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January 22, 2015

Teaching @ Pitt: What’s on your syllabus?

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An instructor teaching a new class concluded midway through the semester that some students were achieving the intended skills easily while others were struggling. She told students that if they had achieved an A on the quizzes, assignments and exams by the end of November, they were exempt from the final exam. The instructor did not anticipate that weaker students would complain to the department chairperson, arguing that this change in the requirements was unfair since this option was not indicated on the syllabus.

When students approach departmental administrators about an instructor’s handling of a course, the administrators commonly ask both the students and the instructor: “What was on the syllabus?” A clear syllabus sets expectations for students and often is viewed as a contract between the course instructor and the class. A course syllabus also can be used by administrators when assessing the outcomes of a program or by accreditation agencies when reviewing a course of study.

Most syllabi include the following:

  • Course name, instructor contact and office hour information.
  • Course description that summarizes the course content.  This section may include a rationale that clarifies the purpose of the course and how it fits into the curriculum, for example, stating that it is a prerequisite for other courses. Many faculty convey the relevance of the course by illustrating a problem or case that the course will address.
  • Course objectives that list the broad goals students should achieve by the end of the course.
  • Required texts, readings or other materials.
  • Course requirements that detail how the students will be evaluated.
  • Grading scale that identifies what constitutes a final grade.
  • Course schedule that lists topics and assignment due dates.
  • Class policies that address rules such as the submission of late assignments, style requirements when submitting papers or the use of cell phones in class.
  • University policies including the academic integrity statement and the disabilities statement.

While each component of a syllabus is critical, clarification of information within four specific areas is especially important as a means of preventing misinterpretations and problems.

1. Draw a clear relationship between the course objectives and the means of evaluation.

Emphasize this relationship at the beginning of each objective. Here is an example:

Original: Students will analyze possible policies that contribute to urban blight within a community. Revised: Given a case of urban blight within a community, students will analyze possible policies that contribute to that condition.

The assignment or exam for this objective would be to provide students with a case for analysis. The tight relationship between the objectives and the evaluations helps students to envision how they will demonstrate what they have learned.

2. List consequences for violating course policies.

Course policies reflect the rules of the classroom or the University. Each policy should be stated clearly and include consequences if that policy is violated. For example, you may lower a participation grade if someone violates your policy to turn cell phones off during class, rationalizing that use of cell phones disrupts a student’s ability to pay attention and disrupts the attention of other students. Or, you may have a policy about the submission of late assignments that describes the consequence for not turning in a paper by the due date.

3. Clearly define participation.

The definition of class participation may vary among the different classes a student takes, so if you grade for participation, define it clearly. If attendance is the main component of a participation grade, does this mean that the student who never speaks but attends every class has earned the grade of A for participation? If so, consider whether you need to clarify that you are grading for attendance rather than participation.

Some instructors believe that participation should reflect the frequency of classroom contributions. Does that mean a frequent responder who adds only mediocre value to the discussions will be graded higher than the occasional responder who is more reflective and participates less frequently?

Keep in mind that students tend to interpret vague definitions of participation as a way for the instructor to subjectively decide to award students on the cusp a higher grade. Including a participation rubric or checklist that lists specific expectations and criteria can help you to clarify  expectations.

If you plan more interactivity and discussion among all students throughout your class sessions, you may want to consider not grading participation at all. For example, if students are discussing issues in pairs, the redesign of your class activities will innately address the need for students to participate.

4. Distinguish the grading scale from the grading scheme.

Along with a short description of each assignment in your syllabus to help students plan their time, be sure to indicate the grading scheme, the value of each assignment relative to the final class grade. The grading scheme reflects how your assignments or exams are weighted or totaled. For example, quizzes might comprise 5 percent of the grade, while a research paper might be 50 percent.

The grading scale is the breakdown of the accumulated points or grades that determine the final grade for the course.

Some schools require specific grading scales, while others leave it up to the faculty member’s discretion. A typical scale might look like this:

A = 90-100

B = 80-89

C = 70-79

D = 60-69

A checklist for syllabi that includes the statement for academic integrity and the disabilities statement can be found at

Carol Washburn is a senior instructional designer at CIDDE.