What is a Syllabus and How Do You Make One?
Chris Zook is a contributing author to the AES blog. He enjoys everything about online marketing, data science, user experience, and corgis.
A syllabus details important information that fits into an overarching curriculum, which describes a class in general terms.
Together, a curriculum and a syllabus account for all of the topics you plan to teach, the resources you’ll use to teach them, and the individual lessons that support each topic.
As a result, it’s easy for teachers — especially first-year teachers — to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of creating a syllabus from scratch.
It’s also a challenge for teachers who aren’t naturally detail-oriented!
So with all of that in mind, what makes a syllabus so important? How do you create one? And once you have one, how do you make it better?
You’ll learn all of that and more right on this page!
Let’s start by talking about why a syllabus is so important.
Why Is a Syllabus Important?
A class syllabus is important to different people for different reasons.
In general, you can expect your syllabus to help four groups of people once it’s created:
First, let’s cover why a syllabus is important for you as a teacher!
Why a Syllabus Matters to You
A syllabus is crucial to the success of any teacher because it maps out exactly what you have to do every day in your class.
It basically serves as a semester- or quarter-long reminder about every detail you need to cover with students.
With a syllabus, you do all of the work before your class starts so you can prepare for individual classes far ahead of time.
That makes it easier for you to be on your “A game” every time you enter the classroom.
It’s also helpful for your students to reference!
Why a Syllabus Matters to Students
When you give students a syllabus, you’re communicating your expectations for them throughout the duration of the class.
They’ll know what topics you’ll cover, what homework to complete, when assessments happen, and a whole lot more from one single document.
Depending on your teaching style, this could be a great way to encourage students to work ahead and even teach themselves some of the material.
It’s also a great way for you to identify students who are falling behind to offer remediation opportunities.
Altogether, a syllabus tells your students what to expect from you!
These expectations matter to another group of people too — your administrators!
Why a Syllabus Matters to Administrators
Your administrators are responsible for ensuring that education is consistent across all classrooms in their purview, whether that includes a single school or an entire district!
As a result, they may need to know what’s on your syllabus to ensure you’re hitting all the right notes.
Sometimes, your administrators may request a crosswalk between your class and current state standards instead of a syllabus.
Still, you’ll need a syllabus to create the crosswalk in the first place!
So whether you’re handing in a copy of your syllabus or using it to create the materials they need, your administrators need to know your syllabus either directly or indirectly.
Incidentally, your colleagues will also want to know what your syllabus covers — especially those who teach in the same department!
Why a Syllabus Matters to Your Colleagues
Your colleagues will care about your syllabus if (or when) they need to cover for you in a class.
That could include substitute teachers. It may also include new teachers who are brought onboard to cover classes you currently teach.
Regardless, a syllabus plays an enormous role in the smooth transition of a class from one teacher’s hands to another’s.
Otherwise, you’d be stuck explaining everything off the cuff!
So with all of that said, let’s jump into the major question — how do you create a syllabus?
How Do You Create a Syllabus?
You can portion the syllabus creation process into 10 steps:
- List your class’s name and official course code (if applicable)
- Fill in basic course information
- Create a course goal
- Note and describe who you are
- Note all needed materials
- Create a class calendar
- Note any policies that differ from school policies
- Note grading systems, scales, and curves
- Create statements on academic integrity and etiquette
- Review your syllabus
First thing’s first! Every syllabus needs the course’s name and course code.
1. Class Name & Course Code
Your class name and course code are essentially your syllabus’s title. They tell the reader what they’re about to see and contextualize the rest of the document.
Most of the time, this is easy. Many schools allow teachers to name their classes in the way the teacher believes makes sense.
The course code, on the other hand, is almost always set in stone. That’s because it’s used for enrollment purposes at the administrative level.
Regardless, they’re both essential parts of your syllabus for the sake of contextualization and organization.
2. Fill in Basic Course Information
“Basic course information” includes any details that pertain to the class’s cataloguing, tracking, or outcomes.
This information can vary from school to school. However, there are a handful of elements that are practically universal to include in basic course information:
- Credit hours
- Format: Face-to-face, blended, or online
- Brief description
With these four pieces of information, you’ll have most of the work done when filling in your syllabus’s basic details.
3. Create a Course Goal
Every class needs to have a goal. Otherwise, how can you verify whether students have successfully completed it?
The best class goals are brief statements as to what you’d expect a student to be able to do or know by the time the class concludes.
For a medical assisting class, the goal could be to get students to pass a certification exam so they can start careers as certified medical administrative assistants (CMAA).
For a middle school computer applications class, the goal could be to get students certified with Microsoft Word.
For a British literature class, the goal could be to perform a Shakespearean monologue.
Creating a simple and concise goal gives you, your students, and your administrators a clear “finish line” for the class.
4. Note and Describe Who You Are
As the class’s teacher, your name, credentials, and contact information are required on a syllabus.
Your name is the simplest part.
Your credentials could include anything from your degrees (Bachelor’s, Master’s, etc.) to your job title. Noting your credentials acts as a record for why you’re the best person to teach this course at your school.
As for your contact information, you can always use an email address to funnel communications with parents into an appropriate and documented format.
Some teachers also choose to include their room number, office location, and similar information so that students can find them during non-class hours.
5. Note All the Materials You Need
The “materials” section of your syllabus is the first time you might feel the tedium of completing such a detailed account of your class.
This area of your syllabus requires you to lay out all of the different resources you’ll use to help students succeed throughout the course.
Thanks to the advent of technology in the classroom, today’s syllabi can include an enormous range of materials, including:
- Digital curriculum
- Open education resources (OER)
- Online activities
- Reference materials
- Online courseware
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it illustrates the point that you have a lot more options when it comes to how to teach your students than educators 10 years ago.
Blended classrooms will naturally use more resources than traditional classrooms. As a result, this section of your syllabus could take anywhere from several minutes to several hours.
It all depends on your teaching style!
6. Create a Class Calendar
Your class calendar will be the go-to resource that your students and administrators reference when discussing your class.
Your calendar will list essential information, including:
- Start date
- End date
- Due dates
- Substitute teachers
- Other dates of interest
It’s smart to reference your school and personal calendars when you’re creating your class calendar. This lets you identify holidays, in-service days, and days you’ll have to take off for personal plans.
On top of that, it’s important to look at calendars for religious holidays that your school district may not observe. This matters because your students and their families may still observe these holidays, meaning they probably won’t be in school during that time.
This is also the time to assign dates for major assessments and off-campus field trips that could affect your regular class schedule.
When you account for all of these variables, you can create a robust syllabus calendar that keeps you on track, your students informed, and your administrators satisfied!
7. Note Any Policies That Differ from School Policies
Do you have a unique attendance policy apart from your school? Do your make-up work opportunities differ from most of the other classes in your department?
Your syllabus is the perfect place to note that information!
Most of the time, the classes that have to worry about these policies have a large hands-on portion to their syllabus that simply can’t be done by a student on his or her own.
These hands-on portions require students to be physically present in your classroom, which means you simply can’t teach the same skills or information through readings, worksheets, or digital means.
Your syllabus could account for lessons on anything from CPR / BLS to home economics and beyond.
When those hands-on activities happen, your attendance policy can change to suit the shift in classwork.
There’s typically no problem with making these policy changes yourself — you just have to document them so you and your students are on the same page!
8. Note Grading Systems, Scales, and Curves
Grading systems, scales, and curves are more important to note in post-secondary syllabi, but they may also apply to a middle school or high school class.
Noting how you grade students shows them what to expect throughout the marking period.
Objective grading means you use the standard system of assigning letter grades — 90%-100% is an A, 80%-90% is a B, etc.
When you change a grading scale, you change which letter grade corresponds to which percentage range.
When you change a grading curve, you change the class’s perspective of an A and ultimately allow students to earn more than a 100% in your class.
Some teachers may use grading curves because the material they teach is exceptionally hard to grasp, but there aren’t many other alternatives to teaching the material.
As a result, students could wind up earning what would be considered “failing grades” in a typical class. But with a grading curve, those failing grades could be considered passing grades, based on the difficulty of the material.
These systems may also include extra credit opportunities, makeup work grading, and more!
So in the rare event that you use a different grading scale from the traditional American system, ensure you note it in your syllabus for absolute clarity!
9. Create Statements on Academic Integrity and Etiquette
This may sound like it’s redundant, but it’s important to clarify with your students that cheating and dishonesty are 100% unacceptable in your classroom!
This goes hand-in-hand with rules about etiquette, which may include respecting you, respecting one another, and respecting your classroom.
It’s important to issue these statements to your students because they reinforce what students already know — it’s more important to be honest than to get a good grade.
10. Review Your Syllabus
You just spent a lot of time creating your syllabus. Now, it’s time to make sure you have all of your bases covered!
You can do this in one of two ways:
- Peer review
Some teachers self-review because they’re the authority on the subject that they teach. That’s why it makes sense that the most informed individual would review a syllabus for that area.
Other teachers opt for peer review. This comes in handy whenever a teacher simply can’t look at a syllabus anymore because they’ve been working on it for so long.
So take a break! Ask a colleague to look over your syllabus.
They may give you the best ideas that you’d otherwise never consider.
Now, with all of those steps wrapped up, you have a syllabus!
But there are still a handful of crucial questions to ask.
After all, the pace of education, technology, and information is increasing every day. It’s almost blinding to try and keep up with all of the changes.
These changes mean you’ll have to make lesson plans that are up-to-date, easy for students to understand, and reusable year after year.
That’s a challenge all on its own. It almost sounds impossible!
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever!
How Do You Create a Lesson Plan?
If you’re looking to fill out your syllabus with the best possible lesson plans, you’re in luck!
You can learn how to create a lesson plan from scratch by reading one page.
Are you ready to take your syllabus to the next level?
Learn how to make an outstanding lesson plan!