Syllabus Design: Research and Practical Advice

Participants of the faculty journal club discussing syllabus design

In August, the Teaching Quantitative Sciences Faculty Journal Club read and discussed recently-published research on syllabus design. The authors looked at different syllabi and categorized them into four types:

  • Syllabus as contract: The syllabus is designed to includes all policies that students could possibly need to know about a course. These syllabi tend to be very long and contain a lot of “you will” statements.
  • Syllabus as power instrument: The syllabus is designed to clearly delineate power structures in the class and prevent any future problems. These syllabi emphasize what students will and will not do in a course.
  • Syllabus as communication or signaling device: The syllabus is designed to describe what will happen in a course, often in a linear manner. These syllabi typically define course content in great detail.
  • Syllabus as collaboration: The syllabus exists to document how students and instructional staff will collaborate to achieve the course objectives. These syllabi describe expectations of both parties and focus on contributions to the learning experience.

Journal Club members discussed what types of classes fit best with different types of syllabi. Attendees also thought about how to blend different syllabi types to best support learners at different levels. For example, the article authors found that first-year students would likely find an entirely collaborative-style syllabus to be overwhelming. Students in introductory classes might benefit from more elements from the syllabus-as-communication style since they may not have taken a class that used a syllabus before.

Professor Kristin Stephens-Martinez from Computer Science shared how she leaves a blank space in her syllabus under the heading, “How to Get Help in This Class.” During the first week of class, students work together in small groups to brainstorm content for that part of the syllabus and then share their ideas with the rest of the class. This gives students a chance to collaborate on syllabus construction in a low-stakes way while also practicing group-based problem solving.

To learn more about research on syllabus design, read the full article “The 21st-Century Syllabus: From Pedagogy to Andragogy” by Charles J. Fornaciari and Kathy Lund Dean, published in Journal of Management Education 2014, Vol. 38(5) 701–723.

If you would like to learn more or join one of our Faculty Journal Clubs, send an email to Kim Manturuk. In addition to the Teaching Quantitative Sciences group, we are also launching a Pedagogy in the Humanities group and a Teaching Social Sciences group. Faculty Journal Clubs meet once a month throughout the academic year.