Designing Your First Syllabus

Some teachers think I’m crazy, but I happen to enjoy designing my syllabus.

I know plenty of teachers who dread writing their syllabus, putting it off until the last minute until finally, the night before classes start, they sloppily crank out just enough to make it look like they know what they’re doing.  I even know one teacher who only gives his class one or two weeks of the syllabus at a time. Might be cool if he did it consciously in order to keep the class flexible or keep the students guessing or something. The truth, though, is he procrastinates as badly as his students and it’s pretty likely that his classes suffer as a result of his poor planning.

As I said in my last piece, flexibility is always important in the classroom–especially as a new teacher. But poor preparation and intentional openness are two different things.

All this is to say you will be much better off (and so will your students) if you allow yourself some time to think about the syllabus before writing it. Just like you might teach your students to prewrite and draft, so you should also. Your syllabus should go through multiple drafts before it lands in the hands of your students.

Designing Your First Syllabus

The good news is once you have a strong basic outline for your syllabus, you can reuse a lot of it each semester. Once you get the language worked out in some of those important sections, you really won’t need to alter it much. Only a few minor changes here and there as you begin to find your classroom persona and learn what works and what doesn’t.

And here’s another tip. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, there are thousands of syllabi online. A quick Google search will turn up dozens of hits in your field–especially if you’re a composition teacher like I am. Take advantage of the knowledge base that has come before you.

If you intend to design your syllabus around a certain theme, search for those exact words and chances are someone else has already created the same course and posted the readings and paper prompts online. Most teachers like to share materials. Most of us are big proponents of the open source movement that empowers everyone to build on the collective database of human knowledge by picking up where someone left off and making their resources even better. The open source movement posits that knowledge should be free and that our society gets stronger as a result of this open exchange of intellectual thought.

The point is the information is out there for sharing. Find it, adapt it, make it better, and share it again for the next person. These existing resources will likely be your best tool as you design your own syllabus.

Syllabus Sections

Your syllabus will likely be divided into a couple different sections. It might be helpful to draft the document in phases, writing it one section at a time.

Think about the syllabus your professors gave you. Get a couple of them out and look them over. What major sections do you see? What do you like about them? What do you dislike? What ideas might you be inclined to borrow?

Like I said, writing in sections can be particularly helpful to first time teachers. I’ll use my syllabus as an example. The course I most often teach uses the heading ENG 1102 at the University of Georgia. Freshman Composition II. My basic syllabus for ENG 1102 is divided into four major sections:

  1. Expectations and Objectives
  2. Assignments and Grading
  3. Policies and Procedures
  4. Course Schedule

Each section has important information for my students. I try not to include any unnecessary or redundant details. I’ve seen 10-page syllabi, but personally I don’t go for that style. I want my students to actually read the thing and understand it, so I’ve trimmed it down to only the absolute essentials.

Expectations and Objectives

This first section of the syllabus is like a brief introduction to the course. It tells students what they’ve gotten themselves into by signing up for my class. My contact information, the classroom texts, and my desired learning outcomes are all found here.

Syllabus - Expectations and Objectives


You can see at the top of the page that I list all necessary contact information. I prefer students communicate with me via email and I leave my office hours open to appointment. Some universities will require you to state specific office hours on your syllabus, but I always explain to my students that I’m in my office pretty often during the week and all they need to do is send me an email so I can make sure I’m in when they drop by.

Most schools require you to spend at least one hour per week in the office for every section you teach. I’m sure you’ll be in there much more frequently–especially during your first few years as a teacher. It usually works well for me to arrive at the office one hour before class and stay one hour after class. Those are the times most students will want to meet with you.

As for texts, I just list every book they will need to buy at the bookstore. If you’re teaching a course like freshman composition, the campus bookstore probably will not create a space for each of the many sections offered. If you plan to use readings other than the standard texts, you’ll want to make that explicit.

Notice that some of my texts are marked “optional.” I make key readings from these expensive texts available online. It’s up to the student if he or she wants to spend the money to have a hard copy of the reading.

The course expectations and objectives have undergone many changes and revisions over the years. What do you want your students to learn? What outcomes do you hope the course achieves? Do you have any definitive “rules” that are non-negotiable in your classroom? The bottom line here is: What will your students have accomplished by the end of the semester and how will they accomplish it? Feel free to use some of my bullet points as ideas while you begin to develop your own.

I also include the spiel about Collaborative Learning in this section because we do a lot of group work in my classes. I want students to know on the first day of class what will be expected of them. If they aren’t down with the “decentered” learning model, then they won’t like my class. Some students prefer teachers who tell them what to do and they do it. We don’t really do that in my classes. Some students drop after learning this on the first day.

This is a good place to include any special information about your course. Is it a service learning section? Will students be keeping a daily journal? Do you require multiple class presentations? Anything that might surprise a student later in the semester could be addressed here. It’ll save you a headache later. Also be sure to mention this section on the first day when you go over the syllabus.

Assignments and Grading

You want to make it very clear how each student’s final grade will be determined. Any chance you get to detail your grading process is important. One day, you’ll have a student who appeals his grade and you will need to justify yourself. Everything will be fine as long as you can prove that the student knew the grading process and that you awarded the grade based on a calculated system.

List every assignment in this section and show the percentage breakdown for the final course grade. What will students be expected to do? Will they turn in assignments daily? Weekly? Is participation important?


Syllabus - Assignments and Grading 1

Syllabus - Assignments and Grading 2

As a side note here, I’ll tell you that I am revising this section beginning next semester. Previously, I allowed students to complete two extra credit journal entries. Going forward there will be a total of eight possible journal entries. I will require five and they will have the option of completing one additional for extra credit. Frankly, I was spending too much time grading journal entries last semester. Always keep in mind your grading load–especially if you are teaching more than two sections. Seventy-five to 100 entries a week is crazy. Don’t do it to yourself.

Policies and Procedures

The policies and procedures section is required by my department. You will likely have similar language that you’ll be required to include, as well. I won’t dwell on this section, but notice the attendance policy of the first-year composition department. More than four absences and the student is automatically dropped from the course. Sounds harsh, but I love it. No attendance problems in my classes. I wish every school did this.

If your college does not have a strict attendance policy, consider developing one of your own. More than four absences and the student earns a zero in participation would be a good place to start. Unfortunately, attendance is a big problem now, so plan accordingly.

Syllabus - Policies and Procedures

Course Schedule

The fourth section of my freshman composition syllabus is the course schedule. Discussing this section requires it’s own article, so I’ll focus on that in my next piece.

These first three sections of my syllabus have evolved over time. I used trial and error to determine what works best and I weeded out unnecessary language or failed assignments. Your first few teaching years will undoubtedly include the same kind of culling. If they don’t, then you aren’t monitoring your process well enough. In order to grow as teachers, we need to continually try new things and cut those strategies that didn’t work so well.

A couple final things to consider as you prepare your first syllabus:

  1. Will you read the entire syllabus on the first day? I strongly recommend that you do. That way no one can claim they weren’t aware of your attendance policy or the group work that you require. In a later chapter, I’ll focus more on things to do on the first day of class.
  2. Will you hand out a hard copy of the syllabus or will you go all digital? Personally, I like to give out one hard copy on the first day. This allows us to go over it as a class. Any duplicate copies or revised copies must be printed by the student or accessed online. I always keep a digital copy available to students for downloading (more on this later).
  3. How will you handle revisions to the syllabus? Chances are your course schedule will need to be updated later in the semester if you get behind or make changes based on student response. I usually go over revisions in class and then tell students to print a new copy of the revised syllabus on their own.
  4. Remember: Your syllabus is a work in progress. You will almost certainly revise it every semester. Do your best on this first one and make adjustments. Take notes in the margin during the semester so you remember what works and what doesn’t.

In the next article, we’ll discuss the fourth section of the syllabus: Creating a course schedule.

  • George Joeckel

    Great article!

    Utah State University has developed an open-source syllabus tool that your readers may want to try.

    Here is a 5-minute “how to” video with a link to download the tool:



    • josh_boldt

      Thanks, George. Looks like a good resource.