The History of the Syllabus

Time frame for this activity: (30 mins)

Learning Objective:

  • Discuss the implications of the structure and language of a syllabus (Knowledge & Comprehension)

It has been over a century since the genre of the syllabus emerged in higher education, yet the document has not changed much in structure and language. Why? Although it is the most commonly designed communication and planning tool in higher education, the syllabus has not been researched in as much depth as it deserves to better understand how to improve its design and impact. A lack of clear and concise language or even a litigious tone are characteristic of poorly designed syllabi. When an on-campus course goes online, changes to the syllabus are not often made. Many essential components regarding course communication and navigation, learner support and participation expectations are left out. What are the implications for online learners?

Map (Image Source: Flickr- Scott MacBride )

1. Read "A Brief History of the Syllabus with Examples" (approx. 10 mins.)

2. Knowledge Construction and Sense Making (approx. 20 mins.)

Reflect on your personal history and perspective as both a student reading a syllabus and an instructor writing a syllabus. (Even if you have never composed a syllabus before, think about what information you would want to include for your students.)

From each perspective, share your thoughts about one or more of the questions below in the comments section.* Respond to another participant's comments.

As a student:

  1. Do you read syllabi word for word? What would motivate you to skim or ignore reading a syllabus?
  2. As an online student, what are critical questions the syllabus should answer for you?
  3. Is the clarity of a syllabus or lack thereof indicative of the quality of instruction?

As an instructor:

  1. Should learning theory influence the design of a syllabus?
  2. How would an instructor combat the problem of writing opaque syllabi only other experts in the field can decode?
  3. Why should a syllabi contain clearly stated and measurable objectives?
  4. What makes for a successful syllabus?


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