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What Role Does Your Syllabus Play?

For Those Who Teach

What Role Does Your Syllabus Play?

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I sometimes worry that we don’t think about the syllabus as expansively and creatively as we could. We focus, almost exclusively it seems to me, on what should be on it—the information and details it should contain. We do much less thinking about the role of the syllabus—how it can or might function in a course, how it is or could be thought of, and how we do or could make better use of it. So, here’s an attempt to broaden our thinking.

Different roles of a syllabus.

  • A map – It lays out the countryside of the course and its content. It may designate the spot where students begin and the place where we hope they’ll end. The syllabus is a trip planner, like those old AAA maps that highlighted the best route. A good syllabus tells students (those who pay attention) where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they’re headed. That’s a big comfort when the territory is new and unfamiliar.
  • An invitation – It’s an invite to a learning event, and a good syllabus makes it look like a dinner party you wouldn’t want to miss. There will be great food and lots of it—that’s the course content—stimulating conversation, laughter, learning, and lots of preparing for professional life ahead. Those invited should plan to stay for the whole event. No ducking out early.
  • A contract – It describes a relationship with obligations. It spells out what students must do and not do, hopefully with more emphasis on the dos than the don’ts. A good syllabus includes at least a bit of the rationale behind what it obligates students to deliver. Contracts specify what both parties in the relationship will provide. A good syllabus lays out what the teacher will and won’t do as well. Usually contracts are signed, signifying that the terms of the relationship are accepted by both parties.
  • A puzzle, partly assembled – Every course has lots pieces. The content has been cut up into chunks, modules, and units. The readings are also chopped up and the assignments spread out across the course. On the syllabus, the calendar lists content, exams, and assignments, although it isn’t always clear how they fit together. And then there are rules, policies, and prohibitions—things a student should and shouldn’t do. Where do these pieces fit in the puzzle? Why are there so many? The syllabus empties the puzzle box, does the initial sorting to locate the edges, and starts putting some of the big pieces together. A well-crafted syllabus guides students as they work to complete the puzzle.
  • A sneak peek – The syllabus introduces the course and the person teaching it. What’s the course about? Does the content look interesting? Is it relevant now or only in the future? Does the teacher seem friendly and approachable? Does it sound like she wants to teach this course? What does he think about students? Does he trust them, like them, and want them to do well? Like a good movie trailer, the syllabus conveys a lot about the course and its instructor. Students read between the lines and form first impressions.
  • An owner’s manual – The teacher who designed this course has prepared a manual that shows how the course operates. The student has purchased the course (quite literally) and now has a manual that explains course specifications. It also makes clear that there are ways to run the course that will cause it to break down, sometimes beyond repair. There’s a trouble-shooting guide that offers suggestions for what to do when the course isn’t running smoothly. It will identify what may be causing the problem and how it might be fixed.

The syllabus doesn’t have to be all of these things. It can serve few or many functions. What role does this all-important teaching artifact play in your courses? Think about it—the syllabus is relevant for the entire course. It has everything all in one place; in print and accessible online any time during the course. What promise and potential! Is your syllabus all that it could be in your courses?

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