How (And Why!) to Write a Course Syllabus

Updated: Oct 8


Explore our comprehensive guide for tips to write your next course syllabus.

Contact Skyepack to simplify your planning for the school year.

As an instructor, you're well aware that your job begins before students walk into the classroom.


In the weeks leading up to the new semester, you're hard at work. You may be researching innovative instructional design trends, organizing your in-person and online classrooms, or conducting research toward your own ongoing educational efforts. And of course, as your curriculum for the new semester is finalized, it's up to you to write a straightforward, detailed syllabus to communicate this information to your incoming students.


Let's focus on that last task: creating a syllabus. To help you start your semester off on the right foot, we're going to cover the essentials of creating an effective course syllabus through the following points:

  • What is a course syllabus?

  • How do you plan a syllabus?

  • What are the main principles of syllabus design?

  • Where can you access a course syllabus template to begin planning?

A syllabus isn't a document that you simply review at the start of the semester. It's an essential guide for both you and students throughout the course. Let's dive in.

What is a course syllabus?

What is a course syllabus?


Course Syllabus Definition


A course syllabus is a document created by instructors to communicate all need-to-know information about how students can be successful in a specific course.


It includes the rules and responsibilities that students will be expected to follow in the course, as well as the learning objectives that the course targets. The exact information included (and how it's represented) may be dictated by the education institution’s stringent requirements.


Importance of the Course Syllabus


A well-planned course syllabus is a crucial document for both instructors and students alike.


This document serves as a single source of truth for the general progression of the course. Both the students and instructors will be expected to complete the objectives set out in the syllabus by the end of the semester.


As an instructor, you likely have additional academic pursuits (such as required research) outside of teaching. So, creating a detailed syllabus for each course may fall low on your to-do list. However, a reasonably detailed syllabus can:

  • Guide your planning for the course, ensuring that you can make the most of each class meeting.

  • Be used as a reference tool for parties not taking the course, such as interested prospective students or colleagues who want to understand what students learned.

  • Remove any confusion around the workings of the course, preventing conflict with students throughout the semester.

An in-depth syllabus benefits students as well. It communicates all requirements and expectations ahead of time and sets your students up for success. Further, it can increase their excitement for the course and give them insight into what will be taught, ensuring that the course they signed up for is one that will benefit their academic journey.

How do you plan a course syllabus?

How do you plan a syllabus?


Before you begin constructing your course syllabus, you’ll need to gather and prepare to include a few key pieces of information. From the basic logistics to a weekly breakdown of the semester's schedule, let's walk through the six types of information you’ll need to include in your next syllabus.

What should be included in a course syllabus?

What should be included in a course syllabus?

Logistics


Your syllabus should communicate everything that a student needs to know to allow them to show up to the course on time and in the right place. Further, students should know who to reach out to and how to communicate with them if they need assistance.


Logistics includes basic information such as:

  • The name of the course

  • A term or semester identifier (ex: Fall 2021)

  • The date and time of course meetings

  • The course’s location

  • The name of the instructor

  • Contact information for the instructor

Also include a statement that clarifies the best way to contact you, the instructor. If you provide your phone number, email address, and office location, which is the preferred channel for students to reach out through? This is also where you'd want to list either your in-person or virtual office hour availability.

Learning Outcomes and Course Objectives


In your syllabus, include a section that discusses the course objectives—what will be taught to students over the time that they're enrolled in the course. Often, these objectives are dry, formulaic, and formal, which is generally not attractive to students.


Because of this, we recommend including a few sentences about learning outcomes as well. Rather than discussing the formal learning requirements that the course fulfills, learning outcomes emphasize something that's more attractive to students -- what they will be able to do better after taking the course. These should be written in a more narrative, conversational manner.

Deadlines and Policies


What do students need to understand to turn in their work on time? In your policies section, include information such as:

  • How and when students should turn in work. Can they submit their work online by midnight on the day it's due? Or, is a paper copy due in person, during class?

  • How you'll handle late work. Is there a 10% grade reduction for each day late? Or, is late work simply not accepted?

  • How you'll handle plagiarism. Most likely, your institution has already outlined procedures for plagiarized work and academic honesty. This information should be added to your syllabus as a reference for students and to maintain consistency with the rest of your university’s policies on plagiarism.

  • How you'll handle extra credit. Can students complete additional assignments or tasks to increase their grades?

Some of these policies may be dictated by your institution or internally within your department, so it's best to check for existing guidelines first.

Grading Breakdown


Students are in the class to learn and earn credit toward their degree and graduation. However, it's impossible to earn that credit without passing the course.


By including an in-depth breakdown of course grading, students can understand how each portion of the course experience factors into their ability to pass. Create a grading breakdown in which each aspect of the course is assigned a percentage and all components add up to make 100% of a student’s grade.


This breakdown should reflect exams, quizzes, attendance, major projects, essays, and any other opportunities included in the course.

Weekly Overview of Workload


As we'll discuss shortly, your syllabus is the "Source of Truth" for students. While in the course, students will need to structure their educational priorities around major deadlines and key dates. In some cases, they may even need to factor in life events, such as not scheduling a doctor's appointment on a test day and avoiding major social engagements in the week leading up to a large project.


By giving them a reasonably detailed, week-by-week overview of their workload in the course, students will be able to plan accordingly. Not only will they appreciate the transparency, but they'll be more successful overall when they can anticipate and plan for success.

Required Materials


Lastly, but certainly not least, include a list of all required learning materials and how a student can access them. For example, are there specific textbooks that students can only purchase through the school bookstore? Will they need a certain calculator to successfully navigate complex equations throughout the semester? Are there online stores through which students can purchase reading materials at a reduced price?


Alongside these resources, include a statement specifying which materials are required and which are optional. For required materials, you might include a statement like, "This is a required material for you to successfully complete this course." Be sure to also indicate which materials are supplemental but not required. For example, "These materials are supplemental; they are helpful throughout this course and beyond but are not required."


This section of your syllabus can be drastically simplified for both you and your students if you invest in custom digital course materials. Because these materials are custom-created to include only the exact resources needed for your course, students won't need to purchase multiple resources. And, because students can purchase access with a low, one-time fee, they will have the resources they need on day one of the course. This ensures there is no worry that students will encounter long shipping times, purchase the wrong edition of a required reading, or run into any other trouble acquiring necessary course materials.


Bonus! Explore Skyepack case studies to learn more about investing in this resource for your students.


What are the main principles of course syllabus design?

What are the main principles of syllabus design?


Writing a syllabus that both prepares and excites your students for your course depends on more than just the information you include in it. Factor in how you include that information as well.


Here are four basic principles for creating a well-organized, useful syllabus that benefits both you and your students alike.

When creating your course syllabus, follow the basic rules of document organization.

Follow the basic rules of document organization.


Do you have any strict procedures surrounding how students should submit written work? Perhaps it must be in a Word document formatted in Times New Roman, 12 point font, with double-spacing between each line.


You want students to follow stringent document formatting procedures. It naturally follows that you should incorporate basic formatting best practices in your documents as well!


Beyond being a contradiction, bad formatting can be distracting for students, drawing their attention away from the crucial information included in your syllabus. But, it doesn't need to be complicated to incorporate formatting best practices.


Incorporate bullet points to break up large blocks of text, left align content, and only bold points that naturally make sense to emphasize to help your students quickly navigate your syllabus and find the information they need.

Your course syllabus should be the single source of truth.

Make your syllabus the single source of truth.


By now, you've likely heard that your syllabus is meant to be the single source of truth for your course. This means that all essential information should be represented in your syllabus. Further, within your syllabus, each piece of information should only be included one time.


When information is repeated multiple times and in multiple places, it’s easy for there to be discrepancies across the various copies. That said, many schools do have additional requirements beyond their syllabus— such as certain information being included in a Learning Management System as well.


This can create challenges. Let's say you have a written calendar in your syllabus and on your online course website. However, the deadline for the course's final project is set as a different date on each calendar. Which should students follow? If students follow the wrong resource, will they be penalized for turning in their project late?


In this instance, start the year by aligning all of your additional resources with your syllabus and tell students that regardless of changes, the syllabus is the main source of truth. Then, if you do need to make changes to this information throughout the year, set a reminder to yourself to update the supplementary materials as well.


In your course syllabus, outline a reasonably detailed calendar.

Write a detailed, helpful calendar for students.


Aim to write a reasonably detailed calendar regarding the progression of the course. By reasonably detailed, we mean a calendar that has enough content for students to understand what each week will bring.


For example, aim to include the following for each week:

  • The pages of your resources that you'll cover (rather than just overarching chapters)

  • What skills or lessons the students will learn

  • The dates of any quizzes or exams

  • The dates of any homework assignments

This calendar should be embedded directly within your syllabus and not linked from another page. This draws back to the idea of your syllabus serving as a single source of truth.


Lastly, it's understandable that you may want some ability to change this throughout the year if roadblocks arise. Include a statement below your calendar that the exact dates are subject to change and how you'll communicate these changes to students if so.

Don't just mention ADA compliance in your course syllabus, incorporate it.

Don't just mention ADA compliance, incorporate it.


In your syllabus, you should include a statement of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. This statement discusses where students can access ADA-compliant resources if needed. This information will most likely already be prepared by your institution and mandatory to include in your syllabus. Reach out to your institution first to discover any mandated language for this section.


Beyond including a statement of ADA compliance, make sure your syllabus itself is accessible for learners of all abilities. This includes small changes such as:

  • Providing your syllabus in a word document and not as a photo or image. This allows screen readers to navigate the text on the page.

  • For any images or graphics, include descriptive alternative text or captions. This allows screen readers to read a description of the text aloud for learners.

  • Format text in a way that's tab-able. By using heading elements in a sequentially-descending order, readers can navigate the page using their keyboard alone.

  • Use detailed text for links. Rather than hyperlinking "click here," write anchor text that specifies where the link leads.

Essentially, you should both state that your course will be accessible and create resources—such as your syllabus!—in a way that aligns with that statement.

Where can you access a course syllabus template?

Where can you access a course syllabus template to begin planning?


When you're ready to start outlining your syllabus, first check with your educational institution. They may have a template that you're required to use to maintain consistency across courses. Even if a template isn’t required, they may have one that you can use as a starting point.


If not, you can use the template below to begin your syllabus planning.

You can use this course syllabus template to begin your planning.

At the top of your syllabus, include the course name in an H1 heading. Below that, include the logistical information under an H2 heading ("Contact" or something along those lines).


Each subsequent section should also be labeled with an H2 heading corresponding to what it contains. If you include subsections within main sections, label those with H3 headings. For example, you might create an overall section for "Contact" and then H3 sub-labels for "Email," “Phone," and "Office Hours."


Below the logistical information, include the course overview and learning objectives. Follow the course overview with a list of required materials, your course policies, and ADA statement. Lastly, wrap up the syllabus with a calendar for the course.

Every instructor and student has encountered a syllabus over the course of their academic careers. Because it's such a standard document, it's easy to overlook a syllabus’s importance. However, with these tips, you'll be able to create a syllabus that's valuable for both your students and your teaching efforts alike.


To improve your planning for the new year, contact the team at Skyepack to learn about the benefits of custom digital course materials. In the meantime, check out the following additional resources from the Skyepack blog:

Contact Skyepack today to simplify your planning for the new school year.