Characteristics of a Good Syllabus

Your course syllabus is a bit like a contract you give your class. In it you tell them what the course is about, what you expect them to learn, how you expect them to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

I also use the syllabus as a way to advertise the course, to share my excitement for the course. After all, we’re going to be working together for about fourteen weeks- we’d better be excited to embark on the journey in the first place!

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Here are some important elements to a good syllabus:

1. An Introductory paragraph that tells the student what the class is about. Make it interesting- get them hooked, but keep it short. Here’s the beginning paragraph of a neurobiology course I taught last year:

Chances are, if you’re taking this course by choice, you are curious about what makes you tick, how you process both internal and external stimuli to arrive at a decision about how to respond, how you feel or remember or experience things. My hope is that this course will provide you with some important insight into how all that works.

Here’s another hook:

By understanding how neurons work at a cellular/subcellular level, we may as a society come to understand better some of our most pressing problems like mental disease and drug addiction. Once you leave Vassar and become part of our nation’s policy makers, your understanding of these issues will inform your decisions for years to come. If you go on to study neuroscience/neurobiology in graduate work, this course will be a terrific preparation for advanced study in the field (so keep your notes!).

2. Explicitly list the pedagogical goals for the course. I’ve found this is an essential component of a good syllabus. Talk about these goals the first day of class to set the stage for the semester. I refer to these goals at key points during the semester- before spring break or near the end of the term- as a way of marking progress through the semester. I often give the students a mid-semester course evaluation that is centered around these curricular goals (see a future post!). Making your pedagogical goals explicit engages your students in the process of their learning and helps them reflect on what they are learning and how the class structure is assisting them towards that learning. Here are the goals I’ve listed for my neuroscience course this semester:

Specific curricular goals:

  1. Achieve a solid foundation in the experimental approaches to a variety of current research questions in neuroscience and behavior.
  2. Achieve a sophisticated ability to read and interpret the primary experimental literature.
  3. Be able to formulate a hypothesis, design, carry out and analyze a multi-level research project that relates to the relevant primary experimental literature.
  4. Become facile in the “language” of neuroscience and behavior, with a thorough mastery of our chosen subtopics, as well as a keen ability to speak and write on the discipline.

3. Types of assignments and their “weight” in the overall course grade. It’s important for students to know up front how many assignments they can expect. Are they about to embark on an intellectual adventure that will have them taking five exams, all cumulative, or writing four twenty-page papers? Do they have to get up in front of the class and give a presentation? Just like when you go to the dentist and know you have two big cavities that have to be drilled and filled, it’s important to know what you’re in for! Students don’t like surprises when it comes to juggling their academic workloads. The list is an important part of your contract with them and putting it up front in your syllabus forces you to think through all the assignments and how they will allow you to assess whether or not the students have met your curricular goals.

4. A class calendar with reading assignments, course subtopics, due dates for assignments. This portion of the syllabus is what most students focus on throughout the semester. Try to make this section as clear and specific as you can. It can serve as a checklist of sorts for the students as they progress through the semester. I use this section, too, to make margin notes about how each class session went, to mark my own progress preparing for class. I usually post this calendar on my course website (or Moodle site) along with any electronic readings or sources that I expect the students to access. This section of your syllabus is the nuts and bolts. Make it clear and useful. And….stick to it!

5. Rules of the Road. No one likes to read a long list of rules and regulations! But it’s important to mention policies that you feel are important. Remember that you are part of this class as well and your expectations are also important. If you find it distracting and annoying for students to casually saunter in 10 or 15 minutes late carrying coffee and a danish, then you’d better say something about being to class on time. Is it important in reaching the goals of the course to have work completed within a particular time frame? If so, then a late work policy is probably important.

Here are some sites with information about crafting a course syllabus:



2 thoughts on “Characteristics of a Good Syllabus

  1. I explicitly tell the students that the course syllabus is a contract between me and each of them. The problem I’ve had in the past is that students don’t bother to read their “contract”, so even though I tell them what to expect in the course, they aren’t aware of it. I’ve changed to course to require the students to answer questions about the syllabus (i.e., “pre-lecture quizzes count toward what percentage of your course grade?”). These are administered through my university’s online class management system, so they are automatically graded. The kicker is that if they don’t complete the questions CORRECTLY (they can re-do them) by a certain deadline, they start losing points from their course grade. This is motivational, and I’ve never had any significant problems with it, although I have had a few students lose up to 10% of their course grade by neglecting to complete this.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I have a few colleagues who give a “syllabus quiz” too. The broader issue of whether or not students actually READ the syllabus, or indeed read other course handouts, is an important one. How to get students to read and internalize course material?

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