An Overview of the Syllabus and its Role at MSU
In this resource, we describe the purpose and history of the syllabus and describe the required and recommended elements of syllabi at Michigan State. We end with links to MSU’s many existing syllabus guidelines and resources. While what to include in your syllabus is flexible, we encourage educators to keep students’ needs in mind and think about how your syllabus can contribute to their learning.
What a syllabus is
A syllabus is a synecdoche for a course of study—a part of the curricular experience that represents the whole. They are often the very first course texts our students encounter and, accordingly, they frame and preface learning in powerful ways. On one hand, they communicate practical and structural details—where and when a course meets, what to read, and how to contact an instructor. But they also express intellectual and discipline-specific expectations.
As a special genre of educational texts, syllabi have taken various forms and played various roles over many centuries. In the 17th century ‘syllabus’ was synonymous with ‘table’ or ‘index.’ They served as a structural preview for manuscripts or a list of speakers and topics for a lecture series—they were a means of organizing texts, ideas, and experience. Although that core function remains, post-secondary syllabi have expanded significantly in volume and purview over the past forty years.
What a syllabus needs at MSU
There is no universal definition or template for contemporary syllabi. There are, however, some critical things that effective syllabi share. At Michigan State University, our Code of Teaching Responsibility states “Instructors [are] responsible for distributing a course syllabus (either in print or electronic form) at the beginning of the semester [that] minimally includes:
- instructional objectives;
- instructor contact information and office hours;
- grading criteria and methods used to determine final course grades;
- date of the final examination and tentative dates of required assignments, quizzes, and tests, if applicable;
- attendance policy, if different from the University attendance policy and especially when that attendance policy affects student grades;
- required and recommended course materials to be purchased, including textbooks and supplies; and any required proctoring arrangements to which students must adhere.”
If you are creating a new course or new to teaching at MSU, it can be helpful to request sample syllabi from your Departmental Chair, from past versions of the course you're teaching or even adjacent courses. These samples can help you learn more about general and discipline-specific expectations within your department. Syllabus templates are also available from different colleges; for example, CANR has a downloadable template.
Beyond the fundamental requirements listed above, contemporary syllabi often include additional information or passages. We encourage MSU educators to consider including the following policies, keeping empathy and flexibility in mind:
- notify students about MSU’s religious observance policy
- describe available mental health resources
- include equal opportunity/affirmative action and inclusion statements
- acknowledge the indigenous land(s) on which their teaching will occur
- provide an accessibility statement, link to the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities
- list institutional resources to support students
- describe policies for student athletes
- explain the technologies students will be required or asked to use
- describe the instructor’s communication preferences or instructions for scheduling office hour appointments
- describe COVID-specific health and wellness guidelines or emergency measures
- provide information about academic dishonesty
- provide study or writing tips and link to the Writing Center
- include other course- or college-relevant policies
Some instructors include these and other statements in a ‘policies’ section, while others prefer to write a shorter syllabus that refers students to other course documents containing these and other course and university resources.
Flexibility for students
It's best to communicate expectations in the syllabus for students that need to miss class or discuss adjustments to due dates with you for excusable reasons, such as religious observance, bereavement, health, or athletic competition. We strongly recommend that educators consult the university’s academic calendar and a current interfaith calendar when planning your course and make accommodations for students’ religious observance, or when courses directly conflict (e.g. final examination conflicts). Educators should make every effort to avoid scheduling exams and oral presentations during days of religious observance. It's best to remember that if the absence is excusable, and you'd do it for one student, you should apply your method consistently for all students. Your syllabus should include when and how to contact you to make arrangements for excusable absences. Instructors should provide a university expectation/deadline by which students need to inform instructors of an accommodation (i.e., 2 weeks after the start of the semester) in the syllabus, and this expectation be iterated during the first day of class. We encourage you to be flexible and empathic with students, and to act consistently and equitably.
Innovative models for syllabi
Many educators, especially over the past few decades, have experimented with syllabi and created texts that reach far beyond basic documentation. For instance, some instructors use a fill-in-the-blank syllabus whereby students are asked to expand a set of learning objectives or required texts in order to customize their learning. The ‘annotated syllabus’ model gives students the opportunity to make suggestions for the syllabus at the beginning of the course, making it more of a living document. Others have reconfigured the syllabus as a course textbook and used it throughout the semester to support learning (instead of just the first week). Other models reimagine the aesthetic potential of the document, approaching it as a graphic novel (Barry, 2017), mixtape, or chapbook (Lockett and Wong, 2018). Although their approaches differ, these educators have questioned the role and conventions of syllabi and found creative ways to expand the educational potential of these ubiquitous texts.
Additional MSU syllabus resources
- MSU Syllabus Checklist with in-depth descriptions of potential sections of the syllabus.
- Syllabus Checklist (2-page version)
- Revised MSU Syllabus Checklist for [Fall 2020] online and hybrid courses
- Syllabus Resources from the Office of the University Ombudsperson
- Generative AI Syllabus Guide (with examples and sample language)
- Calendar of Religious Observances from MSU's Office of the Provost
- Guidelines for Online Camera Policies
- Advice for MSU students about using a syllabus
- Rocha et al. (2022) The syllabus as curriculum: A reconceptualist approach.
- Hsu (2020). A celebration of the syllabus.
- Germano and Nicholls (2020) Syllabus: The remarkable, unremarkable document that changes everything.
- Lockett and Wong (2018). Reframing syllabi as aesthetic encounters.
- Barry (2017). Syllabus: Notes from an accidental professor.