Review and Update Last Semester's Syllabi


You’ve just finished teaching a course—maybe for the first time—and you probably have a few things you’d change about the course before you teach it again. Don’t just set the syllabus aside! Make time now to revise the syllabus to reflect your experience. Setting apart an afternoon at the end of the semester to revamp your syllabus will make starting the new semester easier, and will pay dividends in the future.

Here are some ideas to help you get started:

What does your syllabus say about you and your course?
Is your syllabus setting the right tone? Your word choice and the topics you choose to address (in terms of class policy or grading) creates a tone or subtext for the entire semester. Craft your syllabus to be informative and encouraging to students. For example, Natalie Houston suggests giving students an early overview of grading categories, but waiting to hand out assignment-specific rubrics. Withholding details about the assignments (until a more appropriate time) can help students from feeling overwhelmed. 

How will you run your classroom?
Classroom policies should be made explicit. Include guidelines for students' use of technology and collaboration; your expectations of attendance, effort and participation; your rules for accepting late work or extra credit (your students will ask!); and include department and college policies, if necessary. Ask a mentor or other colleague about their syllabi, and whether you can use elements of theirs on yours. Remember that a syllabus is a contract between instructor and students—you are informing your students what they can expect from you.

What are students learning?
What are the learning outcomes for your students? That is, what should students be able to know or do after completing your course? Examples include an ability to provide a close reading of texts, proficiency in carrying out laboratory tasks, or developing specific writing and presentations skills. Be specific!

If the course is a foundational class, make sure you're providing a structure in which students can learn both the content and the skills they'll need to succeed in later courses. Speak with faculty instructors or curriculum committees; ask about pre-requisite skills and knowledge for students in upper-level courses. 

What worked well and what didn’t?
Perhaps a particular assignment wasn’t well-received, or you felt student final presentations were lackluster. Think about how you might adapt or replace assignments, or what you could do to help students develop skills. Perhaps only small changes are needed—like switching one reading assignment for another— or maybe you’ll need to rethink your pedagogical approach. When you're planning a course, consider the experience and abilities of the students likely to enroll. Are the assignments and expectations realistic for an introductory class? Demanding enough for a senior-level course?

What’s the rhythm of the class?
You might set due dates for major assignments in the first half of a course so students can focus on exams later in the semester. An effective way to keep students on track is to assign a series of small assignments leading to the production of a final project or paper (such an approach has the added benefit of reducing the incidence of academic dishonesty).

In scheduling assignments, write potential due dates on a calendar and check that sufficient time exists between assignments so students won’t get overwhelmed. Consider your course schedule in the context of other events (university holidays, for example). Be aware of the 15th Week policy concerning assignments and assessments. Again, your syllabus is a contract between instructor and student; planning ahead protects both you and your students.

Consider the format.
Are you using a paper syllabus or going digital? If you're staying with paper, ensure that the course name and your name appear on each page. A digital syllabus allows you to use such devices as hyperlinks to the correct editions of the books you’ll be using, access to electronic articles, and even multimedia.

On paper or with pixels, pay attention to the physical layout of the information on your syllabus. Bullet points and tables are easier to access and read than long-form paragraphs, for example.


Additional resources