The syllabus is a roadmap to your classroom. At its best, it clearly and compassionately offers students an understanding of and introduction to class structure, goals, and pedagogy. At its worst, it becomes a rogue, unread doorstop. And if you feel like creating a syllabus has only become more complicated, you’re not wrong: institutions often require lengthy, jargon-y policies that clutter up and confuse students.
So let’s go back to basics. What does a “good” syllabus look like? What are the main parts of a syllabus? How can you build a better one? And what, if anything, can you do to get your students to read it?
What do I actually need in my syllabus?
As far as must-haves, the list is fairly short. Front-load the most important information so that students will a) actually read it, and b) be able to quickly and easily refer back if necessary.
- Class location and/or Zoom link
- Class day and time
- Your contact information
- Office hours (include a link to your Calendly or other scheduling app for easy reference)
- Your TAs’ contact information, if applicable
Schedule: What students will be learning and when. (Hint: Unicycle automatically generates your course dates!) Make sure to note any school or state holidays, guest lectures or change of locations, and class make-up times.
Materials: What materials are necessary for class (including textbooks, studio or lab materials, or technology) and how to obtain them. (💡Inclusivity & Accessibility Tip: Many schools have funds available for students for whom materials are prohibitively expensive - this is a good resource to offer. You might also consider offering photocopies or PDFs of readings, or assisting students who wish to buddy up and share materials.)
Policies: Classroom policies or guidelines, Keep these clear, concise, and compassionate. It may sound counterintuitive, but more flexible policies give students the agency and support they need to make smart, self-aware decisions.
- Attendance: Attendance is mandatory and will count towards your final grade. That said, stuff happens! If you need to miss class for any reason, please let me know in advance so that we can work together to make sure you have what you need to catch up. More than 3 unexplained absences may result in a penalty.
- Communication policy: If you need to get in touch with me for any reason, please contact me by email. I aim to respond to all messages within 24 hours, but I do not check email on weekends. If you haven’t heard from me in that time frame, feel free to send a reminder. Before emailing, please check this syllabus to see if your question is answered here. (💡Include your pronouns in your email signature and in the syllabus.)
- Late work: One point will be deducted for each day an assignment is overdue. If you need more time or are struggling with an assignment, please reach out prior to the due date.
- Classroom conduct: Our classroom is a space in which all students should feel safe to learn, make mistakes, ask questions, and challenge themselves. If this does not feel true for you, please let me know. In return, I ask that you treat your fellow students and me with empathy and respect. I also ask that you minimize your use of technology and give each other and me your full attention.
Other general policies should include your grading and assessment rubric, your statement on what constitutes plagiarism, and contact details for academic support services on campus.
It’s likely that your institution also has mandated policies that they want to have appended to all syllabi. In order to make sure your students are able to find what they’re looking for in the syllabus—and aren’t simply overwhelmed with walls of text—consider separating this from your main syllabus content in some way. With Unicycle, you can keep these in a separate tab entirely (and update them across all syllabi in one go), allowing course-specific content to shine.
💡Include links and contact information for all student resources, including academic support, sexual health and safety, and mental health resources.
Make your syllabus stand apart
Beyond the classroom guidelines that all syllabi should contain, there are other elements that can help set your syllabus apart and make it more inclusive, exciting, and student-centric.
- Accessibility and Inclusion Statement. Many institutions (as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act) mandate an accessibility statement in all syllabi. But beyond the fact that it is a requirement, a thoughtful and welcoming accessibility and diversity inclusion statement (i.e. not the dry, legalese language required by your school) gives space to all students and pushes back against structural inequalities. Make it warm and comprehensive, and refer to it often. Here are some great examples.
- Universal design. Universal design is a methodology that aims to make all products and spaces accessible to the broadest possible range of people and abilities. In syllabus design, this can include everything from using headers to break up sections of text to strong color contrast. Learn more about the principles of universal design here, as well as how to apply them to your syllabus.
- Web Content Accessibility. If you’re using an online syllabus, it's important to follow WCAG 2.1 standards to ensure site accessibility for screen readers and other assistive tech, which aids individuals with vision or hearing loss, photosensitivity, and other disabilities. Your IT or Disability Accommodations departments may be able to help with that; or, you can use Unicycle, which automatically ensures your syllabi meet WCAG 2.1 standards.
- Student-Led. A student-led syllabus is one that centers the student. It draws clear lines between day-to-day assignments and broader learning goals. It allows for differences and uses language that guides, rather than alienates (especially important for marginalized and first-generation students, who may have had less exposure to academic settings). It chooses gentler, more accommodating policies that acknowledge a student’s humanity. And it helps them understand how the class contributes to their greater development—both personal and academic. Consider professor Jennifer L. Gauthier's "big picture" goals for her students, which included "have an epiphany," "ask a brave question," and "sit with your own not-knowing."
- Pedagogical philosophy. For many if not all of your students, the syllabus will be their first introduction to who you are as a professor. Use it as a way to humanize yourself (especially important if you’re teaching remotely). Consider including a “teaching philosophy” statement that explains why you teach, what you hope your students will learn, and how you hope to guide and transform their experience of learning.
- Meet your students where they are. Consider how your syllabus shows up on mobile. The current generation of students are mobile-first, and may be less inclined to send repetitive questions via email if they’re able to access the syllabus on the go. Unicycle is optimized for desktop and mobile, and isn’t gated behind a Blackboard or Canvas login.
Psst: Try adding a syllabus disclaimer: “This syllabus is subject to change.” A nice way to remind students that this is a dynamic document (one they should refer to often!) and to give yourself room to adjust due dates, etc, as needed.
If you build it, will they come?
Now that you’ve built the syllabus of your dreams, how to get your students to actually read it? We’ve written about that over here.