Monday, May 16, 2011

Writing a Syllabus and Course Outline: Planning for Success

This spring, after a hiatus of fifteen years, I found myself agreeing to teach a couple writing courses. Though I taught for several years, in the course of moving three times and bearing a child I had, of course, discarded all of my notes, my past syllabuses and outlines, and my old marked-up textbooks. In short, I found myself facing a whole term with no real teaching plan. Luckily, I knew how to go about writing my syllabus. Here’s what I did:

1. I asked my new supervisor for sample syllabuses and copies of the approved textbooks. Though there are state and national standards for course requirements, each school sets about meeting those standards in its own way. Beginning your relationship with a new school by basing your materials on theirs is not only good manners—it’s a good way be sure that you are in compliance with the school’s internal systems. As you become an established, known quantity you can suggest possible textbooks, or explore innovative teaching methods, but in the beginning it’s both good and necessary to work with the systems already in place.

2. I scheduled out the term, factoring in all holidays and test schedules.
Knowing how many class periods you have will determine how to best schedule presentations, assignments, presentation periods, and due dates. Because this time I’m teaching a marathon session once a week I planned my assignments to begin on the day when we discuss them, to include one full class for revision and commenting, and to be due at the beginning of the following class period. My students begin writing during class immediately after they have reviewed samples. At the end of class I check to be sure each has a subject and a beginning for his or her paper. Because my classes are small, I have time to sit down with each student, read what has been written, and discuss possible ways of proceeding. Using the second class period for in-class revision gives students the opportunity to exchange papers with each other, and it gives me the opportunity to review each student’s paper again. This serves two functions. First, it gives new writers immediate, personal feedback. Second, it makes buying or borrowing a paper difficult to impossible. Scheduling the paper’s due date for the beginning of the following class period gives students time to incorporate revisions and suggestions and hand in a clean draft—accompanied by all of the prewriting exercises and preliminary drafts. Again, this serves two functions. First, it gives me a way to determine how or if a writer has incorporated others’ input. Second, it offers yet another barrier to plagiarism. I figure if a student is clever enough to have done all of the in-class writing and revisions I require stapled to the final paper, and to do it without raising any red flags for me, they’re smarter than I am.

3. I made my outline—and I follow it. Students do best when they feel confident that you have some sort of plan. Use your outline to plan your class presentations, writing assignments, and reading assignments.

4. I plan for multiple paths to learning. Students learn in different ways. By offering information in a variety of formats you help to ensure that each of your student’s will absorb most of what he or she must to pass the course. Plan each assignment to include: a) a written assignment; b) an oral classroom presentation; c) relevant examples; d) exercises supporting the skills necessary to complete the assignment; and e) discussion periods. This term, I've also been creating PowerPoint slides, which I used to keep myself on track in class--and post for student reference afterward. A good rule of thumb is to plan on repeating key information at least three times in various ways.

5. I ran my syllabus and outline past my contact person at the college or university before I presented it to my class—and before the final date for filing it with school administration. Again, it's good manners, and it's a good way to head off any embarrassing gaffes later.

Parts to a syllabus and course outline:

A. Course Title and Number, term and year, days and times the class meets, office hours when students can see you privately, and the instructor’s name and contact information. Check with the school about the availability of empty classrooms for your office hours, arrange to be available before or after class, or suggest that students meet you in the school cafeteria (if any). It’s best to avoid suggesting meetings in off-campus locations, and it’s vital that you protect your privacy and safety by not meeting with students in your home. Though I love teaching, I have gotten the occasional scary student—the kind who prompted me to arrange for campus security to accompany across campus and to my car after class. Don’t take chances.

B. Course Description, textbook name/s and bibliographic information, and course objectives and goals. You’ll use the course catalog and the sample syllabus you get as the source for this information.

C. Course Components and Requirements: This is a basic description of how business will be conducted in your class—if the date a reading assignment is listed is the day on which it is assigned, or the date by which it must be read; if papers must be typed, or if they can be handwritten; your rules about late work, etc. It also includes any special materials you may require, such as a flash drive for transporting files, a journal, and so forth. It’s good to base this on the sample syllabus, since some of these pieces relate to facilities and technology available.

D. A written list of the major course requirements—papers, quizzes, daily work, reading, and tests—and how each will be weighted in determining student grades

E. Evaluation: A breakdown of the percentages necessary to achieve an A, B, C, D, or F. Though there is some flexibility in this, general standards often set and A at 91 – 100%, a B at 81 – 90%, a C at 71-80%, a D at 61-70%, and an F at anything below 60%. These are not absolutes; you will want to consult your department office manager or your supervisor for the percentages the college uses most often.

F. Special Needs contact statement, including numbers and addresses where students requiring extra help can go to find it.

G. Plagiarism statement: By law, it’s necessary to lay out the definition of plagiarism and its consequences at the school for which you will be teaching. While the definition remains standard, consequences can range from a “do-over” on the assignment to an automatic “F” for the paper to an “F” for the term to expulsion from college. You’ll want to verify the school’s policy, and then draft your statement in compliance with it.

H. School-wide cancellations alert information, and where students can go to learn about cancellations.

I. Course Outline : This is a day-by-day operating schedule listing reading assignments, in-class presentation topics, writing assignments, and due dates. Your students will refer to this constantly. You should, too.

Once you’ve drafted your syllabus and course outline, you’ll want to fine tune it from term to term, but you’ll discover that much of the syllabus material will remain the same from year to year, unless course requirements and grading standards change. Your course outline, on the other hand, will shift a bit more, as you discover what works best for you in terms of assignment order, pacing, handling late papers, and so forth.

Though Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things for nearly fifteen years, she started out teaching college writing, basic writing, and remedial writing courses, and tutoring struggling writers on the side. She still loves teaching, and is delighted to be doing it again. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.Bookmark and Share


  1. Although I do not teach at the college level, I do teach writing for high school and middle school homeschoolers. An organized, unchanging syllabus with clearly defined parameters is a must because of the many different families with their varied methods of at-home education are involved. Very insightful. Thank you.

  2. Sherry, you've just outlined why I'd never be able to teach a course on writing! My hat's off to you!

  3. Sheesh! I had to write a 'course description' for a 4 week class on dialogue I'm doing for Savvy Authors and that was enough of a challenge. I used to teach junior high, and daily lesson plans were enough of a struggle.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. What a great resource for organizing to teach a class. I wish I had these guidelines when I was preparing my last class I did for a writer's group. You can be sure I will save this for reference later.


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