The Long or the Short of Syllabus Design

Do you remember being excited about the start of the school year as a student? There were the brand new pencils with fresh erasers still in place and the crisp binders with covers wholly attached to its spine. A brand new school year is an opportunity for a fresh start. This year I will make sure I hand in assignments free of food stains, and I will not misplace my textbook. This year I will be organized and write down all the due dates and test dates in my calendar. This was my state of mind every year. How long did this feeling last? Well, that depends on a few things. One of the deciding factors for me is the course syllabus.

Earlier this year, I was part of a team that created an online module about course design. In the section on syllabus design, we included a chart of thirty items that could be incorporated into the syllabus. Only seven items (listed below) were required as per university policy.

  • Course contact information
  • Office hours
  • Marking scheme
  • Assignment due dates
  • Assignment weights and return dates
  • Term test dates
  • Final examinations

The checklist provided by Judith Grunert, Barbara J. Millis, and Margaret W. Cohen (2008) offers an extended list of items for a learning-centred syllabus (pp. 39–40):

  • Table of contents
  • Instructor information
  • Student information form
  • Letter to the students or teaching philosophy statement
  • Purpose of the course
  • Course description
  • Course objectives
  • Readings
  • Resources
  • Course calendar
  • Course requirements
  • Policies and expectations: Attendance, late papers, missed tests, class behaviours, and civility
  • Policies and expectations: Academic honesty, disability access, and safety
  • Evaluation
  • Grading procedures
  • How to succeed in this course: Tools for study and learning

The two lists provided demonstrate the two extremes: the short and the long. According to Tom Deans (2019), most syllabi are now too long. Deans recommends a two-page limit to dispense the essentials. Many faculty members share this sentiment. John Streamas (2013) recounts his best course with a syllabus only a half-page long. Barbara Fister (2011) compares the long syllabi to those lengthy terms of service documents, Rebecca Schuman (2014) notes that the syllabus bloat is “a textual artifact of the decline and fall of American higher education,” and Mano Singham (2007) decries the controlling syllabi. So how long should the syllabus be? The answer is: You are asking the wrong question. The questions we should be thinking about are: Who are my learners, and how will the syllabus support my learners?

Okay, let’s be honest here: What type of syllabus writer am I? I confess that I write long syllabi. But allow me to defend myself. As a student, I was an anxious learner (still am). I needed to know every deadline, test dates, readings, assessment descriptions, formatting guidelines, and useful resources on the first day of class. I am the student who runs around campus in the first week of every semester, frantically purchasing textbooks, scanning articles, sticky-noting photocopies, and organizing my binders. My biggest fear is when I receive a single-page syllabus that states “readings to be determined.” My anxiety was so bad that I would drop the course if I did not have a reading list on the first day of class. Having one document that I can rely on as my guidebook for the course was essential for my organization, especially when I was commuting and working multiple part-time jobs.

When I became a course instructor, I transferred a lot of my anxiety into my syllabus design. I would provide a detailed list of readings and chart out what learners will need to read, watch, listen, or write every week. I would provide details on where the books are (even the library hours) or if a PDF scan is available online. I worked hard to organize the course in its entirety before the semester began. My syllabus was not a document that was merely distributed on the first day of class; instead, my syllabus is a course guidebook, much like a course textbook, which the learners need to consult every week. Every face-to-face meeting, or online module, or assignment relates to a section in the syllabus.

Going back to my two questions: Who are my learners, and how will the syllabus support my learners? I have a variety of learners. Some are anxious like I was, many want more autonomy over their education, and even more want to be challenged in a meaningful way. Susan Ko and Steve Rossen (2017) describe the three aspects of the syllabus as the contract, the map, and the schedule (p. 112). But there is so much more to syllabus design. Instead of a contract that you sign and file, or the terms of service that you bury in a drawer, the syllabus can be, as Christine Harrington and Melissa Thomas (2018) suggest, “reconceptualized as a motivational tool” (p. 3). Motivation needs to be fostered and maintained from week to week. Contracts, maps, and schedules are not effective motivational tools and cannot sustain support throughout the semester. Syllabus contents are not set in stone. Work with the learners in refining details in the course guidebook. Offer choices in weekly topics, readings, and even marking schemes to facilitate student learning.

Nicky Didicher (2016) offers two approaches to flexible marking schemes: the bento and the buffet. The bento approach has two variations. The first allows learners to choose individual weightings while assessments and due dates remain consistent for the whole class. The second variation allows learners to choose between pre-set combinations of assessments and weightings. This approach provides students autonomy; however, personalization is limiting. The buffet approach enables students to select assessments from a menu and assign individual due dates and weightings. The advantage is that learners can curate the course; however, the instructor will not be able to send out blanket reminders to the class because everyone’s due dates are different. In the bento and buffet scenarios, the syllabus becomes a choose-your-own-adventure book or a travel guide where the students can decide which sites to explore.

One strategy I would like to try in the future is designing a more visually appealing syllabus, such as the comic-book spread format (Gooblar, 2017), the newspaper format (Hangen, 2011), or the infographic format (Newbold, 2017). Regardless of design, model how the syllabus should be used by repeatedly referring to the syllabus and inserting its contents into the asynchronous module pages and synchronous webinars. Christine M. Harrington and Crystal A. Gabert-Quillen (2015) found that students perceive instructors to be more caring and helpful in medium or long syllabi. Think about the ordering of sections in the syllabus. Placing mental health resources and academic supports at the beginning of the syllabus sets a different tone than tacking the information to the end of the document. Whether the syllabus is long or short, the perfect length is one that supports the learners in your classroom.

Works Cited

Deans, T. (2019, January 20). Yes, your syllabus is way too long. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Didicher, N. (2016). Bento and buffet: Two approaches to flexible summative assessment. Collected Essay on Learning and Teaching, 9: 167–173.

Fister, B. (2011, August 25). The syllabus as TOS. Inside Higher Ed.

Gooblar, D. (2017, June 26). Your syllabus doesn’t have to look like a contract. The Chronicle of Higher Education Community.

Grunert, J., Millis, B. J., & Cohen, M. W. (2008). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Hangen, T. (2011, January 3). Extreme makeover, syllabus edition. Tona Hangen.

Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018). Designing a motivational syllabus: Creating a learning path for student engagement. Stylus.

Harrington, C. M., & Gabert-Quillen, C. A. (2015). Syllabus length and use of images: An empirical investigation of student perceptions. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(3): 235–243.

Ko, S., & Rossen, S. (2017). Teaching online: A practical guide. Routledge.

Newbold, C. (2017, August 14). How to turn your syllabus into an infographic. The Visual Communication Guy.

Schuman, R. (2014, August 26). Syllabus tyrannus: The decline and fall of the American university is written in 25-page course syllabi. Slate.

Singham, M. (2007). Death to the syllabus! Liberal Education, 93(4).

Streamas, J. (2013, January 20). The bloated syllabus: commentary of the day. The Irascible Professor.

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