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Syllabus Makeover: Five Ideas to Upgrade Your Syllabus

test_handout_professor_corrected1.jpgWhen I was working on my Master’s thesis, I read a research study on student-teacher rapport which revealed that even if students were shown a soundless clip of only a few seconds that showed a teacher teaching class, those students would form very strong opinions and feelings as to the quality and interest of the given course. Such initial impressions can stick with students and frame how they view the course.

In a way, the syllabus we create and distribute to students is very much one type of first impression that students get. In some cases, such as a syllabus posted to Canvas or Blackboard before the start of the class, it can be the very first thing your students will experience about you and the class. A confusing, visually boring, or unorganized syllabus my send the students the wrong impression of what to expect from you. It may even set the tone for the attitude they approach your class with. But even the most beautiful and well-thought-out syllabus won’t do any good if the students never look at it. So, as the fall semester is approaching, it’s a great time to have a syllabus discussion and share some great resources to help bring your syllabus to life and some strategies to get your students into it.

In my opinion, the purpose of a syllabus is twofold. It’s there to provide useful information regarding the course, so it should be user-friendly. It’s also a legal contract regarding course policies, and so it needs to be clear and accessible. As teachers, it’s our goal to create a great syllabus and then to encourage our students to become familiar with all the information it has to offer. Every semester I change my syllabus. As any great work in progress, there is constant tuning, tweaking, updating, adding, deleting, changing, etc. But through all of this, there have been some parts I’ve created and adapted from others that have stuck and appear in my syllabus every semester. Below are some ideas and resources with syllabus related ideas.

Syllabus Components

Diversity Statement 

One of the beautiful things about teaching ESL is the great diversity that we find in our classes. We have students from various countries, cultures, language backgrounds, ages, worldviews and more. This diversity brings many positive things to the classroom, the delicious potlucks being only one. However, with this can also come tension and culture clashes. I once had a gay student confide that he felt discriminated against by others from a more conservative cultural background who were talking about him outside of class and avoiding group work with him. I had a colleague tell me that because one of her female students was a single mother, the other women of the same cultural group were giving her a hard time.

I want every single student who comes into my class to feel supported and welcomed. So I developed a diversity statement which I include in my syllabus. I go over it on day one to set a clear tone about the expectations I have in my class.

Classroom Diversity Statement: I understand and respect that we all come from various backgrounds and belief systems. I respect everyone in my class, and I expect all of you do the same. I do not tolerate (allow) any discrimination based on, but not limited to, the following: race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, political affiliation or beliefs, marital status, parental status, age, lifestyle, weight, economic status, and nationality. I also do not allow any bullying or teasing. If I see or hear that you are discriminating, disrespecting, or making fun of (teasing or gossiping about) one of your classmates, I will ask you to leave the class for the day.  If it happens again, I will require you to go to the dean before you can return to class. If you do not stop such behavior in my class, I have the right to drop you from my class.

Cheat Contract 

One thing we as teachers have to struggle with at times is students who attempt to cheat in our classes. No matter how many times we tell them it won’t help them learn the language, it still happens. I had one semester it got so bad I was to my wits’ end with what to do. I now do more cultural discussions near the beginning of class and include an official cheating contract with my syllabus.

In my experience, many instances of cheating stem from cultural differences and a lack of awareness of US school norms. The class I mentioned above had a large number of students from a culture where helping each other was the cultural norm. Helping your friend was expected and not viewed as a negative thing. Having discussions of what is considered cheating here can help students learn the culture and school norms and save you frustration.

After going over a lesson of what things I consider cheating, I have students initial and sign the contract. It has my school’s logo and a signature line. I use the “contract” because it feels very official and serious and lets them know that we have a very strict stance on academic integrity. They turn it in and I can use it if someone does cheat. They can’t argue about getting a zero if they signed and initialed that they wouldn’t have a paper with answers on it.

I don’t use this in every class. It’s hard to cheat on a written test, for example. I mostly use it in lower level classes where students often haven’t had as much exposure to school culture in this country and in classes where there are a lot of exams. I’ve since added a behavior contract to it as well that addresses some issues I’ve had with my student population.  I’ve left the document as a Word document instead of a PDF, so you can modify items to fit your context and policies.

Cheat and Behavior Contract

Example Syllabus 

I’ve attached my syllabus template to check out. I’ve removed specific policies since everyone will have different ones. If you’re new to teaching and need to develop a syllabus from scratch, seeing an example layout can be useful.

Syllabus Template

Classroom Syllabus Activities 

Survivor the Classroom Experience 

When I first started teaching, I’d do the typical first day of class syllabus review, standing awkwardly in front of the class going through each section as students followed along. I wanted to figure out a way to make it more engaging for students, something that would require them to really look through it and absorb information instead of tuning me out as I talked. To solve this problem, I came up with an activity that took the syllabus from my hands and put it into theirs. I’ve really enjoyed doing this activity as it seems students really look through the syllabus. The downfall is that it doesn’t work well with beginning level classes.


  1. Put students in pairs. Have them look through the syllabus and write down 5 things that they will need to survive (a spinoff of the TV show) the course. The things could be anything from materials to attitudes.
  2. Have each pair write their list on the board.
  3. Go over the lists on the board as a class. Ask students where in the syllabus they saw the need for something. For example, if they say they will need an alarm clock, if asked, they may point to a strict no late policy in your syllabus.
  4. As a class, decide which of the things on the board are the most important and circle them.

Alternatively, you could have the pairs create a list of ten things and then have two pairs join to compare lists and select 5 they think are the most important between the two lists.

Survivor: The Class Experience

Syllabus Quiz

One of my colleagues has her students do a syllabus quiz near the beginning of class. It could be something you grade, or it could be something pairs work together to complete collaboratively. You could do it the first day while they’re looking at the syllabus for the first time (obviously this way would be ungraded), or you could let them take it home and study it for a quiz the following day. Either way, it’s a great way to get students thinking about the important policies in your class.

We’d love to hear your great syllabus ideas or thoughts on the ones mentioned here. Please leave a comment below with your thoughts and ideas.




2 responses on "Syllabus Makeover: Five Ideas to Upgrade Your Syllabus"

  1. I love the Survivor approach and plan to try it out in my classes next semester. Thanks for all your innovative ideas!

  2. Yes, I really like the approach as well. It keeps me from having to give a boring syllabus talk and really gets the students to engage with the syllabus. I’d love to hear how it goes in your class.

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