A well-organized syllabus is essential for any online course, particularly large online courses. Peggy Semingson, associate professor of literacy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, teaches online courses to groups of up to 300 to 400 students and finds that the syllabus plays an important role in setting expectations and tone and answering students' questions.
She offers the following advice on creating a syllabus.
- Be explicit. Because students in large online courses are not able to ask for and receive feedback, the syllabus needs to be explicit. “There's less room for ambiguity.Everything needs to be crystal clear with absolutely no typos,” Semingson says, noting that when instructors provide vague information, students often turn to each other for clarification, which can spread incorrect information.
- Include assignment rubrics and examples. Although Semingson strives to keep her syllabus relatively short, she finds it useful to include assignment rubrics and examples within the syllabus as well as within the modules that correspond to those assignments. Having them in the syllabus gives students a clear idea of what to expect before the course begins (assuming they read the syllabus). This also provides a central location for information about the assignments.
- Be redundant, but be careful. Anecdotally, Semingson mentions that she finds that her students want some redundancy of information throughout the course. Including assignment rubrics and examples, sending email reminders, and posting announcements that repeat and reiterate items found in the syllabus can serve as helpful reminders and provide students with the information when they need it without their having to search for it. But be careful to check the redundant information for accuracy and be sure when updating your course to update any changes in all the places in which that information appears.
- Strictly adhere to policies. You may be tempted to offer students flexibility when it comes to assignment due dates or requirements. But doing so in a large online course can create chaos. “It's a slippery slope,” Semingson says. “If you make allowances for one, you kind of have do that for everyone. You need to be a little bit more rigid. Everything is pretty much frontloaded in the beginning of the course. And there's not a lot of wiggle room to change things. Some instructors want the course to organically unfold. That's a big no-no with large-scale online courses.”
- Go beyond text. State regulations for teacher education require that certain standards be included. This often means that her syllabi can be up to 40 pages, which is much longer than she would like. She has reduced the actual length of her syllabi by including the state-required information in appendices.
In addition, she likes to convey information in a more user-friendly manner, incorporating a calendar. “I think students like snapshots. They want to see at a glance what's expected of them. When it's confusing, they tend to tune out,” Semingson says.
Semingson also links to a video course introduction in her syllabus. The video introduces the course itself and provides students with advice on how to succeed in the online learning environment (e.g., meeting deadlines, asking questions, and study skills).
Semingson sends the syllabus to students a couple of weeks before a course begins, providing adequate time for them to review it. She'll actually send it several times to ensure that students see it. And once the course begins, students will find the syllabus within the learning management system.
“The syllabus sets the tone. It lets students know the expectations for the entire course and whether it will be teacher-centered or learner-centered. If they know that they're going to be producing things, maybe they'll be more excited about the course. I'm trying to be more student-centered: having students create and produce,” Semingson says.