The Purposes of the Syllabus

What do you use your syllabus for?

In their article, “The Purposes of a Syllabus”, Parkes and Harris describe three purposes of a syllabus: contract, permanent record and learning tool. A sidebar containing what elements would be included for each purpose is a highlight of this paper.

I have always thought of the syllabus or course outline as a contract that “serves to set forth what is expected during the term and to guide the behaviours of both parties”. The syllabus is a classroom management tool that describes policies on late assignments, attendance, missed exams, academic dishonesty, and accommodation of disabilities.

I viewed the contract elements as primary, but I was also aware of the syllabus as a permanent record since I teach at a sending institution. The British Columbia Council on Admissions & Transfers (BCCAT) has a defined template for the purpose of assessing equivalency of courses between institutions. Given the purpose of BCCAT, it is not surprising that the suggested template clearly views the syllabus as a permanent record. Indeed, Parkes and Harris description matches BCCAT’s purpose exactly.

As a permanent record, a syllabus can serve to document what was covered in a course; at what level, scope and depth; and for what kinds of credit. When students wish to transfer credits from one institution to another institution or to substitute one course for another, the course syllabus may be used to help determine whether or not the request is appropriate. Since many students are now attending a number of institutions of higher learning in the course of obtaining a degree, as well as requesting credit for professional experiences or on-line courses, a detailed syllabus can play an important role in documenting what a particular course included and how it might fit into a cohesive course of study.

The purpose of the syllabus as a learning tool had never occurred to me, probably because of the limitations of the templates provided to me when I was a rookie instructor. I have consider the elements of this purpose as a separate document, though. Parkes and Harris suggest these elements to have the syllabus serve as a facilitator of student learning.

  • Planning and self-management skills
  • Time to spend outside of class
  • Tips on how to do well on assessments
  • Common misconceptions or mistakes
  • Specific study strategies
  • Availability of instructor(s) and teacher assistants
  • Campus resources for assistance
  • Offices that aid students with disabilities
  • Relevance and importance of the course to students
  • A model of high-quality work

While I think Parkes and Harris’ article is an excellent place to start, individual institutions may also have their own policies for course outlines. My institution is currently reviewing this policy. I’m looking forward to see how the institution’s policy matches the descriptions provided by Parkes and Harris. My hands may be tied by the “official course outline”, but I still have the flexibility to include other elements as a separate document. I’m especially interested in viewing the syllabus as learning tool. This interest is partly because the concept is new to me, but also because I think this information would be extremely valuable to students.


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