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The Syllabus as a Living Document Throughout the Semester

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As I gear up for the new semester, I’m finalizing my course syllabus, and again, as before every semester, I find myself curious about the best strategies to balance my desires to convey important information to my students and to create an engaging document that students will read. This school year, I’ve focused on two components of the syllabus: the content/structure of the syllabus and the use of the syllabus after the first day of class.

Inspired by strategies David Gooblar presents in “Your Syllabus Doesn’t Have to Look Like a Contract,” I carefully consider the visual choices I make in presenting syllabus content. Depending on the course, I model the writing and structure of documents that I expect my students to create throughout the semester. Then, I provide other necessary course information.

In my fiction workshop I ask my students to write letters responding to their peers’ work as well as their own, and so my syllabus for the course begins with a letter from me to my students. In the brief letter, I outline the three units of the course, provide an overview of our workshop structure, and make the final portfolio requirement clear. On the other hand, in my professional writing course, my students create professional documents, from emails to grant proposals to memos, and so I open the syllabus with a memo to my students. The memo format models the genre conventions of memo writing, and it clearly and succinctly conveys introductory information, including course structure, contact information, and office hours.

Many of my students have been under the impression that the syllabus is a single-use document, forgotten or discarded after the first day of class. To counter this, I make clear, both verbally and in writing, my expectation that the syllabus be a guiding document—a road map—to follow throughout the semester. I ask my students to bring their copies of the syllabus to each class and each class I return to it.

Specifically, I speak to the course goals and student learning outcomes, sections I include in every syllabus I write, regardless of course. (Many instructors, I’m sure, are required to include similar sections.) I find each is useful in helping students see the expectations I have for their learning and the tangible work we will do to achieve those expectations.

For example, when introducing or reminding my fiction students of their reading responses, I’ll ask them to return to the syllabus with me and recall the established goal of “understand[ing] primary and advanced tools of engaging creative writing.” Then I guide them to the corresponding learning outcome: “craft thoughtful responses to assigned readings, identifying the tools used in each.” I find this practice useful near the end of the class when I ask students to review what they’ve learned and I remind them about their homework.

I find the regular use of the syllabus serves several purposes. When I encourage students to use the syllabus as a functioning, working document in class, I find they turn to the syllabus for questions they might have about the course—my office hours, major assignment deadlines, etc.—before asking me. Students also return to the letter and the memo when looking for examples of document structure and design. Finally, since we continue to use the syllabus and reiterate course goals throughout the semester, when I ask students to identify what they’ve learned at the end of the course, they are able to, with specific examples. With these approaches to the syllabus, it lives throughout the semester as useful and important as it was on the first day of class.

About the Author
Allyson Hoffman is an MFA fiction candidate and graduate teaching assistant at the University of South Florida where she teaches creative writing, professional and technical communication, and composition. Her creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a collection of linked short stories, Services, set in her home state of Michigan. She enjoys hiking, kayaking, and swing dancing.