How to Structure a Syllabus to Avoid Student Errors

Rachel Geren
Rachel Geren
Fourth grade teacher; M.A. in Educational Leadership-Principalship, Ed.S.
Syllabus educational plan and papers on a desk.

Everyone knows the importance of making an excellent first impression. This is also true for educators. For many students, your syllabus directly influences their first impression of not only you, but of your classroom management style as well. It’s important to set the right tone, while still delivering your rules and expectations in a way that students can clearly understand. As educators, we understand that students learn best from teachers they like. Your syllabus is your chance to get off on the right foot with a new group of students and ensure their success throughout your course.

Use Positive Language

The first thing to remember when writing your syllabus, is that the language you use will set the tone for your classroom and the relationships you will form with your students. Many educators make the mistake of using a detrimental tone in their syllabus. Whether that be sarcastic remarks regarding your homework policy, digs at student effort, or negative talk regarding previous classes, students will notice, and they will quickly form the impression that you either: 1. Don’t like them, or 2. Don’t believe they will be successful in your class.

Rather, you should structure your syllabus using positive language that lets students know you not only believe they can be successful in your class, but you expect they all will be! Your students need to understand you are working as a team, and your syllabus is your first chance to impress this upon them. Use your syllabus as an opportunity to let your students know that you are on their side, and you are here to help them. You don’t want students to fail in your classroom, in fact, you will work with them in whatever way they need to ensure they do not.

Outline Classroom Expectations Clearly and Simply

The outlining of classroom expectations is the most important part of your syllabus. Your students’ minds should be clear about how your classroom works, how to earn full credit for assignments, or what to do in case of late work or a missing assignment. Your syllabus is your chance to cover everything they need to know, but it’s important to do so using clear and simple language that students can easily understand. A simple syllabus is usually the way to go. Not only that, but make sure your syllabus is inclusive of all that enter your classroom. Students should feel that your classroom is a safe place, and your syllabus is your first chance to ensure all feel they are welcome, and all feel that they can be successful.

Make sure to lay out exactly how you expect things to run in your room. Make sure it’s clear.

  • What is your policy on late work?
  • How should students proceed when they may need more time on an assignment?
  • When they need help with something?
  • How do you prefer to be contacted when they are not in your classroom?

Having a plan in place for each scenario and sharing that plan with your students through your syllabus is the best way to leave no space open for misunderstanding. This also makes students feel safe when they can understand exactly what to expect right off the bat.

Read Through the Syllabus with Students

Reading through the syllabus on the first day of class with your students is essential. This allows them the chance to ask questions, and begins a conversation about how your classroom runs, and what students will need to do to be successful. Encourage your students to write on their syllabus as you go through it, and mark areas where they don’t understand something or could use a bit more clarification.

Not only does this allow them to ask specific questions, but it also gives you feedback on places where you could make your syllabus easier to understand. Students will return to your classroom the following day feeling confident knowing they are beginning the year with the end in mind. There should be no surprises because everything has been outlined in the syllabus and discussed on the very first day of class.

Prepare a Simple Syllabus Quiz

Another idea is to prepare a syllabus quiz. This could be given the day after you discuss the syllabus with students. This shouldn’t be a surprise, students should be aware that it is coming, which allows them extra time to review the syllabus after class and encourages them to look more closely at assignments, due dates, or how you award points in your classroom.

While students may zone out during a syllabus discussion, knowing a quiz is coming encourages them to pay close attention to the information or to even give it another look later. The quiz itself refreshes their memory regarding the information in the syllabus, especially if they looked at many syllabi in multiple classes on the first day of school. This is just another opportunity to make sure your students are well-prepared and set up for success in your classroom.

Reference Frequently

Lastly, make sure to reference syllabuses frequently. It should not be something given on the first day of class and never discussed again. When questions arise, you can refer students back to the syllabus where that information is covered. This encourages students to check their syllabus frequently when working through coursework or when working on something when you are not present. At the beginning of a large assignment, you could have students pull up their syllabus and review the expectations and point values outlined. There are multiple ways to make sure the information in your syllabus is being utilized and to encourage students to take responsibility for their own success.

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