11 tips for crafting the all-important syllabus

Having a detailed syllabus and fair policies can save you trouble down the road.

December 8, 2015

Remember the days when the syllabus was a one- or two-page document, an easy read that prepared college kids for the course ahead? Those days, suffice it to say, are long gone.

Today’s typical college syllabus often runs between 10 and 15 pages, and includes everything from coursework requirements to grading processes to classroom etiquette (i.e., no texting during class time).

There’s a reason syllabi have grown so lengthy. The syllabus has become an all-important roadmap for students, many of whom now read syllabi online before deciding whether to take a class. Many students also work or have families, and a detailed syllabus helps them budget their time.

The syllabus “is the single key thing,” said Stephen Moehrle, CPA, Ph.D., department chair and professor of accounting at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, “If it is well done, everything follows it and goes smoothly. It is both the plan and the contract.”

The syllabus can also serve as a source of protection for a professor in the event that students take complaints about grades to the administration. Moehrle, whose syllabi are usually more than 15 pages long, said a very specific syllabus is a faculty member’s most important defense against claims of unfairness from a student. “Such disputes arise each semester at a university,” he said. “While it is rare, these disputes have even led to litigation.”

Thus, it’s imperative that instructors know how to craft a syllabus that is comprehensive, explicit, and enticing.

So what should accounting professors include in their syllabi, how can they improve these documents, and what pitfalls should they avoid? Faculty members offer the following tips:

Meet the requirements. If you’re getting ready to create a new syllabus, talk with your department chair or another applicable administrator on campus to gain insight into the course and find out about any university syllabus requirements, said Tracie Nobles, CPA, associate professor of accounting at Austin Community College in Texas. Most universities or colleges have specific items, such as a students with disabilities statement, which must be included.

Design a course that suits you. A syllabus should be reflective of what works for you, as you must follow and enforce it throughout the semester. “Don’t execute rules that you don’t feel comfortable about,” said Brian Bushee, Ph.D., a professor of accounting at the University of Pennsylvania. “Students will pick up on that discomfort right away.”

Learn from experience. When drafting a syllabus, look at what you or other professors have done in a particular course that worked and didn’t work. For example, if you get a lot of questions from students about a certain topic, such as what counts as an “excused absence,” you can add this information to your syllabus.

Listen to students. “The students will let you know where weaknesses exist in your syllabus,” Moehrle said. When students ask questions about the syllabus, Moehrle first sends them an email to clear up any confusion. Then, he adds to or revises the content on his next semester’s syllabus to close any loopholes or clear up any questions that were raised previously.

Be specific and detailed. Include the following in the syllabus: the course location; your name, office hours, and communication preferences; your teaching philosophy, grading methods, and policy on technology use; the course’s mission; class requirements and expectations; and assignment schedules. And describe what students need to do before each class. Your expectations should not be ambiguous.

Provide the exact formula for calculating grades. If you place a heavier weight on class participation than exams or homework, spell that out. Students need to know what is most important, where they need to excel, and how they will be graded.

Be accurate. Students tend to book travel home for the holidays early in the semester. If you post the wrong final exam date, this error could cause trouble. Review the syllabus thoroughly before posting it online.

Emphasize the bigger picture. A course isn’t an island—it’s part of a lengthy road to becoming a CPA, said Dan Deines, CPA, Ph.D., a professor of accounting at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. He advocates drafting a mission statement that explains not only the purpose of the course, but how it fits into the CPA pathway. “When we redesigned our curriculum, we had to be able to explain to students where they were going and where they were in the process and why that was important,” Deines said.

Don’t change the syllabus during the course if possible. If you must change the schedule slightly due to inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances, post an amended syllabus and alert students as to how these changes impact the rest of the semester. “Only try to do that if absolutely necessary,” Nobles said.

Stick to the syllabus and don’t waver. If you give a pass to one student for handing in something late, other students will get upset if they are not granted the same courtesy. “They are really sensitive to perceptions of unfairness,” Bushee said.

Finally, make sure that students read the syllabus. Many professors require that their students sign the syllabus, making it resemble an official, binding contract. Nobles instead requires her students to take a “syllabus quiz,” an online, open-book quiz, to ensure they read the 10-page document. “I try to make the syllabus robust and use it as the platform for the course,” she said.

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer.

To read more
Extra Credit articles, click here.