My Syllabus Preparation Hacks

We’re gearing up for the Spring semester here, and that means turning our attention to writing syllabi. I have always loved the creation process for courses, thinking into what skills and content I want my students to walk away with. I enjoy putting together the actual course schedule, considering how to group readings, where to place assignments for maximum effect, and seeing how the course unfolds from my mind’s eye onto the page. By the time I’ve finalized a course schedule, I’m usually impatient to start teaching it and see how students respond (If I don’t have the reaction: “I want to take this class!” then I go back in and fiddle with things until the class as it appears on my syllabus makes me wish I were a student again so I could take it. You can’t fake your own enthusiasm for what you’re teaching, so you might as well give into it and start out with a schedule you’re dying to dig into, yourself.)

Today’s syllabus, however, consists of far more than a course schedule. I don’t know about everyone else, but my syllabi have expanded to 10+ pages with all of the administrative check-boxes included. Where we used to provide the textbook and course materials, a list of course objectives, maybe an attendance and plagiarism policy, some form of information on how students might expect to be graded, and a (more or less complete) schedule of readings and assignments, today’s syllabus includes language on institutional and department learning objectives, general education learning objectives (when warranted), contact policies and procedures, accessibility policies and procedures, institutional learning and studying aids for students, electronics and internet use policies, much more explicit discussion of grading and assessment practices and rubrics, and often a host of other items, dependent upon where and what we are teaching.

And all of this is not a bad thing. I like the idea of my syllabus providing a one-stop shopping experience for my students in terms of locating all of the aids and resources and institutional assistance we offer to enhance and support their academic experience. But there are four realities to contend with concerning today’s syllabus:

1. It’s long and contains a huge amount of information on a wide array of subjects, and students often either do not read it or grow impatient trying to navigate it.

2. In many cases, every professor’s syllabus is slightly different (in some cases, entirely different) even within the same department or program, which leads to confusion.

And, the tandem:

3. The language of institutional and departmental policies is (periodically, in some institutions, and regularly, in others) changed, and

4. Syllabus guidelines, requirements, and templates are becoming more formalized in many institutions, meaning that even if you have a complete syllabus for a course, you are likely at some point to have to revise its structure, format, and/or contents.

As I stated from the outset of this post, I absolutely delight in developing my course schedules and will happily spend hours and hours reviewing and revising and tweaking readings and assignments and when things happen during the term. On the flip side, I absolutely loathe tedious and time-consuming revisions to formatting and policy and regulations content and wording. It takes me pretty much the entire workday to put together a new syllabus, and pretty much an entire workday to revise an old syllabus. That’s a lot of time to devote to just the document outlining the course, and takes away from the time I have to read and prepare for actual teaching.

I have, however, managed to get that time down slightly by tweaking my approach. In what remains in this post, I’ll outline how I used to approach syllabus writing and revision, and then share how I’ve tweaked that approach to streamline things a little more. (I assume that most experienced professors already do most, if not all, of these things to streamline the syllabus-writing process, but this is more for people just starting out who might not think of them in the midst of just trying to get their sea-legs under them.) This is also a post about drafting the initial Word or PDF document; putting a syllabus online in hypertext on a website or electronically in Canvas or another learning platform is a completely different process.

My Original Approach To Drafting / Revising a Syllabus

I used to begin drafting a syllabus for a new course on paper, and that frankly hasn’t changed. I brainstorm learning objectives on one side, make a list of possible readings on the other side, and start adding, deleting, and revising learning objectives and adding or removing readings until things look relatively comprehensive and workable. Then I start grouping readings into units and deciding where assignments go. Then I make a fifteen-week chart and put the readings and assignments into the weeks, and once that’s done, I am ready to go into a Word document and start actually writing the syllabus. We have a mandatory syllabus template, which just lists everything we have to include on the syllabus. We are responsible either for coming up with the wording, ourselves for matters like class policies) or for copying verbatim from official university policies located in the (electronic) student handbook and online in Canvas. We also recently changed all of our general education assessments, which are listed on a giant Excel spreadsheet. This means that to actually write the syllabus up, I typically am moving back and forth between my handwritten course schedule, the syllabus template, the syllabus draft, and various pages of the student handbook, as well as the Excel spreadsheet.

Yuck.

My More Streamlined Approach To Drafting and/or Revising a Syllabus

While you would think that just cut-and-pasting an old syllabus into a new Word document, then removing the unnecessary or outdated or incorrect information from it and add in the new and corrected/updated information would be the fastest and most efficient way to update a syllabus, I have found that in fact it is incredibly cumbersome and time-consuming, so I streamlined the process this way: I now have four documents I work with for all of my syllabi: a blank 15-week chart I can just cut-and-paste into each new syllabus to start with, a Google doc that includes every general education assessment and program learning objective I am responsible for in my various classes, organized by class, a Google doc that includes the student handbook information I’m required to include on my syllabus and all of my drafted language for various other elements, like assessment, grading, and so forth, and whatever the new syllabus template is for the term (my School has gone through three new syllabus templates since 2016.) These four documents save me a lot of time cutting information out of an already-drafted schedule to incorporate the new course schedule information, looking up the general ed requirements on the maser Excel spreadsheet, and coming up with new wording for the various parts of the syllabus. I use the syllabus template to put everything from these documents together however they are asking me to in any given term, update my office hours, and then cut-and-paste that new master into new documents for however many syllabi I am writing in a given term. Then all that is left is to change the title and fill in the schedule for each new course. This approach has saved me, on average, two or three hours of going back-and-forth between documents. That might not sound like much, but in the period before a new term, any time you can rescue from syllabus preparation to put toward either resting and recharging or actual course preparation work–reading, writing lectures, and similar–is a win.

Do you have any ideas for ways to streamline drafting and revising syllabi? I am always up for hearing how other people tackle this task–Let me know in the comments!

About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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