Preparing a Syllabus

Overview: Where Do I Start?

The syllabus is a great tool for communicating course content, information, and structure to students and for supporting their success in your courses. The syllabus provides an opportunity for you to share your enthusiasm for the subject and discipline, and to offer answers to the usual questions that students will regularly ask.   

Western does not employ an official syllabus template, although your department may provide guidelines to you. The purpose of this page is to share steps for writing effective syllabi. Refer to Western’s policy on Course Outlines to learn what information is specifically required in undergraduate and graduate course syllabi:


Syllabus Elements

Course Information

Follow this quick check list to make sure that you have these key details on the first page of your syllabus:

  • course title and course code
  • class time and location
  • lab/tutorial time(s) and location(s) (if applicable)
  • instructor name(s), contact information, and office hours
  • Teaching Assistant name(s), contact information, and office hours (if applicable)
  • prerequisites or anti-requisites (if applicable).

Course Description

Course descriptions are short (200-300 words) but powerful statements because they act as a window into the course and can draw student interest. The description should summarize the key themes, topics, or concepts covered in the course and provide a brief overview of how you plan to approach the subject matter.

Effective Syllabus Tip:

  • Use the course description as a space to share why students should take the course. How will they benefit from engaging with the course material? How will it support their success in future courses or beyond university?

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes can be the starting point for the design of your whole course. Consider what abilities you want students to develop by taking your class. Course-level learning outcomes state the knowledge, skills, and values that students will take away from the learning experience. For help on course design and writing effective learning outcomes, visit our Learning Outcomes resource.

Effective Syllabus Tips:

  • Course outlines typically list between 4 and 8 learning outcomes that complete the stem phrase: “By the end of the course students will/will be able to…”
  • Use your department’s program-level learning outcomes as inspiration for your own. How do your learning outcomes fit in with the department’s goals?
  • Consider reviewing the learning outcomes of prerequisite courses or the courses students are most likely to take after yours. How do the goals for your course fit in within a broader context?

Methods of Evaluation

Describe how student performance in the course will be evaluated. Include a breakdown of the weight (%) of each assessment. Remember to share the dates that students will need to complete each assessment (e.g., due dates, presentation dates, exam dates, etc.)

Check Western’s Academic Calendar for current Sessional Dates. At least three days prior to the deadline for “withdrawal from a course without academic penalty”, students must have received feedback on work accounting for at least 15% of their final grade. For example, the last day students are able to drop a single-term half-course is typically scheduled around the ninth week in the Fall and Winter semesters.    

Remember to include any course-specific conditions that are required to pass the course in the Methods of Evaluation section. For example, conditions might include minimum attendance at lectures, tutorials or laboratories; minimum overall grade on laboratory, tutorial, or essay components of the course; and minimum required grades on a final exam.

Effective Syllabus Tips:

  • Consider including a table that lists the course assessments and their individual grade weights. Following the table, provide individual descriptions of each assessment with enough detail so that students will understand your expectations regarding preparation and performance.
  • Refer back to your learning outcomes when designing assessments. Do the assessments help you measure student success at achieving those outcomes? If not, how could you adapt or modify your assessments to better measure the outcomes?
  • Review the grade weight of individual assessments. How well does the weighting match the amount of effort required of students?
  • Consider the timing your assessments. How much student work is expected from week to week? Are there times in the semester that are under- or overloaded?

Methods of Evaluation - Missed/Late and Accommodation Policy

The process for granting accommodation for a range of issues is managed through the Academic Counsellors in the student’s home faculty. Counsellors will review the student’s case and then make a recommendation directly to the instructor. Accommodations are typically granted to students for one-time issues such as missed classes, assignments, tests, and exams.

Western academic policies outline several kinds of accommodation available to students who have missed or will miss important course components. Keep these policies in mind when formulating a policy on missed assignments/exams for your syllabus.

  • Medical accommodation can be sought for students who have missed a course component worth 10% or more of their course grade. Students will need to complete a Medical Certificate form.
  • Religious accommodation is granted to students whose work will be affected by any of Western’s recognized multi-faith holidays.
  • Compassionate accommodation may be granted for serious issues such as significant illness or death in the immediate family, severe trauma, or emergency situations.
  • Exam accommodation may be granted to students who are scheduled to write more than two exams within a 23-hour period, or who have a conflict between two exams.

In addition, consider articulating your policy on how you will address late essays/assignments and non-illness related absences from midterms, tutorials, and laboratory experiments. Share how you will deal with accommodation for missed work worth less than 10% of the total course grade, and whether or not you will require official documentation from students. In the case that you do require documentation, students must submit that documentation directly to their Faculty Dean’s office.

Course Materials

Include a description of the textbooks that are required for your course. Provide a description of any course notes, manuals, and laboratory or safety materials that students will need to purchase. If specific electronic devices are required for the course (e.g., calculator), provide that information here.

This section is also a space to provide a list of optional but recommended textbooks or readings. Consider sharing with students an explanation of why the texts are optional but potentially valuable to their learning.

Class Schedule

The schedule for a course provides a breakdown of topics and required readings for each week. The schedule is often presented in a table format so that instructors can provide a week-to-week list of the content areas they intend to cover and preparation expectations from students. Consider including assessment due dates as part of the schedule so that students have quick reference road map for the course.

Teaching Rationale

Consider briefly describing the instructional strategies and learning activities that you plan to use most frequently in your course. Identify any theories, methods, or practices that have informed your choices. If students understand why a course is structured in a particular way, they may be more motivated to engage in classroom activities.

Learning Tools and Resources

Point students to any key internal and external resources that you know will help students learn more successfully in your course. For example, you might share strategies for learning, web tutorials, assignment exemplars, or other supplementary material. Consider connecting students with Western Libraries, Learning Skills Services, and the Writing Support Centre as options for self-guided learning.

Instructor Policies (Optional)

Consider what kinds of information will help students meet your expectations and support their success in your course. The following suggestions are provided so that you can identify the most relevant options and adapt them for your syllabus.

Academic Integrity

  • An academic integrity statement explains why you, as the instructor, take plagiarism and cheating seriously. Consider sharing links to department or library resources that support student academic integrity. Share with students how good decisions related to their academic work have long lasting impact.

Accessibility

  • Principles from Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guide curriculum design, allowing instructors to reduce academic barriers for students without diminishing performance expectations. If you have developed or made changes to your course to better support accessibility, consider adding a summary statement to the syllabus.

Attendance, Lateness, and Participation

  • Consider explaining to students why attending and being on time for class is worthwhile and how participation in class will benefit their learning.
  • Share the guidelines for in-class discussions or other interactions that highlight how students should approach material and one another in the classroom.

E-mail and Office Hours

  • Let students know what kinds of professional etiquette you expect from them in an e-mail and your typical response time. If you have guidelines for how you run your office hours, let students know and share the kinds of questions you typically address in office hour meetings.

Inclusivity, Diversity, and Respect

  • An inclusivity or diversity statement signals to students that multiple perspectives are welcome in your classroom. Consider acknowledging the range of representations they can expect among their peers including (but not limited to) academic background, race, culture, gender, religion, and socioeconomic status.
  • This statement could be used to outline expectations for discussions and respectful interactions in the classroom.
  • Consider sharing your preferred name and gender pronouns and explain how you will ask and honour the same of your students.

Use of Electronic Devices

  • Banning electronic devices is not feasible and will single out students who require accommodations in the classroom. You may want to identify the tasks you feel are appropriate for in-class device use (e.g., taking notes, polling, in-class research, etc.) and those that are not (e.g., messaging, checking e-mail, watching unrelated content, etc.)
  • Consider highlighting when/how you will rely on student electronic devices to accomplish tasks as part of in-class activities or coursework.
  • See: How  Do I Write a Statement on Laptop and Mobile Device Use in My Classroom?

University Policies (Mandatory)

Western’s Academic Policy on Course Outlines requires that instructors include several additional statements on their syllabi. Where appropriate, these statements can be copied and pasted directly from the university policy.

Please visit Accessibility in Teaching for guidelines around promoting accessibility and academic accommodation for students with disabilities.

Statement on Academic Offences

  • This statement links students directly with the university policy on academic offenses (including plagiarism and cheating on assessments) and how the university addresses those offenses.

Support Services

  • This statement links students with the Registrar and other support services on campus including the Student Development Centre and mental health support options.

Retention of Electronic Version of Course Outlines (Syllabi)

  • This statement indicates that all course syllabi will be retained by the Registrar for a minimum of ten years.

Statement on Use of Electronic Devices (if applicable)

  • This policy describes what electronic devices are and are not allowed during tests and examinations.

Statement on Use of Personal Response Systems (“Clickers”) (if applicable)


Questions?

If you need individual support on putting together course syllabi, please contact one of our educational developers.

Further Reading on Preparing Course Syllabi

Cullen, R., & Harris, M. (2009). Assessing learner‐centredness through course syllabi. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(1), 115-125. doi:10.1080/02602930801956018.

Davis, B. G. (2009). The comprehensive course syllabus. pp. 21-36 in Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

O’Brien, J. G., Mills, B. J., & Cohen, M. W. (2008). The course syllabus: a learning-centered approach. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, M. S., Bach, D. J., & Streifer, A. C. (2014). Measuring the promise: A learning-focused syllabus rubric. To Improve the Academy, 33(1), 14-36. doi:10.1002/tia2.20004.

Parkes, J., & Harris, M. B. (2002). The purposes of a syllabus. College Teaching, 50(2), 55-61. doi:10.1080/87567550209595875.

Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching, 53(4), 159-164. doi:10.3200/CTCH.53.4.159-164.