The Three Essential Functions of Your Syllabus

James Lang has written an excellent two-part article on the essential functions of your course syllabus. He argues for a “learning syllabus,” where the syllabus helps the student to learn rather than merely serving as the course “contract.” He outlines how the syllabus should convey a professor’s “energy and enthusiasm” for the subject, that conveying the value of the content is important. In addition, the syllabus should serve to orient your students to the framework of the course, explaining how the course will unfold over the semester, and to show students the course’s “learning arc.” Finally, the syllabus should make the reasons you do what you do transparent. Why will there be discussions? What’s the purpose of the project? Lang rightly says that, while the rationale for the assignments and assessments might be clear to you, outlining it in the syllabus helps to make it clear for students—something important when they may be struggling with an assignment or task.

In the second part of his article, James Lang discusses how to make your syllabus, however long, a “living document” that will help students and motivate them throughout the semester. Quizzing students on the syllabus, allowing them some control over the crafting of it, and creating detailed learning objectives that connect the assignments and tasks with the overall goals of the course are just some of the ways to accomplish this. I especially liked the “syllabus quiz” where the instructor has the students pull out the syllabus again, the instructor points out a past topic,  and the students write what they remember about the topic, how it connects to the day’s lesson, etc.

Overall, these two articles were an excellent, digestible way to look at the syllabus as a way for instructors to connect to students and to help them learn.