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The Skills Agenda

Syllabus design boot camp, day 5: finishing touches

In the final stages of syllabus design, don’t forget to include your course policies.


As a university student in the mid-1990s, I loved the television show E.R. Among the many things from that show that has stuck with me over the years is a recurring phrase: “You set the tone.” Season after season (and the show had many seasons), doctor after doctor passed this advice along. You set the tone.

As the instructor, you set the tone for your course. And the tone starts from your syllabus.

Today is the final day of our syllabus design boot camp. So far you have established your learning outcomes (Day 1), selected your learning materials (Day 2), designed your assignments (Day 3) and constructed your course calendar (Day 4). All we need to do now is add your course welcome, your course policies and – importantly – a bit of your personality.

Review Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Day 4.

Decide the tone you wish to set for your class

When you think of the dynamic you want to have with the students in your course and the engagement you want them to have with each other, what are the first words that come to mind? Do you want a warm, welcoming classroom (be it in person, virtual or blended)? Do you want a lively, engaged class? An organized, professionally focused class? Do you want students to perceive you first and foremost as approachable? Authoritative? Dynamic? Tough?

If you have ever written a teaching philosophy statement, you have undoubtedly given these matters some thought. If you have not, or have not done so in some time, it can be helpful to put yourself in your students’ shoes. If you were a student – a student now, in the 2020s, not whenever you did your first degree – what kind of class would you find most appealing as a learning experience?

In deciding the tone you wish to set, it can be helpful to consider a few anchor words to guide you. These can change over time. When I was a newer instructor, I strove to convey authority, professionalism and organization. Over time, as I gained confidence and found my own teaching style, I came to prioritize conveying respect, enthusiasm and organization. (What can I say? I like things to be organized!)

Write the syllabus introduction/welcome section

With your desired class tone in mind, it is time to write the opening paragraph(s) to your syllabus. Allow your personality and your enthusiasm for the course material to shine through here. I suggest starting with a welcome (e.g., “Welcome to POLS 256: Understanding Political Science Research. I am glad you are here!”). Then move to describe the course in exciting terms. Questions about the course content (e.g., “Have you ever wondered why …?”), provocative statements (e.g., “Critics argue …”) or points of controversy may be great ways to draw students in.

Students are often very curious about their instructors, so you may wish to provide some information here, particularly as it relates to the course content. A statement connecting your background to the course can be intriguing to students. For example, “I am particularly excited to teach this course for the fifth time as it relates directly to my research on X,” conveys both subject matter authority and enthusiasm.

Add your course policies

Policies help to create transparency, clarity and fairness. In some programs, many course policies are set at the university, faculty and/or department/program level. These typically include policies regarding academic integrity, accommodations, late assignments, missed exams and grade appeals, and often must be included in your syllabus in the provided boilerplate language. If the assignment policies (late penalties, missed exams and so forth) are left to your discretion, be sure to provide clear detail as these are potential areas of instructor-student miscommunication and/or conflict.

On top of the standard policies noted above, you may want to add some of your own. Here are some I use:

  • Respect policy. Example: “Our class is based on mutual respect. You are expected to treat your fellow students, your instructor and guest lecturers with respect. Please show up on time, refrain from talking and texting when others are speaking and turn all mobile devices to silent mode. Communications with your instructor and classmates, be they in person, over email or the course learning management system (LMS), or over the telephone, should be courteous and professional.”
  • Email policy. Example: “To ensure my ability to respond to all student emails in a timely fashion, please be sure to check the course syllabus and LMS page thoroughly for answers to any questions. To discuss substantive matters, please come to my drop-in office hours or email me to set up an appointment. I respond to emails during normal university work hours (i.e., Mon-Fri. 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.), and students can typically expect a response to an email enquiry within two work days. I do not typically respond to emails in the evenings, on weekends or on statutory holidays. I do not respond to unprofessional or rude emails.”
  • Grade discussions policy. Example: “I do not hold grade discussion meetings in the first three days after returning grades to allow students sufficient time to review their grades properly against the assignment overview and the grading rubric. To initiate a grade discussion: (1) Email me a one-half to one-page written summary of what about your grade is unclear to you or what area you are struggling with. Your written explanation should refer directly to the assignment overview and the grading rubric. Along with this summary, include a copy of your assignment. (2) Schedule a 10 to 15-minute meeting with me to discuss the assignment.”

In wording your policies, give careful thought to the tone you are setting; I encourage erring on the side of compassion.

Read the syllabus through from start to finish

At this point, all of the syllabus elements are in place. It is now time to proofread and double check your work. Here are some things to watch for:

  • Does your syllabus include all of the elements required by your program, faculty and/or university?
  • Does the syllabus convey the tone you wish to convey?
  • Proofreading: Do the assignments add up to 100 per cent? Are the dates accurate? Are learning materials presented in the bibliographic style that you expect students to use? Does the syllabus presentation quality (formatting, page numbers, writing quality) represent the quality level you expect students to use?

Your syllabus design boot camp homework

Here is your homework for today, all of which should take you less than an hour to complete:

  • Select three words to describe the tone you wish to set for your class (estimated time: five minutes).
  • Write your introductory paragraph (estimated time: 10 minutes).
  • Add your course policies (estimated time: 10 to 15 minutes).
  • Review your syllabus carefully (estimated time: 15 minutes).

That is it – your syllabus is done. At this point, you should be excited to get started with the course. And once your students see the syllabus, they will be as well.

That’s a wrap for the syllabus design boot camp. Thank you for participating and congratulations on your good work!

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

What tone are you striving to set with your syllabus? Please let me know by commenting below or by connecting with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl and using the hashtag #SkillsAgenda.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is a 3M National Teaching Fellow, an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her most recent book is For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities (with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young, University of Alberta Press 2024).
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