University of Pittsburgh

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Prepare a Course Syllabus

Preparing a course syllabus can seem like a daunting job. At UPSOM, these documents have evolved to become comprehensive guides to a course’s curriculum. From the student’s perspective, they have largely replaced the need for extensive textbook reading. Though course syllabi have taken on many forms, students have expressed a general preference for well-written prose with judiciously used illustrations and tables. Two good resources for guidance in developing a new syllabus are existing syllabi from other courses, and the course syllabus template, which may be downloaded using the link below.

What are the essential elements of a course syllabus?

  • The most useful course syllabi include all of the following items:
  • A working description of the course
  • Course-level learning objectives
  • Contact information for the course directors and as appropriate, any course segment coordinators
  • Contact information for individual lecturers and small group faculty
  • A clear description of the students’ obligations and course grading policies
  • Information about helpful learning resources such as textbooks and websites.

What should each individual section of the syllabus contain?

Most syllabi are constructed so that a single section of the syllabus correlates to a single learning event in the curriculum, such as a single lecture. The section that correlates to a single lecture should include the following elements:

  • A title section that includes the lecture title, presenter name, date, start time and end time
  • Learning objectives specific to this single curriculum session
  • Any additional key words that would help a reader quickly identify the subjects covered, perhaps by electronic searching
  • If appropriate, a very small number of highly relevant references, in print or on the web

Many experienced faculty also include:

  • Review questions
  • Summary key facts
  • Additional images from slides shown in class

Our experience with prior courses has revealed that simply reproducing thumbnail images of PowerPoint slides does not constitute optimal syllabus content. Instead, learners seem to benefit the most from terse but well-written prose that is free of typographical and content errors. It is also helpful to use simple headings to help the reader reference the content quickly. It is essential that the pages are numbered and that the document has been proofread carefully for typographical errors, confusing content, and readability before it is submitted for reproduction.

Use of copyright protected material

Faculty frequently wish to incorporate existing published material, such as illustrations or graphs, within their syllabus content. Under current copyright and fair use regulations, this is generally permissible, but each situation must be carefully reviewed to assure that we do not violate these regulations. Also, obtaining permission from publishers to use copyright protected material in our syllabi requires several week’s lead-time. For these reasons, if the course syllabus contains material that may be covered by copyright protection, it is highly advisable to contact the curriculum specialist working with the course for additional assistance, as early as this possibility is recognized.

How do I have my syllabus printed?

Course directors submit printer-ready syllabus material to the curriculum specialist associated with their course. The curriculum specialist will handle final preparation and assembly of the document for submission to the printer. They will also coordinate review of a proof copy of the syllabus. Once printed, the curriculum specialist will coordinate distribution of the syllabus to students’ mailboxes before the first day of the course.

In this electronic era do I have to print a syllabus?

The short answer is, yes. Students find the printed edition of the syllabus to be a useful adjunct. Some students find it useful as a portable resource. Others use it in class to assist with note taking. Because of the comprehensive nature of our syllabi, students do not have a “note service” as is the practice at some medical schools. Students could print syllabus material from the Navigator curriculum website. However, student printing accounts are charged nearly three times as much per sheet as the cost paid by the Office of Medical Education for printing syllabi in bulk. For all of these reasons, printed syllabi are still prepared and distributed to students.