Quick Tips for Successful Syllabus Design

Est. Reading: 4 minutes

With so much of – well, everything – getting done online these days, there is more and more call for effective online educational materials.

Whether you are teaching chemistry to undergraduates online or preparing online onboarding training courses for new hires, having an effective syllabus is one way to ensure that your students get the most out of your online instruction.

A syllabus is an introduction or handbook to a course. It is the document that sets the student up to be ready to learn at the start of the course and that litigates any issues that come up during the course. Most teaching institutions require teachers to provide a syllabus; while few training programs in the professional world require one, the most effective professional training courses include one as a matter of course (no pun intended).

The good news is that effective syllabus design is not difficult – just time consuming. Here are a few of the considerations you want to keep in mind as you design and draft your syllabus.

Be Clear About Your Policies

All courses rely on effective policies – clear and enforced rules – for effective delivery. Students need to know what is expected of them, what to expect from their instructor(s) and institution, and the parameters within which they are going to be operating.

A good syllabus should clearly deliver and explicitly signpost all policies that will impact the student’s participation in the course, from grading and attendance policies, to participation and preparation expectations.

Make sure your policies are clear and specific. A policy that is too vague, general, or inflexible may cause problems for both you and your student. For any policy, state the requirement for performing acceptably, the exact parameters of unacceptable compliance, and the penalty for non-compliance.

Here’s a good example of what a clear, specific attendance policy might look like for a completely online training course:

“To gain full credit for this course, students must log in to the VLE for at least one hour for each scheduled day of class and complete all online quizzes by the stated deadline. Failure to meet any one of these expectations will result in pro-rated partial credit only being awarded. If extenuating circumstances prevent you from meeting these requirements, please reach out and submit supporting documentation via email.”

Note that final line: you should also let students know the process by which they can inform you of and discuss with you extenuating circumstances that might hinder them from meeting your expectations.

Keep it Simple

A syllabus that is too long becomes ineffective, because students rarely bother to do more than skim. An overly long syllabus will cause important information to become buried, and students are likely to simply abandon the document altogether and resort to badgering the instructor for answers instead.

Treat the syllabus like a handbook or even a search engine. Its job is not to provide a full and detailed answer to every question about the course and institution. Instead, it should seek to provide quick, definitive answers, concrete policies, and guidance on where to go for further information. This is especially the case for online courses, in which interconnectivity is that much more supported.

For example, a great online syllabus will definitely explain how many sessions a student must attend (and how they should attend) in order to get full credit for the course. In lieu of a full, day-by-day course schedule, however, an effective online syllabus can simply opt to include a link to the VLE’s course calendar.

Utilize Document Design

Even after your best efforts to keep your syllabus simple, it is likely that you will still end up with a document that is dense and text-heavy.

Document design principles are your best friend in dealing with this issue. Columns, paragraph breaks, textboxes, tables, images, headings, sub-headings, bold and italics, all-caps text, and hyperlinks are all great ways to break up large chunks of text and make important information stand out.

Consider putting important notices, policies, or contact details in a different color, or emphasizing them in their own text boxes. Tables can be a great way of presenting dates and schedules. Include a professional headshot not only provides a visual break from text but can also help students establish more of a connection with the instructor. Including institutional branding (logos, images, and so on) can make your syllabus feel more official and authoritative.

Ask Your Students for Feedback

Finally, it’s important not to forget that, like any other document, a syllabus can only be improved by input from its users.

Encourage students to let you know what they find effective an ineffective in your document. Did they find it easy to locate your contact information? Was the participating policy completely clear? Did they have enough information to calculate their grade independently at mid-term? Were they able to identify the contact details for the person they needed to submit their completion certificate to after the course? Ask students for their input and make sure you act on it when you receive it.

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