Suggestions for Writing Effective Course Syllabi

By a student who is also an editor.

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Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona
  1. Keep it simple. Avoid redundancy, place like things with like things, and include only that which is essential—for example, include only books and materials that are required. (If you feel that students will benefit from study guides or optional books and materials, simply include these elsewhere.)
  2. Be deliberate, precise, and concise. Avoid overwriting; syllabi that are overwritten are confusing and imprecise, both of which leave room for interpretation.
  3. Be professional. Avoid writing from emotion; simply state facts. Also, recognize that students are not merely students but also clients.
  4. Be respectful. The degree to which you like, trust, and respect your students is at least the degree to which they will like, trust, and respect you. So be kind, and afford them the benefit of your doubts; assume their virtue and intelligence.
  5. Resist the temptation (or inclination) to assert authority. Assertions of authority are not so, rather assertions of power, which assertions undermine authority, and indicate, at best, insecurity, and at worst, incompetence. Let your knowledge, wisdom, and virtue speak for you in this regard.
  6. Relinquish your expectations—or, at least, model them. Students, from time to time, are going to ask stupid questions, the same way instructors, from time to time, are going to provide stupid answers. The solution to this problem is simply to model your expectations.
  7. Treat incoming students with fairness. Consider that your students are experiencing both you and your syllabi for the first time, so avoid holding them responsible for the sins of those who came before; avoid making first-time students both the objects and the recipients of preexisting frustration. (Imagine being a student, excited to be at university, brimming with ambition, and your first encounter with each of your instructors is a contemptuous terms of service agreement. If this is how you treat your students, this is how your students will treat you — and the domains you are training them to occupy.)
  8. Seek, always, to enable. Recognize that syllabi are for and about students; if they were for and about instructors, they would be written by students. As such, let your motivations be selfless, let your policies be constructive, and let every word enable.
  9. Employ styling best practices. Use paragraph styles for organization and consistency. Reserve ALL-CAPS for abbreviations and acronyms, and italics and boldface for headings, subheadings, publication titles, etc. Use language and context for everything else. (If you are inclined to emphasize a word or a phrase, ask yourself whether doing so will clarify meaning or enhance communication—if doing so will, then emphasize it; if doing so will not, then leave it alone.)
  10. Avoid excessive or extraneous denotation. Consider that if everything in your syllabi is denoted as important, then nothing is denoted as important. But also consider that if everything in your syllabi is important, then nothing need be denoted as such. Further, consider that students, accustomed to the practice of denoting important information, will likely read only that which is denoted as important. So present information equally and neutrally.
  11. Prefer positive language. Whereas negative language disables, positive language enables; whereas negative language discourages, positive language encourages—for example, consider the previous sentence: written negatively, the sentence would read, “Don’t prefer negative language.” Not only is this confusing, it’s also disabling in that it halts, and discouraging in that it fails to provide direction. If you want your students to behave in specific ways, or if you want them to perform specific tasks, then you must enable and encourage them. Further, emphasize benefits over consequences.
  12. Consult your institution’s brand guide. Brand guides answer questions about design and composition—from logos to typography, and from typography to style. They articulate principles and values, and enable consistency across documents and departments. When in doubt—about what to include in your syllabi or how to include it—consult your institution’s brand guide.

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Editor, Designer | mitchellferrin.com

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