Writing a Syllabus for the First Time

After TAing for 4 semesters, this fall I will finally be teaching a course on my own. This has caused me some stress: What textbook do I select? What additional readings should I assign? Should I require weekly writing assignments, a larger paper at the end, or both? How do I make a good syllabus and come up with intended learning outcomes?

So while I’m no expert on this process, I thought I’d outline some of the strategies I’ve employed to achieve this goal of crafting a syllabus:

  1. Find people who have already done what you’re attempting to do. I told my advisor I was teaching a course that he taught for many years and his immediate reaction was to give me all of his teaching materials: past syllabi, lecture notes, supplemental readings I could assign, past exams, etc. This was a goldmine! And all I had to do was ask. I also sought out my colleagues who taught the same course at other campuses and compared the syllabi. Everyone I spoke with was—thankfully—more than willing to share and help answer questions.
  2. Google is your friend. I also wanted to go outside my immediate peers and see what other people at other institutions were assigning to their students. Yes, there was some variation on course titles and textbooks assigned, but what was the general structure of comparable courses? This alerted me to potential new journal articles or readings that might be necessary for my students to read in the fall. My discipline’s professional association also had an archive online of syllabi that other instructors had shared.
  3. Hit the library. I found some interesting books via interlibrary loan, such as Course Design: A Guide to Curriculum Development for Teachers by George J. Posner and Alan N. Rudnitsky or On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching by James M. Lang (just to give two examples).
  4. Ask someone else to look over what you’ve produced. After I had worked substantially on my syllabus, I asked a friend with more teaching experience to look it over. Did they have any suggestions?
  5. Plan for any unforeseen circumstances. Having TAed for several semesters, I’m well aware that many people see a syllabus as a contract between the instructor and the students. And therefore, it’s important to anticipate the normal issues that will arise throughout the course of the semester. For example, all syllabi talk about academic honesty and avoiding plagiarism, but I learned through experience to include a blurb about requiring students to submit their written work to plagiarism checking software. This is my department’s policy, as they use Turnitin.com, and I explicitly placed that phrasing in the syllabus anticipating (but hoping it wouldn’t be necessary this time around) that I would need a student to submit their work to check for plagiarism.
  6. Just get it done! I was talking to a friend who was also working on her syllabi and she made the passing comment, “I think I’m spending too much time on it.” And then I thought, “Maybe I am too?” I just need to finish it. Put down all my thoughts, proofread it, and finalize it. I can’t make it perfect the first time I teach a class, but I put forth a good effort and future iterations of the same class/syllabus will only improve.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but rather a few items I thought were useful for me when I was writing my syllabus for the first time. Obviously, you also want to abide by your department and/or college’s guidelines, including having the usual fare about academic honesty, accessibility, and follow course requirements such as number of pages assigned to read per week, etc.

– Adam McMahon

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