Ten Reasons Why Your Syllabus Might Suck

Every August, educators around the globe unite in a common purpose, a ritual as dull as scraping cuticle that we might as well blame on the late Cicero–they draft syllabi. While it’s true that that the tedium will often conjure flashes of euphoria as educators experience the rush of designing a new course, for most intents and purposes, it’s a drag, akin to being forced to craft legalese on a deserted island only to be shoved in a bottle and tossed to sea with a prayer that someone might actually read and care about it some day.

As a top performer on Life’s List of Necessary Evils, syllabi creep into teachers’ lives at the most inconvenient times–right at the very moment they’re ready to start doing what they actually love: teaching. Truth is, a bad syllabus can be the most voracious of vampires, sucking the life and energy from both the educator and the educatee and, as a sad consequence, syllabi are often formally rejected, neglected, mistreated, and malnourished. It’s unfortunate, too, because good syllabi have the power to inspire, to ignite within the eager (or even ambivalent) learner a profound interest and desire to soak in newfound erudition.

Is your syllabus the inspirational piece of wisdom it should be? Or is it a vampire–a life-draining, time-sucking imp? Here are ten reasons why your syllabus may just suck (with tips on how to make it breathe life back into its stakeholders).



Reason #1: You’ve Used the Word “Pupil”

If a person has ever needed a reason not to read a syllabus, labeling them as a “pupil” will just about do it. The word is so old and outdated (and, by definition, typically refers to a small child) that today’s learners are sure to be turned off by it. “Pupil” is off-putting because it sounds condescending. It also means you’ve written your syllabus in third person, which is Reason #5 below. TIP: Don’t use the word “pupil” in a syllabus unless you’re going for satire.

Reason #2: There Are More Policies than Course Content

As a part of my life’s work, I have reviewed thousands of high school syllabi for the College Board and I never cease to be amazed at how often I see this. If you have a six-page syllabus and four pages of the syllabus are about how students must act in class, what they can’t bring or do, when they’re allowed to go to the bathroom, and so forth, you might as well just tell your students that you’re a disgruntled kook, jaded by decades of students who have treated you poorly. Oh, sure, policies are important, and definitely include them. But if they dominate the syllabus, then the syllabus isn’t about the course any more–it’s about your control over your students and how you expect them to behave (and who wants to read that document)? TIP: Reduce your policies to simple phrases; most don’t need much elaboration. And ask yourself with each policy: is this something I really need to put in a written document?

Reason #3: Students Are Treated as Abecedarians

If the word is new to you, it’s a cool one: “Abecedarian” is pronounced like you’re saying the alphabet: ey-bee-cee-darian. An abecedarian is someone who is learning the alphabet or, more pointedly, someone who is a super new beginner at something. While you may be teaching a topic that is wholly unfamiliar to your students, they still don’t want to be treated like  they don’t know anything. Use language that meets them at or slightly above their knowledge level. As an educator, you have an opportunity to inspire them know what you know; that doesn’t usually happen if you write to them as if they’re clueless. TIP: Don’t use superfluous jargon, but do use terminology that pushes your students’ boundaries just a bit. Talk about the topic of your course in a way that reaches them; use sophisticated sentence structure and punctuation and pull them in as if writing to a peer.

Reason #4: It Lacks Inspirational Language

If you get to the third sentence of your syllabus and a little voice in your head says “blah, blah, blah…,” then that’s exactly what your students are thinking. Students want to know why they’re in the course. What about the course is amazing and will change their lives? Use a tone that is exciting, that engages them, and that puts real value into what they’re about to learn. Stay away from dry, boring, or otherwise dull and lackluster language. You’re the educator: a huge part of your job is getting them excited about learning. TIP: Consider throwing in examples, specifics about the course’s application, and maybe even a little humor (if you’re good at humor; if not, maybe just stick to making the topic sound exciting).

Reason #5: It’s Written in Third Person

Related to Reason #4, writing in third person just isn’t inspiring. If you speak to people as if they’re right in front of you, your document is much more likely to be read. Can you imagine having a conversation with someone in person and saying, “the student will learn about the rhetorical methodologies used in antiquity and he or she will then apply traditional criticisms to understand…”? Ick. Trust me, no one wants to read that. Plus, it sounds like you’re not writing to the student at all, but rather to their parents or to the principle or to the accrediting body. TIP: Picture the student sitting right in front of you as you write your syllabus. Talk to them in second person, using “you” and “I.” This article is a good example of that–writing to the reader.

Reason #6: You Forgot to Format It

Formatting has been shown to significantly improve someone’s likelihood of reading a document. Don’t fall into the lazy trap of just typing everything out, using the default fonts (Calibri or Times New Roman), and not using heading, spacing, tables, bullets, and other visual cues. You’ll be tacitly telling your students that you didn’t care enough to give them a document they would want to read. TIP: Make headings larger, bolder, and a different font than the body text; consider making the margins larger to make the text not seem so lengthy; break up paragraphs (and don’t get too wordy); use tables, bullets, and other formatting elements to make information more accessible. See: Make Your Boring Document Look Professional in Five Easy Steps .

Reason #7: There’s Nothing Useful to Reference Later

A good syllabus will give students a reason to keep it and reference it. If there is nothing on the document that students will need to look at beyond the first day of class, they will just toss it and forget about it. But if you include key dates, a calendar, assignment descriptions, and so forth–and you reference it periodically in class, throughout a semester–students will hang onto it and know that it has valuable information. Then you won’t have to keep answering the question later, “what’s your email again?” because they’ll know to look at the syllabus that has super valuable information on it. TIP: It seems to help if you attach a course calendar to the syllabus. If they’re separate documents, the syllabus gets tossed.

Reason #8: It’s Ugly

Related to Reason #6, you don’t want to create ugly documents. Be conscious of the font (use only two fonts on a document), making sure that it’s professional and not some goofy typeface–they just don’t look good on documents of this nature. Avoid weird clipart images (though some graphics can be great if they’re not cheesy) and don’t include anything that is pixelated or grainy. Keep your margins wide, make good use of white space, and don’t make your text too small. TIP: Ugly documents scream “I’m not a professional.” Start off on the right foot by making something that students will see and think, “okay, this teacher has it together.”

Reason #9: Comic Sans Is the Font of Choice

This is, really, part of Reason #8. But it’s so important, that it deserves its own rule. Don’t ever, unless you’re teaching four-year-olds, use Comic Sans. It’s widely considered the most hated font of all time by designers and professionals, but it’s also widely mocked. While some people will love it (and you might), know that using it puts you (and your course) at risk for being mocked. TIP: Don’t use Comic Sans or any other cliche font.

Reason #10: It’s About You, Not the Course

Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in showing how smart you are by going into tangential explanations about the topic, which end up just sounding like you’re trying to brag about how much you know. Syllabi should be written with the student in mind, with the primary purposes to excite them about the course and subject matter and to let them know what they will be learning. When you get too far into explaining the details, though, the document becomes less about the student and more about how much you hope to impress parents or administrators (who actually don’t read your syllabus anyway). TIP: Keep the content concise and don’t give more information than the students need.