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Tempering the Syllabus: From Contract to Invitation, Map, and Guide

Keisha C. Paxton

California State University, Dominguez Hills Emily Daniell Magruder

Office of the Chancellor - California State University

The word “syllabus” invokes a number of emotions for professors. Some of these emotions are positive and some …not so much. These mixed feelings arise from competing ideas about the purpose of this document. Is your syllabus a contractual exercise or does it read like an invitation to join you and the course for a learning expedition? Let’s explore our options.

Creating a syllabus is one thing every professor must do. Yet there continues to be debate over what a syllabus is and why we write one for every course. Many institutions have policies prescribing the items that professors must include: these lists typically include a dozen or so items, and some more than twenty. While these policies may have arisen from desire to provide students with all the information they need to succeed, they have generated controversy in academic and broader forums. Wasley (2008) decried the syllabus as a repository of “legalese” in the Chronicle; more recently Schuman (2014) accused “syllabus tyrannus” of precipitating the “decline and fall of the American university” in Slate and called for a return to the one-page schedule of readings and assignments that some of us may have been given by our own professors. At the same time, advocates for learner-centered approaches to teaching encourage us to make our syllabi more “promising” (Bain, 2004) and visually appealing (Nilson, 2007).

No wonder then, that sitting down to create or revise a syllabus invokes a range of emotions for professors, some positive, and some not-so-positive. We should do something, because there is one thing we know: our feelings and intentions are conveyed to students via the syllabus and influence course climate. Most of us have little influence on institutional policies, so, what we offer are some tips for tempering the syllabus and adjusting its “attitude.”

When creating or revising a syllabus, start by asking yourself, “Self, what is my goal for this syllabus?”  Some professors will answer that the goal of the syllabus is to provide information about the course and its requirements so students know what is expected of them. In other words, they see it first and foremost as a contract. If we think of the syllabus as a contract, and we are the creators of this contract, then our goal (overt or covert) is to protect ourselves. This perspective impacts the language we use and even the visual design of our syllabus. Providing students with information necessary to complete the course requirements is a laudable goal; however, we contend it does not have to be the only goal when creating a syllabus. As the thing students read first and then frequently throughout the course, the syllabus can also serve as an invitation, a map, and a guide.

Syllabus as a Contract

When we approach the syllabus as a contract, it is inherently instructor-centered. The professor wants to make sure students know what they’re signing up for, really, so the professor has “back up” when something is in question. For example, if a student submits an assignment late and it is not accepted by the professor, the professor can refer to the statement in the syllabus that states, “No late assignments will be accepted.”  And, the professor says a silent cheer for having the policy in writing.  We also want to let students know everything they need to know to decide whether or not to take our course. Let’s call this “full disclosure,” extending the legal metaphors of the syllabus as a contract.

The benefits of delineating expectations and penalties for not meeting them in a neutral (or stern) tone may be outweighed by the drawbacks. Institutionally-mandated laundry lists of required syllabus content can result in a lot of boilerplate language and an exceptionally long document. One potential outcome of such a lengthy syllabus is that the students won’t read it; it becomes like the textbook they don’t open until finals week (Baron 2015). Another potential outcome is that students and the professor enter the course expecting disagreement.

Syllabus as Invitation, Map, and Guide

What if we take a learner-centered perspective when writing our syllabus? A learner-centered approach takes into account the student’s perception of everything, including the syllabus. Ask yourself questions like, “How will my students feel when reading this syllabus?” “How will the students perceive this course?” “Will they be excited about the class or fearful of it?” “How will my students perceive me?”

Instead of approaching the syllabus as a contract, we recommend considering it an invitation, a map, and a guide. Write it to get students excited about the course and to prime them to take responsibility for their own learning.  The syllabus-as-contract emphasizes what happens if students don’t fulfill the terms. A syllabus-as-invitation highlights the good things that can happen if students embark on a journey. Typically, a syllabus positions the professor as responsible for presenting material and the student as responsible for submitting assignments.  So, who is responsible for the actual learning?  A learner-centered syllabus provides a map of the destinations they won’t want to miss and offers a guide for making the most of opportunities.

Three Questions to Ask When Writing a Syllabus

  1. What do my students need to know to succeed in this course?

  2. What impression do I want them to have of this course?

  3. How can I get students excited about this course and encourage them take responsibility for their learning?

These three questions can get you in the mindset of your students and thinking positively about your course. We believe they will enable you to chart a course between complying with institutional policies and preparing students for success.

Three Tips for Tempering the Tone

  1. “Listen” for tone and make adjustments. Balance legalistic “don’ts” with exhortative “do’s.”

  2. Employ dynamic formatting. Intersperse text-heavy sections with graphics or “talk boxes” that explain in a short sentence – even two words – why a section is worth reading.

  3. Ask the students what they think. At the beginning of the course – or at the end – design a group activity that allows students to identify different tones and to provide honest feedback.

Like other documents, a syllabus can be many things at once. It can provide the required information while also preparing students to enjoy learning. The tone of the syllabus can influence the climate throughout the term. Inviting students on a journey reduces the likelihood that the syllabus will need to serve as a contract and increases the chances that they will reach the final destination.

For Your Inspiration: Three Inviting Syllabi

  1. This Civics course graphically depicts actions that lead to success:

  2. The rubric on the second page of this syllabus dares students to dive into the ocean of US History:

  3. The syllabus for this Composition course is formatted like a news magazine, with “tips for success” and “helpful words” in dynamic text boxes and sidebars:

Let positive emotions set the tone when creating your syllabus. By inviting students to enjoy learning, you not only prepare them for success in your course but also place them on a path to becoming life-long learners. Your colleagues will thank you.


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college professors do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Baron, N. (2015, February 9).  “The plague of tl;dr.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Nilson, L. (2007). The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map: Communicating your course. Jossey-Bass.

Schuman, R. (2014, August 26). Syllabus tyrannus: The decline and fall of the American university is written in 25-page course syllabi. Slate. Retrieved from

Wasley, P. (2008, March 2014). Syllabus becomes a repository of legalese. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

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