Tips for Writing an Online Course Syllabus

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Why a Detailed Syllabus is not Optional

Are you tempted to simply post a course description in lieu of a course syllabus? Do you figure that students attending online classes already know the score, and spending a lot of time and effort on writing a detailed syllabus takes time away from your online teaching?

If so, you may be doing your students a disservice. A well designed online syllabus not only explains to your students how the class will be run and what your expectations are at each turn, but it also combines important links and contact information in one easy to save document. This applies to the ‘Computer Security’ syllabus just as much as it does to the classes for lower-level nutrition and fitness related electives. No two fields or classes are alike and students rely on each teacher to provide a basic ‘how to’ that explains how business is done in her/his class.

Remember that in an online learning program, students cannot pop by your office to ask questions about a matter of policy, a due date, or request some contact information. Moreover, there is no readily accessible peer group that may be familiar with your online teaching style and that can give tips to new students. Hence, the syllabus is sure to be a vital document for your students.

Nuts and Bolts

Creating an online syllabus does not have to be time consuming. If you do a lot of online teaching, you can streamline some of the syllabus information, which will allow you to focus more time on your online teaching and less on writing a document for various online classes.

Contact Information

When writing a syllabus like this, it is important to advise students how to contact you. Include at least one means of emergency contact. State clearly what your policy is for emails and phone calls. Invoke a moratorium on Sunday phone calls, but state that you welcome emails at any time assuming that students understand that there may be a 24-48 hour turnaround on answers.

Optional Materials

The online program undoubtedly already publishes the kinds of materials that are required for your class, but only you can incorporate optional materials into the online syllabus design. Offer links to websites where students may find research materials that may make their experience more productive, offer additional insights, and also provide new resources for them to digest.

The great advantage you have when preparing a syllabus is the incorporation of multimedia sources for the additional and optional resources. Give your students the full benefits of an online learning experience simply by pointing them in a direction of auditory, visual, and – of course – written materials. If you use teaching software such as Blackboard, post a simple tutorial as part of your syllabus.

Remember the Basics

In addition to the extra materials that make your syllabus design stand out, do not forget the basics. Remember to state your online teaching objectives for the class, the assignment schedule, due dates, information on quizzes, and also the formatting of assignments for your review.

Add your grading and participation policies, which are likely predetermined by the distance learning program. Don’t forget to also include conflict resolution steps for students who may disagree with a grade they received.

Often Forgotten but Vital Add-Ons

Cheating students can be a problem that plagues the online teaching profession. Address cheating ahead of time by including in your course syllabus a clause that discusses academic honesty.

Also incorporate a frequently asked questions section. Draw from the questions you have received from prior students during your online teaching career and integrate the answers when writing your syllabus. The odds are good that if one student asked the question, another one might also grapple with it.

Follow these simple suggestions for writing a syllabus for an online course, and you are sure to have a well informed student body that turns in assignments on time and remembers not to call you on Sundays.


  • Author’s personal experience