What is the Purpose of a Syllabus?

A syllabus may – and should – serve multiple purposes: it not only provides a schedule of the semester’s activities and assignments but also invites students into the work of learning. In the tradition of our peer institutions’ teaching and learning centers, we enumerate below different ways to think about the syllabus. You may wish to draw on several – or all – of these metaphors as you construct your own.

A contract:

The syllabus establishes the prerequisites, expectations, requirements, and policies for the course. Your syllabus may include policy statements on academic integrity and collaboration, attendance and the submission of assignments, and the use of laptops in class.

A promise:

In this view of the syllabus, developed by Ken Bain, the focus is on what students will learn. A “promising syllabus” articulates

  1. the promise of the course – what students will learn or take away from it;
  2. how students will fulfill that promise (by completing readings, participating in class activities, completing assignments, etc.); and
  3. how their progress will be evaluated.

A reference:

The syllabus provides logistical and administrative information for the course, such as when and where the course meets, how to contact the instructors, how to access course materials, etc.

A conceptual map:

The syllabus provides a map of the curriculum; it identifies a central question or set of questions (often in the course description), as well as central themes and important concepts (often through the titles of the weeks’ topics), and invites students to draw connections among them.

A form of personal communication:

The syllabus sets a tone, conveying your attitude towards students and their learning.

A form of scholarly discourse:

The syllabus draws on your discipline’s ways of knowing in the questions it asks and the argument it makes.

An artifact:

The syllabus will endure after the class has concluded, and may serve as valuable documentation of your teaching practice.



Parkes, Jay and Mary B. Harris. “The Purposes of a Syllabus.” College Teaching 50 (2): 55 – 61.

Sinor, Jennifer and Matt Kaplan. “Creating Your Syllabus.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan. August 25, 2017. https://crlt.umich.edu/gsis/p2_1

“Syllabus Design.” Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University. August 25, 2017. https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/syllabus-design

“Syllabus Design.” Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. August 25, 2017. http://ctl.yale.edu/SyllabusDesign