By Melissa Wehler, PhD, Dean of Humanities and Sciences
The syllabus functions as a contract between the students and the faculty member regarding the academic experience in the classroom and the standards for that experience. Often, when writing our syllabi, we get lost in the legalities of our policies, trying to out-maneuver that loop-hole driven student just waiting on our rosters. (The old adage that faculty “can write a student’s name next to every syllabus policy” comes to mind.) While it’s important that we are clear and concrete in our policies, it is equally as important that we use this document as a space to demarcate the learning environment: what are your standards for student work and engagement? how do you see your role in the classroom? what standards do you have for participation? how should students conduct themselves in discussion? Focusing on these questions help us to build an engaging learning experience not simply avoid a disastrous one.
When creating policies for your syllabus, keep in mind some best practices:
Keep the audience in mind. Since students are the audience, you will want to use clear and specific language and avoid being overly long, complicated, or detailed. Try to keep them to a short paragraph and consider using bullet lists.
Read for tone. The syllabus establishes the classroom guidelines, and as such, the rules for behavior and performance. Syllabus policies should have a positive tone even as they create these parameters.
Consider the course. Each course will have its own unique set of policies that are tailored to the way you teach it. For instance, if you teach discussion-based courses, you might want to create a discussion policy. Or if you teach a presentation-based course, you might want to have a policy on professional dress or appearance.
Remember the level. The level of the course will also help you to establish behavior, performance, and participation expectations. For example, if you teach an introductory course, you want to have a stricter attendance policy, so that these new students acclimate to this reality of campus life.
Avoid distractions. It may be tempting to change fonts or colors, but these attempts to draw students’ attention to the seriousness of your policy can instead negatively communicate something about you. Instead, use bold on certain parts of a policy to help students locate the information quickly.
By keeping these best practices in mind, you will help students to not just to understand your standards for academic work, dialogue, and engagement, but to see themselves reflected in the learning experience you are building.
About the Author
Dr. Melissa Wehler serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College. Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.