How to Create a Syllabus

Man writing on paper“Syllabus” is a Latin term which is used to perform a variety of functions. For the Roman Catholic Church, it is a list of errors. For most educators, syllabi orient the program of teaching and learning for a specific class. Some teachers see their syllabus as a manifesto.

Others understand how the syllabus enacts particular formations of power that threaten positive classroom dynamics. Examples of syllabi abound due to mapping projects like the Open Syllabus Project.

Useful generic tools and fast hacks exist that might make the syllabus creation process more efficient. The Chronicle of Higher Education has put together an archive of syllabus resources, too.

In addition to the College of Arts and Sciences’ syllabus requirements, The University of Alabama has policies and tools that you should know about.

Online Syllabus Management

The College of Arts and Sciences requires that all course offerings in a current semester use the university’s online syllabus management system (Simple Syllabus). The great thing is that by creating and hosting your syllabi online is that you are quickly provided with

  • All the content and links required by UA policies
  • An official means of making your syllabus publicly available
  • An assurance that your syllabus is accessible
  • A central location for making changes from one term or section to the next
  • Automatic updates for the University’s policies
  • Simple distribution to your students: Just provide them with the link inside Blackboard!

Creating Your Syllabus

There are several syllabus elements that are less self-explanatory than others. In some cases, it makes good sense to speak with your department chair.

Chair and desk with calendar on the wall.

Save the Dates

Before getting started, you should consult the academic calendar, your department’s calendar, as well as your own calendar for the duration of the semester (e.g., will you present at a conference?). Keeping all these dates in mind is essential for your decisions about when assignments will be due and how quickly you will need to provide grades to your students and the University.

Course Objectives and Learning Outcomes

For the purposes of accreditation, every syllabus should have a series of learning outcomes indicating what successful students should be able to do or know at the end of the term. Word this section with five to seven items that contain a verb that you associate with a cognitive process and an object that describes the knowledge you expect students to acquire or construct.

Perhaps begin this section with “At the conclusion of this course, students will be able to:” followed by a list of the key things you cover in the course. For example, “Compare data using the three major theoretical perspectives in the discipline.”

Grading Procedures

Verify whether your department has a standard grading range. Otherwise, whatever you decide in terms of percentage, points, or decimals should be followed throughout the term. All of this should be clearly related to the “Description of Assignments/Exams” section.

Description of Assignments/Exams & Due Dates

Provide a brief description of each different type of assignment. Be sure to take into account what sorts of administrative issues to address in order for each assignment and evaluation to run smoothly. What questions can you expect students to generally have? The more students know about what to expect, the better the course will be for everyone involved.

And: consult your unified calendar to ensure the timing is right for distributing and grading the assignments.

Attendance Policy

Will you take attendance, or not? It’s your choice, but if you have to mark “Stopped Attending” for a grade of F submitted at either Midterm or Final, you will be asked for a date that the student stopped attending. Providing this information is crucially connected to reporting requirements associated with federal financial aid. Here are some attendance policy issues to consider:

  • Will attendance be graded? How strictly will you calculate it? (i.e., excuses, emergencies, extenuating circumstances, etc.) How will you calculate it? (e.g. attendance sheet, clickers, some measure of participation)
  • Are there specific measures by which attendance grades are awarded or revoked?
  • What documentation will you accept for absences? For example, written supportive documentation (e.g., doctor’s certificate, approved University absence).
  • Note that students do have the option to apply to the University for a medical withdrawal. Do they know this?

Make-up Policy

Our Faculty Handbook says there must be a make-up policy included in the syllabus to handle students with emergencies or excused absences. Consider carefully any other conditions under which you offer make-up opportunities and to whom you offer them. Whatever you offer to one student should be available for any student. For example,

  • Does work submitted after the deadlines outlined in the course schedule and not in accordance with the policy on missed assignments and examinations result in a grade of zero?
  • How far in advance must you be notified of anticipated absences?
  • Are there variations according to the kind of work or evaluation that is missed?
  • Is there a time limit on when a student may ask for a make-up?
  • Are there reductions in grades earned for make-up work or evaluations?

Optional Statements to Consider

Additional statements may be added to your syllabus. Keep in mind that UA syllabi are publicly available, legally binding documents. You may wish to consult with your department chair if you wish to include options such as the following:

  • Sensitive Subjects/Topics: If your course covers sensitive topics (e.g. sex/sexuality, pornography, violence, death, etc.) and you plan to mandate discussion or show images that may be considered disturbing, then consider preparing students beforehand and give them a chance to drop the course if it bothers them.
  • Use of Electronics in Class: You may disallow electronics in your classroom for pedagogical reasons.
  • Computer/Internet Access: Students need to be aware if access to a computer or a reliable & fast Internet connection is necessary to complete work for the class.
  • Extra Credit: What you offer to one student, you must offer to all students. If you want to reserve the right to offer extra credit and not commit to anything specific, a popular statement to include is, “If extra credit is offered, it will be made available to all students in the class. No individual extra credit will be offered.”

A Final (Latin) Word: Nota Bene!

Consider including a “Subject to Change/Revision” statement in your syllabus.

If you make changes during the semester without this statement, then students can bring successful Academic Grievance cases against you.

Coda: Create a plan for how you will introduce students to your syllabi. Perhaps a syllabus review activity on the first and last day of class?

This resource is part of the Teaching Basics series. For more information, contact Nathan Loewen at