11 Fast Syllabus Hacks

flickr user mcmorgan08 / cc licensed

flickr user mcmorgan08 / cc licensed

On Friday, Natalie explained how to do a gut-level rehab of a syllabus.  But maybe you’re happy with the content of the syllabus, and just want to spruce it up around the edges.  Or maybe you’re not that happy with it, but class starts in an hour and you need to hit “print” and dash to the copier. (Prof. Hacker never does that.  Ever.  For one thing, the paper always jams on humid or rainy days.  Takes at least 90 minutes.)

Here are 11 fast ways to upgrade any syllabus, assembled by the Prof. Hacker team:

  1. If you distribute a paper syllabus, remember that the pages will come apart. Put something like: “Fall 2009 Prof. Hacker World Lit I” in your running header, and your students will lose one excuse for not prepping for class.
  2. If your syllabus is all digital (i.e., a website), provide an appropriately formatted version (in PDF) that can be easily downloaded and printed – students aren’t always going to be in front of a computer. [To make sure they have it on their computers, consider emailing the syllabus to your students.] Digital syllabi (website, Word, Rich Text Format, or PDF) can have direct links to readings/images/assignments that make it easier for the students to access them (and theoretically more likely they’ll do them).
  3. Contact information: Clearly indicate how you would prefer for students to contact you, and any constraints you might have. (For instance: I’m required to list my campus office phone number, but I make it clear that email is the best way to reach me because I’m not on campus every day.) Also, leave space on the first page of the syllabus for students to write in the names and contact details of at least 2 other students in the class: if they miss a class, they’ll have at least 2 students to check with regarding how to catch up.
  4. If you care what edition of a particular textbook your students buy, put the ISBNs for each text in your syllabus. On the one hand, students should have the freedom to purchase textbooks where they will. On the other hand, a couple of us teach lots of 900-page novels. It’s frustrating It sucks when there’re a bunch of different editions floating around a classroom–all of a sudden half the class session is devoted to finding particular passages. When students have the ISBN, they can go to and get the best price. BONUS TIP: Find out from the bookstore the date they sell back the books for the semester, and put it in the syllabus! This helps procrastinators cash-strapped students avoid getting screwed later in the semester.
  5. If you anticipate making some changes to the schedule of readings or assignments at some point during the semester, add a couple of sentences to your syllabus indicating (1) that you reserve the right to alter any assignments as you see fit, with appropriate notice and (2) how you will make that information available (posted on the website, handout in class, etc).
  6. Include information for important campus services that your students should know about and that will help them be successful in your class. Several us always give information about the writing center and the counseling center. Emphasizing that accommodations for learning disabilities need to be arranged with the appropriate campus office helps save headaches later in the semester. It’s also a good idea to include information about computer labs and contact information for the IT helpdesk.
  7. Calendar: Indicate any class cancellations you are already aware of (i.e., you will be attending a professional conference). List important campus dates, like the last day students can drop without penalty and any holidays. Include the date/time of the final exam (if already available from the university schedule). Consider including a catch-up day.  If your syllabus is online, or you have a class website, consider having a shared calendar that students can populate with events.  (This is especially helpful in First-Year Experience-style courses.)
  8. Include links or citations to your school’s student handbook/dictionary of academic regulations for key policies that you want to emphasize (such as academic honesty). If you have any course policies that vary in important ways from that handbook, spell that out clearly.
  9. Don’t be afraid to use humor in your syllabi, but don’t do so if it confuses the expectations. (It helps if you’re funny, and not just professor-funny.)
  10. Your syllabus should not be longer than your first reading assignment. Seriously. You certainly want to be clear about your expectations, but don’t make the syllabus so long that students get tired thinking about reading through it.  [Of course, at least one of us has a first reading assignment that's over 80 pages, so you have some wiggle room!]
  11. Include an image on the first page of the syllabus.  (+1 if the image can be used as the basis for a discussion on the first day of class.) Find an image that you can use without violating any copyright concerns by using Flickr’s advanced image search and ticking the “Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content” box.

Do you have a quick syllabus hack?  Let us know in comments.

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