Syllabus & course design

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General course and syllabus design

Note: This page deals with general college course and syllabus design for various courses; for issues specific to language course syllabi and sequencing of lessons, see the forthcoming page on language syllabus design.

Scenario: You've just been hired to teach your first course. How do you go about designing your course? How do you decide what components to put into your syllabus? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the following:

  • Following the textbook and textbook chapters
  • Copying and modifying someone else's syllabus (and selection of course materials)
  • Creating your own from scratch (syllabus, and maybe selecting your own materials)

To some degree, you will need to create your own syllabus, which will require developing your own, or at least a fair amount of work to adapt an existing template to the needs of your students and your teaching. Next you need to consider:

  • What kind of goals or objectives will define the course? What objectives do you have for each section of the course?

You'll probably want to sketch out the components of the course, along with the learning goals for the whole course and for each section, unit or component of the course. Some typical methods would be:

  • An outline
  • A diagram or flow chart

1 Defining objectives for course and syllabus design

Determining one's overall goals and specific objectives for the course is an initial step. For the objectives, what kind of verbs are used here? Which of these of verbs are good for learning objectives, and why?











Some verbs are rather vague and general, such as know, understand; these are too general for specific objectives (e.g., what does it mean to know or understand something?), but would suffice as general goals for the course and syllabus. So as you define your general goals, you also need to define more specific objectives under those goals.

Below is a sketch of a course in research methodology for students in a social science or education related major. By sketching out the different components of the course, and the goals and contents of these sections, one can then turn this into a syllabus.

Learning goals
Course & syllabus components

Understanding basic concepts of empirical research, and philosophical basis of quantitative and qualitative research.

  • Basic principles of research
  • Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  • Philosophical foundations of research
Qualitative research

Identify basic rationale for qualitative studies; explain the most common qualitative research methods in the field and their key steps.

Qualitative research
  • History & assumptions
  • Basic designs, typical examples
  • Reading & critique of articles
  • Response paper
Quantitative research

Identify scientific rational for quantitative research; explain the most common quantitative methods in the field; explain their key steps; explain basic steps of experimental design and why comparison of groups is necessary.

Quantitative research
  • History & assumptions
  • Comparing groups
  • Basic designs & examples
  • Reading & critique of articles
  • Response paper
Basic statistics

Explain how groups are mathematically compared (via mean & variance); recognize basic statistical procedures and why they would be used; identify the most serious types of misuse of statistics.

Basic statistics
  • Basic concepts: mean, variance
  • Basic concepts: distribution, population, etc.
  • t-test, ANOVA
  • Correlation
  • Non-parametric tests
  • Multivariate methods
Research ethics

Explain why strict legal and ethical procedures are followed; understand consequences of misconduct and plagiarism; cite and use sources properly in students' papers.

Research ethics
  • Fabricating data
  • Abuse of subjects
  • Plagiarism
  • Summarizing & paraphrasing
  • Using & citing sources
Summary / final

Compare, explain advantages of qual. cf. quant. research; students perform basic critique of representative studies in final critique paper

  • Comparison of research approaches
  • Final paper / project

The next section will take you through the process of defining specific goals for your course. In the education literature, various distinctions are made between goals, objectives, etc., which may not be so crucial for you. But it is helpful to define your general goals for the course, then more specific objectives for different parts of the course, and finally, more specific objectives or desired learning outcomes for individual lessons.

1.1 Defining goals and objectives

First, consider your main goals, and then more specific objectives and/or desired learning outcomes. Also consider the kind of course format you want (or the format that may be required): lecture & discussion, lab course, project or workshop based course, lecture-discussion plus group work, practicum, etc. Explain the rationale for your choice.

1.2 Goals

These are more general expectations, often at the beginning of a course syllabus. Goals for what students are expected to learn are often in the form of rather general verbs like understand, comprehend, explain, appreciate. For example:

  • Physics: students are to understand the standard model of quantum physics, and key differences between the standard theory and string theory models
  • History: understanding key factors and events in modern European history
  • Literature: develop an appreciation of English poetry
  • Biology: understand primate evolution.
  • Statistics: understand different types and uses of ANOVAs

1.3 2. Objectives

Goals are rather general, and simply serve as a starting point; more specific objects then need to be be defined. These are move specific abilities or skills that you want students to achieve, with more specific verbs like apply, synthesize, analyze, critique, evaluate, and related abilities.

1.4 Learning outcomes

Define specific results that are quantifiable and measurable, and how you plan to measure them. They are specific enough that they can be assessed (via exams, essays, assignments, etc.) based on specific criteria. They often often specific criteria for performance (what students can achieve or accomplish), conditions (if any) under which such performance outcomes should occur, and criteria for acceptable levels of performance. These can be defined with even more specific expressions (e.g., dissect and identify animal organs and their functions).

1.5 Other considerations

For your goals, objectives, and outcomes, sketch out the type of course format, assessments, and activities. Also consider the type of course format, assessments, goals, objectives, and learning outcomes appropriate for:

  • Number of students
  • Type of students – background, level
  • How it fits in the overall departmental / major curriculum
  • Type of classroom, physical space used (lecture hall, lab, fixed desks, media equipment...)

2 Course objective examples

2.1 Introductory biology

Goal: Understanding animal life forms, their evolution, and biodiversity.

Objectives: Explaining the evolutionary progression of biological systems in the animal kingdom; performing taxonomic classification of important animal life forms; understanding organ and tissue systems and applying such knowledge to describing other animals; carrying out dissections of animals in a lab.

Outcomes: Explain the criteria for a good theory and hypothesis, and what evolution means as a theory; apply these criteria to assessing new theories and hypotheses (e.g., lateral evolution) in biology.

  • On an exam, explain the concepts of theory, hypothesis, and why evolution is a good scientific theory; defend it to the non-scientific community in a hypothetical situation for a class assignment; on assignments and exams, critique the value of other concepts as good or bad theories or hypotheses.

Analyzing the evolutionary patterns and connections between different species, orders, and classes.

  • Explain types of genetic relatedness between different taxonomic levels of higher mammals on an exam.
  • Explain connections between swim bladders and later analogous organs in higher life forms, and between coelacanth flippers and limbs of later land animals, in class assignments; explain how such connections between analogous organs of different animals with different functions for novel examples on an exam.

Explaining evolutionary connections between organ and tissue systems of important animal species.

  • Identify organs and their functions of a new species in a lab exam.

Explain the role of environment in evolution and speciation.

  • Explain environmental pressures in specific cases of speciation; explain why some species do not evolve further (e.g., starfish, coelacanths) on homework assignments and exams.

2.2 Introductory statistics

Goal: Understand the Gaussian distribution and basic statistical techniques based on it.

Objectives: Explain the role of the Gaussian distribution in statistical tests; analyze simple data sets by applying an appropriate test.

Outcomes: Explain features of the Gaussian distribution; explain features of parametric tests; analyze simple data sets and chose the most suitable test for a type of data set (on homework & exam exercises); apply basic formulas to carrying out manual calculations of t-scores (manual t-test), F-values (manual one-way ANOVA) and r-values (correlations).

2.3 Essay writing

Goal: Knowing how to write an appropriate academic essay in English.

Objectives: Demonstrating an ability to follow standards of English academic writing in rhetorical structure of essays and introductions; producing well organized, coherent essays; following suitable academic English discourse forms.

Outcomes: Writing coherent and specific essay introductions, specific thesis statements, specific topic sentences and support, and essays that are persuasive and informative to informed readers of the writer's field; avoiding common, major second-language errors that Koreans typically make (transitionals, passives, modals, articles, sentence structure, word choice, introductions, thesis statements, topic sentences, argumentative essay structure, counter-argumentation). Essays will be assessed by grading rubrics, with various criteria for contents, writing form, style, expression, and rhetorical effectiveness. Learning done via class lecture & discussion with group activities.

2.4 Using these objectives

For designing a course and a syllabus for the first time, it will be helpful to write out your goals and specific objectives for the whole course. At the end of the course, what should students be able to do? Do not just focus on general understanding, but specific concepts and skills that they should master. This should help you define more specific objectives and outcomes. For each class session, it will be helpful to have particular outcomes in mind, even if you do simply so mentally.

From there, you can then put together a full syllabus. Next is a template that you can use for creating your syllabus; you can choose the elements that are relevant to your course.

3 Syllabus template[1]

[Course Title]

[Optional: Interesting quote, motivating information]*


[Class location]

[Class Meeting times]


Office Hours:[regular hours + by appointment]

Contact info [Office, e-mail, & phone - if you don't mind students calling you]

Grading options*[options: pass/fail, choice of credit hours?]

3.1 Goals

Rationale: Why does this course exist? How does it fit in with the rest of the field/area's curriculum?

3.2 Course objectives
3.3 [Objectives]

Thinking from the prospective students' point of view, what general outcomes is the course designed to achieve? How will it contribute to them professionally?

3.4 [Specific learning objectives or outcomes]

By the end of this course, students will:

List as specifically as possible the learning outcomes the course is intended to produce. Explain specific skills and abilities that you expect students to learn, and how you plan to measure or assess their learning. For example, you can explain this in terms of content or skill mastery (such as understanding osmosis in animal cells and explaining osmotic processes in a new type of tissue in a lab exercise; or interpreting medical X-ray diagrams); and explain what action the student must perform (compare and contrast, evaluate, analyze, apply, etc.)

3.5 Format and procedures*

This would include matters such as: how the course is structured; how will classes be carried out; or behavioral expectations that the instructor has for the students in class. Policies for attendance, participation, respect for others, etc. should be spelled out as a behavioral guide. If the course has multiple formats (e.g., lecture & lab), these should be explained clearly.

3.6 My assumptions* [optional, or part of another section]

Be sure to communicate other expectations, personal assumptions and/or biases regarding the course content, e.g.: your unique operational definitions for core course concepts; your unique principles and/or beliefs about the contents or how to effectively learn the contents; and your own expectations for students' performance that the students need to know up front.

3.7 Course Requirements:

Tasks and assignments in your course should be aligned with the specified objectives and learning outcomes.

  1. Class attendance and participation policy (here, or in a following section)
  2. Main course readings: [Required text]
  3. Background readings, extra readings, course packet from a university bookstore, handouts to download from your website, EKU or other interactive online course websites.
  4. Options for different course credit options, if applicable.*
3.8 Grading procedures:

Grades will be based on:

component / assignment / assessment type #1X%

component / assignment / assessment type #2Y%

component / assignment / assessment type #3Z%

As you decide the weighting for the different assignments and tasks, keep in mind that this will affect how much effort students put into the tasks. For example, if you give many homework assignments and/or quizzes, but they count for a disproportionately low percentage of the final grade, students may not take them seriously. If a certain percentage of the students' grades is based on class participation (a good idea to make them participate in discussion or group activities), what criteria will be used to make that assessment, e.g., quantity or quality based criteria, and if quality, what determines quality?

3.9 Academic integrity

Spell out important aspects of academic integrity, university policy, and your own course policy. These typically address:

  • Cheating and plagiarism; clearly define and explain these, and spell out penalties for such violations. You may want to spell out policies that "All work must be your own work," with possible exceptions for student group work – when group projects or collaboration between students is acceptable (this must still be their original work).
  • Class conduct / behavior, including: attendance and participation; harassment and discrimination; and behavior in group activities in-class or outside of class.
  • Examination policies, including expectations, grading, and making up for missed exams.
  • Policies regarding missed work, make-up work, excused absences (be sure to enforce this clearly, fairly, and consistently; otherwise, students may not take such policies seriously).
  • Accommodations for students with disabilities.
3.10 Tentative course schedule

If you provide a tentative schedule, be sure to finalize it and let students know in a timely manner, or provide an updated schedule. Make this table however you like, but make sure it is clear and easily readable.

Date Topics Readings to be discussed Assignments
Week 1 Course intro Textbook chapter # 1
Week 2 Topic 1 Textbook chapter # Homework #1
Week 3 Topic 2 Chapter #, additional readings Homework #2
Week 4 Topic 3 Chapter #, additional readings Homework #3
Week 5 Topic 4 Chapter #, additional readings Homework #4
Week 6 Topic 5 Chapter #, additional readings Homework #5
Week 7 Topic 6 Chapter #, additional readings Review session
Week 8 Topic 6; midterm Chapter #, additional readings Midterm project / exam
Week 9 Topic 7 Chapter #, additional readings Homework #6
Week 10 Topic 8 Chapter #, additional readings Homework #7
Week 11 Topic 9 Chapter #, additional readings Essay draft due
Week 12 Topic 10 Chapter #, additional readings Homework #8
Week 13 Topic 11 Chapter #, additional readings Case study due
Week 14 Topic 12 Chapter #, additional readings Homework #9
Week 15 Topic 13 Chapter #, additional readings Homework #10;

Review session

Week 16

Projects and exam Final projects due; final exam

3.11 Additional readings

Optionally, you might want to list required or extra, optional readings for students – especially for upper-level and graduate course.

4 Syllabus examples

4.1 Example #1

Here is an example from a 10-week course on linguistic research methods for a language pedagogy program; abbreviations are used for textbook authors under the readings.

4.1.1 Description

The purpose of this course is to introduce students to language research methods, and to read and discuss published research articles in the field. This course is designed to prepare you for:

(1) reading research articles in future M.A. or Ph.D. courses;

(2) possibly conducting your own research in the future;

(3) being an intelligent consumer of language research – to read language research and evaluate it or make use of it, e.g., to inform your future teaching, or for curriculum design, teacher training, or designing educational materials.

We'll cover two major, general approaches – qualitative and quantitative, with more emphasis on quantitative research. The following are common in language research:

  1. Quantitative research: More rigidly scientific research, based on scientific assumptions of comparison and control of experimental conditions, and statistical analysis – research involving laboratory experiments, psychological experiments, numerical data, and such.
  2. Qualitative research based on ethnographic methods, or other more interpretive types of research – observational studies, interview studies, survey research, corpus research, etc.

As we read and discuss articles and class, and as you critique them for your written assignments, the focus will not primarily be whether we agree with their claims or theories, but whether the research methods are good, and how well their data and methods support their claims. Articles to read in the course (or topics you could choose for your term paper) may include some of the following SLA issues: phonological acquisition; grammar acquisition; pedagogy; pragmatics (e.g., conversation analysis); critical period effects; and psycholinguistic studies.

Basic statistical concepts will be introduced, focusing on basic concepts, and only rudimentary mathematical concepts. This includes the standard normal distribution, t-tests, ANOVAs, correlation / regression analysis, multivariate tests, and non-parametric tests.

Tentative schedule

dates & topics
week 01

intro to research; theoretical paradigms M&G ch. 1

Web handout: paradigms

intro to research design;

qualitative and quantitative research

M&G ch. 3; Hyland (2001), Morishima (2008)

Web handout: research paradigms & designs

week 02 qualitative research methods M&G ch. 6; HO: qualitative research
qualitative research Hyland (2001)
week 03 classroom research; contrastive rhetoric

homework 1 due

M&G ch. 7 [p. 185-201]; Petrić (2003)
corpus research Web handout: corpus research; Granger & Tyson (1996)
week 04 corpus research, writing research Web handout
intro to quantitative research; hypotheses

homework 2 due

Web handout: quantitative research

week 05 quantitative research design; validity M&G ch. 4; Morishima (2008)
week 06 quantitative research; hypotheses M&G ch. 4; HO: hypotheses
research design

topic proposal due (midterm)

M&G ch. 5; Web handout: basics of research design
week 07 research design, statistics concepts M&G ch. 9; Web handout: variable types
research design, statistics concepts Web handout: comparing means; Ellis et al. (2008)
week 08 research design, statistics

homework 3 due

Web handout: comparing means; Ellis et al. (2008);

Web handout: correlation

statistics concepts Web handout: correlation; logistic regression;
week 09 statistics concepts Web handout: logistic regression; factor analysis
research ethics, source use M&G ch. 2; Web handout: research ethics; plagiarism
week 10 plagiarism, source use Web handouts: research ethics; plagiarism; APA style
source use & citation

final paper due

Web handout: APA citation style

Then the rest of the syllabus would contain information on the following policies:

  • Course readings – a list of required readings, and possibly, recommended supplementary readings
  • Assignments
  • Grading
  • Course website
  • Academic policies – regarding academic integrity and plagiarism (with detailed definitions and discussion of penalties); policies on turning in homework, and major projects; and attendance and participation

4.2 Example #2

Here is an example from a writing course syllabus for these policy sections.

4.2.1 Course components and evaluation

You will be graded according to the following criteria.

Attendance and participation 10%

Short essay assignments 30%

Homework assignments 20%

Short write-ups10%

Final essay 30%

Attendance. You are allowed two free absences without any penalty. Not only is attending class important, but participating in class discussion and group activities. If you are absent, please catch up by checking with classmates and the Wikispace, borrowing classmates' notes, and then asking me if necessary.

Participation Participation refers to participation in class discussions and group activities. The quality and quantity of your participation and contributions to class discussions will be considered.

Homework assignments. These are usually brief papers of 1-2 pages.

Short write-ups. These consist of more informal write-ups, consisting of the following types. Each write-up will be graded on a scale of 1-10, based on the amount of effort you put into it, as well as quality and depth of thought.

1) Online Wiki write-ups in response to questions on the Wiki site, often regarding a reading or topic to be discussed (a "pre-class" assignment or quiz). These will be posted several days in advance. If it is a pre-class assignment regarding a Monday class, it will be due the preceding Saturday by midnight; if it is for a Wednesday class, it will be due the preceding Monday midnight.

2) Occasionally, informal end-of-class response papers written in the last 5-10 minutes of class, in response to a topic discussed in class that day.

Essay assignments. There will be several short essay assignments (2-4 pages). There will also be a final paper, which can be based on a paper you are doing in one of your other classes (or a wholly new, original paper, if you like more work).

Short essay #1: Genre analysis (group assignment)

Short essay #2: Professional writing samples (résumé /CV, etc.)

Short essay #3: Draft of major essay or research paper

Final essay: Major essay or research paper

Paper format. Papers should have margins of 2-2.5cm, with 1.5-2x line spacing, in the equivalent of a normal 12 point font (e.g., Garamond 12-13pt., Times 12pt., Arial 10-10.5pt.). Hard copies are preferred, and they may be printed double-sided.

4.2.2 General policies Academic integrity

Students are responsible for conducting themselves with integrity and in an academically honest manner. Please refer to university's rules and procedures concerning academic dishonesty, particularly regarding plagiarism. These rules, and other procedures common to graduate level studies (see below), will be strictly enforced.

Plagiarism consists of copying ideas, sentences, unique phrases, or whole portions of papers, and representing them as your own; not citing sources for ideas and direct words of others; and not properly paraphrasing and summarizing others' words when you discuss their work. Penalties may include, depending on the type and degree of plagiarism, any of the following:

Points may be deducted on an assignment, or the grade may be reduced.

Grades on assignments may even be reduced after the paper has been graded and returned, if I realize later after grading it how much plagiarism has occurred, or, say, if plagiarism still occurs on a later, revised version of the assignment (e.g., the midterm and final paper assignments).

Your final course grade may be lowered by one or more letter grades, regardless of the final average.

For more serious cases, you may receive an F or 0 [zero] for the assignment, or even an F for the course. Expectations

Graduate level performance is expected from all students. This means: (1) assignments completed on time and in a thorough and quality manner; (2) regular attendance and class participation; (3) all cell phones must be turned off or placed on silent mode during lecture sessions; and (4) not being late for class. Attendance & participation

You are allowed two free absences without any penalty. Afterward, unexcused absences will affect your attendance / participation grades.

Part of your final grade is based on class participation. The class participation portion of your grade is based the level of professionalism and class interaction you display over the course of the class, as well as attendance.

If you are graduating at the end of the semester, you must still attend class and finish your assignments on time in order to pass the course. You should not take this course if you are going to leave before the end to take a job.

In class, please do not wear strong or noticeable perfumes or colognes, as this affects my allergies, and can such smells can bother others.

5 Syllabus exercise

Now pick a course that you are putting together now, might teach, or would like to teach in the future. In the space below, sketch out your expectations for the course. If you have time, start to sketch out how that would translate into a semester course plan (i.e., the beginnings of a syllabus).

1. Format (and rationale): [e.g., lecture-discussion with group activities]

2. Goals:

3. Objectives (including conceptual understanding; conceptual / practical skills):

4. Learning outcomes:

5. Activities, assignments, assessments (types of exams, major assignments, homework assignments, in-class work...)

6 See also

Language syllabus

Lesson design

  1. Adapted from: Items marked with asterisks [*] are optional.