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Chart Your Course

A comprehensive syllabus gives students a detailed map for navigating your class-and points you in the right direction.

By P. Wankat & F. Oreovicz

Illustration by Tim RobinsonWriting an effective syllabus is often a challenge, but properly constructed it works like a spyglass-always letting students know what's on the horizon. A syllabus guides students by outlining the semester with dates of major tests and projects; protects you in the event of grade appeals; presents a cognitive map of the course goals and how a course fits in the curriculum; communicates procedures, rules, expectations, and the grading scheme; and serves as a contract.

After you have determined your course goals and a basic structure, and taken into account your own preferences and style, you're ready to start developing your syllabus.

First Things First

Start with basic information, including the course name, number, location, and class hours, as well as your name, office location, phone number, and e-mail address. Include a course Web address, if applicable. Next, list all textbooks and other required and recommended reading resources, and any co- and prerequisites.

Follow this up with a description of how this course fits in with others in the curriculum, and put the course in the context of its importance to students' careers. This naturally leads to more specific course objectives, including technical goals like problem-solving ability as well as nontechnical goals such as improved communication and teamwork skills. As a side benefit, enumerating course objectives will help you determine how the course will contribute to satisfying Criterion 3 of ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000.

Lay Down the Law

Be sure to put all of your policies in writing, including those for lateness, attendance, extra credit, makeups, dropping the lowest test or quiz score, and regrades. Including all the policies and rules in the syllabus will make it easier to apply them uniformly during the semester. Remember to always start firm, but apply the rules humanely.

Also provide your expectations for students' behavior. Remind these future engineers that practicing engineers are expected to conduct themselves in an ethical and professional manner, and that now is the time to start practicing this behavior.

This includes honesty, basic civility, making a diligent effort to learn, and no disruptive behavior.

Include study expectations, striking a balance between fear and motivation. Indicate office hours for yourself and any TAs, regularly scheduled help sessions, and any other resources available to struggling students.

Explain your grading scheme. Include the relative weight of each test, homework assignment, or project, and the method used to determine grades. Be careful when you do this, because anything you write may be used in a grade appeal-but a carefully described grading scheme (assuming you follow it) is also your most powerful defense if there is an appeal.

Finally, write up a tentative course outline. Students need to be able to plan, so an outline should at a minimum list dates for major tests and projects. The "tentative" allows you to adjust if necessary. For example, if the students have four tests in one week, they will appreciate your willingness to move your exam.

Final Touches

Depending on your own philosophies and preferences, you might consider adding other elements to your syllabus.

Giving out your home phone number and guidelines for permissible times to call may seem a bit risky, but only a few students will call, and all appreciate the rare professors who make this gesture. Similarly, offering some personal information is uncommon in engineering, but it will make you seem more human. Also, if your teaching methods are unusual, you may wish to explain them, and humor (e.g., a comic strip) and helpful hints (especially from previous students) are usually well received.

Save time initially by borrowing a detailed syllabus from an experienced professor and adapting items to your course. You can always refine the syllabus in later semesters. When you teach other courses, many of the items in your basic syllabus can be used with minor modifications.

Hand out the syllabus during the first class and review the important parts for 10 or 15 minutes. Not only are you off and running, but you've also made a good first impression!

Phillip Wankat is the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communication specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. The authors welcome readers' feedback. You can reach them via e-mail at wankat@ecn.purdue.edu  and oreovicz@ecn.purdue.edu .

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