need to walk students through those steps in addition to putting that information on the syllabus. Remember that certain courses require different levels of preparation. For example, do not assume that freshmen and sophomores know how to write a paper or even where to start (spoiler alert: THEY DON’T). So be prepared to offer plenty of baby steps along the way for lower-level courses. 
  • It’s a personal preference to make exceptions to the rules. Some do and some don’t. Just remember that, when you make too many exceptions, this becomes your de facto course policy. All your students will figure this out really quickly (usually after the first exam). If you’re in the “no exceptions” camp, make sure to insert that plainly (i.e., in all caps) and frequently throughout your syllabus. Also remember that your students are human-beings with lives outside your course. So when a student comes to you with a legitimate sob story, it might not hurt to offer a little grace once in a while. Either way is okay, as long as you’ve spelled out your policies in your syllabus.

In my next post, I’ll discuss specific course policies that would be a good idea to include in a college syllabus. For the basics, you might check out a great blog on Chronicle of Higher Education concerning syllabus creation. What are your thoughts?



  1. Amanda Morin

    Student Responsibilities = Instructor Pet Peeves
    Yes! That’s so true.
    I found that a clear class policy in the syllabus (and occasional in-class reminders) went a long way and I only had to occasionally offer a sympathetic apology in response to a request that was against class policy.

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