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This advice comes from Dr. John Wood - Professor, Rose State College

A syllabus is important as a roadmap and an agreement between you and the student, whether in class or online. You have to set out your requirements during the onset to get all the students on the same page and to minimize grade appeals. A syllabus is considered a contract with a student. As an instructor, you are expected to give them this pathway or set of guidelines and adhere to them. However, classes are unpredictable and you might find unexpected problems.

While students may see a syllabus as an unchangeable document, treat it more like a living document or a work in progress. It can be changed with proper student notification. Make sure you state in the document itself that you can change and update it as you see fit. Let’s look at some basic ingredients in a syllabus:

  • Course specifics: Course name, course number, meeting times, course location, your office hours, and your contact information.
  • Text book(s): Include information on possible places to find course materials.
  • Attendance or discussion policy: Set expectations and outline how absences should be handled.
  • Grading: Due dates, late work policy, value of each assignment and test assessments, and grading scale.
  • Your expectations and philosophy.
  • Class schedule with weekly dates and order of assignments. You can explain each assignment and expectation.
  • Objectives. Make sure the objectives are outlined. Often they are noted in bulleted form. You can tie in your objectives and assignments in this section.

Note: Some colleges and universities treat syllabi as a "cookbook" where all these afore mentioned elements are required, but presented in an order and way you are comfortable. Other colleges and universities require a set order or boiler plate format. Check with your department head for guidance.

  • Online syllabi are different from those in the classroom. Students in an online setting will view the syllabus as a roadmap. A professor is not in front of them so the syllabus is largely the substitute. You have to be very clear about your expectations, especially online.
  • Participation. Online students do not inhabit a space you can see, so set specific guideline for participation. That could mean logging in or actually posting 3 times a week. Be specific whether you require just logging in or posting. Looking at different pages on the website is not the same as posting information on the discussion board. In class, you should set specific attendance criteria, such as losing a letter grade for missing more than three classes or accumulating 3 points for each class they attend; you have to be specific.
  • Grade appeals often originate from gray areas in the syllabus. Some professors will lengthen their syllabus over time to cover all sorts of contingencies, from text messaging and Facebook use to late assignments. Whatever your pet peeves, get them down in writing. When it is in writing, it is part of the agreement from the onset. Consider adding new guidelines in the next semester.
  • Student expectations should be given priority on a syllabus. Some students might think an online class is easier than an in-person class. Others might think attendance is optional. So, you have to be clear on what you expect.
  • Due dates. Students take online classes for different reasons, whether it is because they work full time, have kids, or are on active duty in the military. These students vary in their activity from doing their work early in the week to only on weekends. Be flexible in setting your initial due dates. For in-person classes, you might get behind in lecture, so you can tell students that your due dates are flexible based on whether the class is "getting it." If students are not obtaining the information efficiently, the due date in the syllabus might have to be moved forward. Make sure to always keep your students in the communication loop when it comes to due dates. Consider adding dates to an online calendar and on the class homepage. Make sure these due dates are visible and in more than one place. Having assignments due late Sunday night gives working students a full weekend to finish their scheduled assignment.


About the author: Dr. John Wood has a Ph.D., Environmental Policy and Conflict, a MA, Political Science, and a BS, Journalism and Broadcasting, all from Oklahoma State University. He is currently a professor of Political Science at Rose State College.