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Syllabus Suggestions and Requirements

Organize Content and Sequence Assignments

To begin organizing the content and schedule of your syllabus, work backwards off the official academic calendar. Let’s say you have a 16-week semester (as we do at WVU). The first week is often spent getting everyone acquainted to the course, to each other, and laying important groundwork for the class. At least part of the last week or so of the semester is often devoted to the important work review and reflection as students prepare for final exams or complete final projects. And don’t forget that we have one week of vacation each semester (Thanksgiving week in November and Spring Recess in March). That means that roughly 2-3 weeks of the term are already planned to some degree and that you have 13-14 weeks to engage your students actively as they master the major goals of your course. You might find the following patterns useful ways of thinking about the assignment units and how they combine and build off one another to organize a syllabus:

  • One-to-Two Week Pattern: Usually used for simple introductory concepts that do not require sophisticated, extended analysis.
  • Three Week Pattern: Usually used for more subjects that are less familiar to students and those that require more attention and analysis.
  • Four-To-Five Week Pattern: Usually used for large, complex concepts or projects—or for collaborative work, which may take more time.

Start Planning

As you think about your goals and content in terms of building blocks that, when put together, create the course structure, keep the calendar in mind. Try these steps:

  • Divide the Course into Blocks or Units. Divide the total number of weeks (or class periods) into units or blocks based on the main goals and subjects you need to cover. If you can organize your content around 4 major goals or subjects, for instance, you might devote 3-4 weeks to each, or you might have a series of short, introductory units followed by increasingly complex blocks. Do the blocks add up? Do they fit the time available to you in the semester?
  • Plan Daily/Weekly Activities to Achieve Unit Goals. Once you have the major units or building blocks planned out, you can think about what daily activities and assignments you want your students to be learning and practicing in order to achieve your goals.
  • Build Connections. Each unit is likely to begin with some sort of introductory presentation that connects the unit back to the major course goals; the unit may end with an exam, a project or a review that helps students see how this unit fits with the next unit (and the within the course as a whole). The connections may be obvious to you since you designed the course and know the subject area well, but most students benefit from having the connections made explicit to them.

Checklist for Basic Elements

Now that you have pacing and time expectations in mind, think about:

  • Major Due Dates. When are the major due dates (exams, papers, presentations, etc.)? Have you highlighted those dates in some way so they stand out for students?
  • Sequence. Are the major assignments or exams sequenced to help students build connections?
  • Pacing. Is there time between major due dates to allow students to master new ideas and apply them?
  • Homework. Is the homework integrated into the schedule? Does it affirm course goals and help build toward major assignments or exams?
  • University Dates. Have you kept important University dates in mind? See the Academic Calendar online at: You might want to note: 
    • The first and last day of classes
    • University holidays (and perhaps Days of Special Concern?)
    • Mid-term point (have students completed roughly 40-50% of course work?)
    • Last day to drop a class (usually the end of week 10)
    • Final exam time

Syllabus Strategies and Checklist

Your syllabus is the student’s first impression of you and your course. Think about how you want to come across in terms of tone, clarity, organization, etc. In many ways, your syllabus is also a contract with your students. While you the document should motivate students and help them know how to seek your help when they need it, what you write also becomes the standard that both you and your students will follow for the class. If a policy is not spelled out in the syllabus, both you and your students have “leeway” in interpretation. The more explicit you are in your syllabus, the fewer problems with “interpretation” you’ll have later, especially with regard to grading policies, attendance, and accepting late work. Be sure that you can and will follow your own policies fairly and consistently for all students.

As you start drafting your syllabus, think about it in two parts: policies and procedures section of about 2-3 pages, and a daily schedule for each major unit in your course. This two-part approach allows you to have an explicit policies section while allowing for change and revision in the daily schedule if you need to adjust for students’ needs, bad weather, etc.

Part I: Policies and Procedures

Have you included the following?

  • Basic Information
    • Course Title, section number, time and place? (ENGL XXX, sec XXX, 8:30-9:20 MWF, Classroom #) List rooms for lectures as well as labs or recitations
    • Semester and Year (since your syllabus also serves as a document of record)
    • Your name and your office location?
    • If there are multiple instructors or graduate assistants, list everyone and their contact information.
    • Office phone number
    • WVU Email Address
    • Office hours
  • Course Overview
    • A short (1-3 paragraph) introduction to you and your course. This can be similar to what students find in the course catalog, but you may also want to add some more detail. For instance, do you want to say anything about course delivery style (Lab, Lecture, Discussion, etc?), pre-requisites, motivating statements about the class and its value for your students?
    • Goals for the course (try 3-5 bullet points). Do the goals reflect the major content? Can they be measured through exams, projects, or portfolios of work?
    • Required texts
    • Required tools, materials, or equipment
    • List of major assignments/exams (with a very brief—one line?—description of each): weight given to each component for the final grade; due dates for major assignments; whether more detail will be conveyed in handouts for each assignment. Here is a sample:
      • Quizzes (20%): Over the course of the semester, you can expect 10 brief, unannounced quizzes related to the day’s reading. The format will be multiple choice or brief answer.
      • Essay Exam 1 (25%--due Week 5) : This exam covers Chapters 1-5. Your response will be 4-5 pages in length.
      • Essay Exam 2 (30%--due Week 10) : This exam covers Chapters 6-12. Your response will be 6-7 pages in length.
      • Final Essay Exam 1 (25%--due at final exam time) : This exam covers Chapters 13-17 and will take the form of brief-answer questions (1 hour) and an extended essay response to a single question (1 hour).
    • Determination of final grades. Specify how grades on individual assignments are used to obtain a final course grade. Indicate whether final grades are assigned on an absolute or curve basis. Specify any criteria other than grades on assignments, such as attendance, improvement, and participation that are used to determine final grades. If you use a point system, describe how points are earned. If you use a percentage system, explain the value of each assignment. Describe what qualities (or values) earn an A, B, C, D, or F
    • Policy on incompletes. For instance, under what conditions would you consider a grade of Incomplete? Is there a process by which a student can request such a grade?
  • Policies
    • WVU Social Justice Statement
    • Academic Integrity/Ethics Statement. This is something you will want to define for yourself and your students after review WVU policies. Here is one sample statement from the Psychology Department: "We are committed to the highest standards of academic integrity. In accord with University guidelines, we will take vigorous action against students who engage in cheating, plagiarism, forgery, misrepresentation, fraud, or other dishonest practices. Guilty students may receive penalties ranging from a grade of 'zero' on the assignment in question to an 'unforgivable F' in the course."
    • Attendance Policy. Be sure to clarify whether and how attendance affects course grade. Please note that University policy and privacy requirements prevent instructors from requiring documentation of medical conditions (such as illnesses or injuries).
    • Late Work/Make-up Exam Policy. In general, avoid blanket statements such as “No makeup exams will be given,” unless you really mean it. In most cases, instructors will consider giving makeup exams in extenuating circumstances (such as a student being hospitalized). Therefore, a better statement might be: “Makeup exams will be given only in cases when an emergency prevents a student from taking an exam at the scheduled time. The student must contact the instructor as soon as possible to determine if a makeup exam can be given.”
    • Days of Special Concern. The WVU Calendar notes days of special concern, but you may want to add your own statement to your syllabus. Here is one example from the Psychology Department: “WVU recognizes the diversity of its students, many of whom must be absent from class to participate in religious observances. Students must notify their instructors by the end of the third class meeting regarding religious observances that will affect their attendance. Further, students must abide by the attendance policy of their instructors as stated on their syllabi. Faculty will make reasonable accommodation for tests or field trips that a student misses as a result of religious observance.”
    • Sexual Harassment Policy. While this is an optional statement on your syllabus, WVU’s policy on sexual harassment applies to all members of the University Community.
    • Classroom Etiquette/Professionalism. Do you want to outline policies about punctuality, cell phone use, classroom contributions, etc? If so, this would be a good place to do that.
    • Safety Policies (for lab courses)
  • Questions? (Office Hours and E-Mail). Here is an example: If you have questions about the syllabus—or about any aspect of the class this semester, I hope you will talk to me. In addition to my office hours, I will be glad to set up an appointment if you will give me a day or two’s notice. Also, I will always try to respond to your e-mail or voice mail within 24hours (often sooner). One request: please don’t count on an immediate response on weekends or University holidays.
  • Schedule of Work Template. Subject to change as needed. Keep up with the schedule in the event of class cancellation or delay due to bad weather.