Writing A Syllabus

By Howard B. Altman, University of Louisville and William E. Cashin, Kansas State University
from IDEA Paper No. 27, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development
A Divison of Continuing Education, Kansas State University
September, 1992

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That's depends a good deal on where you want to get to."...
(Alice in Wonderland, Chapter VI, P 64; Carroll, 1960)


Etymologically syllabus means a "label" or "table of contents." The American Heritage Dictionary defines syllabus as outline of a course of study. We agree that a syllabus should contain an outline, and a schedule of topics, and many more items of information. However, we suggest that the primary purpose of a syllabus is to communicate to one's students what the course is about, why the course is taught, where it is going, and what will be required of the students for them to complete the course with a passing grade.

Most of this paper will list suggestions from the literature about what information might be included in your course syllabus. It is extremely unlikely that you will include every listed. We suggest two criteria in deciding what information to include. First, include all information that students need to have at the beginning of the course; second, include all information that students need to have in writing. We believe that any really important information about the course should be in writing. However, it may be better to introduce some information later in the term, e.g., the details of a required project. To attempt to include every single item of importance in your syllabus is to insure that the student will not read much of it.

To the experienced teacher, probably few of the items listed in this paper are likely to come as a surprise. However, Lowther, Stark, and Martens (1989) found in their interviews with faculty and in their examinations of syllabi that "obvious" items were often omitted. At the very least we hope this paper will provide the reader with a useful organization of what is already known.

In compiling the list of items of information that might be included in a syllabus, we started with the unpublished article by the first author -- an abbreviated version of which appeared in The Teaching Professor (Altman, 1989). We found additional items in other publications (Birdsall, 1989; Lowther, Stark, & Martens, 1989; Millis, no date; Wilkerson & McKnight, 1978). There was surprising agreement about the major areas of information to be included in a syllabus.