Academic Affairs

Creating Your First Syllabus

A course syllabus fulfills multiple roles. It is an invitation to pursue the subject matter, a repository for instructor and course information, and a delineation of the instructor’s expectations of enrolled students.  A syllabus should be created only after one has established learning goals for a course and planned the semester (that is, one can only create an effective syllabus after the elements to be included have already been thought through).

Elements of a syllabus

Instructor and Course Information

  • Course name and number(s)
  • Instructor name
  • Office location
  • Contact information (telephone and email, along with preferred method of contact)
  • Office hours and/or a description of how students can schedule meetings with the instructor
  • Course calendar  [The date and time of the final exam can be found in the Faculty Portal: "My Classes" as well as in the Class Finder Portal on Polaris Bowdoin's site for student records and course information. Final exam schedules are set by the Registrar's Office. Individual faculty may not reschedule final exam times.]
  • Prerequisites
  • Reading list and required texts and materials
  • Description of graded assignments, their dues dates and their role in the determination of the final grade
  • Description of class meetings outside of those normally scheduled (e.g., film screenings, invited seminars, off campus events, etc.)
  • Description of instructor use of Blackboard along with expectations of student use

Invitation to pursue the subject matter

  • Course description (consider including the description from the course catalog)
  • Instructor’s learning goals
  • If this course satisfies a distribution requirement (e.g. ESD, INS, IP, MCSR, or VPA), this should be clearly indicated along with the ways the course addresses the requirement
  • Teaching philosophy underpinning the design of the course
  • Tips on how to succeed in this course

Instructor expectations

  • Class attendance policy
  • Policy on missed quizzes/exams
  • Policy on accepting late assignments
  • Policy on group work (especially as it relates to the Bowdoin Academic Honor Code)
  • Policies surrounding safety and health in the studio, laboratory, and field
  • Classroom norms and conduct (e.g., participation, respectfulness, discussion of sensitive subjects, punctuality, excusing oneself during class, use of cell phones/laptops/etc.)
  • Reminder about Bowdoin's Academic Honor Code  

Additional notes

  • Flexibility. New instructors may wish to build some flexibility into the calendar of a newly-taught course. Consider organizing subject matter into week or longer increments of time. Doing so may allow more flexibility as the semester unfolds and obviate the need for repeated modifications to the course calendar. [Students can be offered specific daily assignments and reading via other means such as Blackboard.]
  • Modifications. One should not be reluctant to modify the timing of the discussion of course subject matter if a modification is called for and will enhance the experience for students. However, an instructor may wish to note this possibility on the original syllabus along with a description of how modifications will be communicated to students. Be aware, however, that significant changes to the structure of a course, especially the timing of major assignments and exams, can negatively impact students who use the syllabus to plan their efforts on academic and extracurricular commitments (bear in mind that students balance multiple courses each semester). In addition, changes to the structure of a course may have a relatively heavier impact on students with less experience and weaker preparation. Modifications should be made only after weighing their benefits against their costs. It may be better to modify expectations of major assignments and exams (e.g., subject matter covered on an exam) than to adjust their timing.
  • A word about tone. The syllabus represents a contract, of sorts, between instructor and students and therefore serves as a useful and protective document for both. One should describe expectations of students unambiguously. However, bear in mind that the syllabus acts as one of the early means by which students get to know their instructor. Adopting an enthusiastic and positive tone, one which is not punitive and does not assume that students will fail to meet expectations, will contribute to the establishment of a collaborative and encouraging learning community.
  • Instructors must respect Bowdoin’s policy on religious holidays (bowdoin.edu/academic-affairs/curriculum-teaching/religious-holiday-policy.shtml). In addition, Bowdoin does not hold classes on the Wednesday preceding Thanksgiving; however, instructors of courses that meet on Wednesdays may elect to hold a make-up class to compensate for the loss of this teaching day. If an instructor elects to do so, the details of this make-up class should be included in the syllabus.
  • Example syllabi. The recommendations above should not be viewed as wholly prescriptive. The example syllabi linked to this site are intended to demonstrate part of the range of ways in which syllabi can be organized. Draw from the examples and the recommendations above to create a syllabus that best suits your teaching and the demands of your course. Do not hesitate to seek input from your colleagues on your draft syllabus.

Sample Syllabi


Some materials adapted from “Teaching at Stanford,” Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University, 2007 and “Summer Teaching Institute for Associates,” Office of Instructional Consultation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2008.