Writing a Syllabus for an Online Class

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Writing a comprehensive and effective syllabus is a critical skill for every instructor, and no where is this more important than in an online class. Instructors must understand the role the syllabus plays if they are to craft an effective syllabus. When done properly, this document serves as a tool that not only communicates important information but also helps to share the instructor’s vision for the course objectives.

The Role of the Syllabus

Students attending online classes can feel isolated, so the syllabus takes on a more important role than it does in traditional college classrooms. The impersonal nature of the online classroom environment can make it difficult for an instructor to get his or her point across. Nevertheless, instructors must overcome this obstacle and get the key information communicated to the students about the study plan and expectations for the class. It is also important to help students get a sense of the personal aspects of the class such as the instructor’s commitment and desire for the students to succeed.

The importance of the syllabus in an online class was made clear to me during a discussion I had with my oldest son who started attending traditional college classes in August of 2009. Because I was writing this article, I asked him some questions about the syllabus his instructors provided. He couldn’t tell me much more than due dates because he said the instructor covered all of the high points in class. In the online classroom, we don’t have that luxury, so the syllabus must serve a larger purpose.

Key Elements

When constructing a syllabus for an online class, instructors must naturally include a calendar, key university policies, assignment descriptions and associated points, a bio, and the texts required for the class, but there is more that should be included. Every instructor has a unique way of running his or her classroom that is within school policy but is unique to the specific instructor. A syllabus must reflect these idiosyncrasies and help students understand how to do things “your way.” Instructors should avoid forcing students to find out about these requirements via trial and error. I tend to be a bit more merciful, so I include them as part of the syllabus.


My syllabus is designed to communicate my philosophy and approach to my students. It has my bio like the syllabi of many instructors, but it also has my personality. I have done what I could to make the document a reflection of who I am as an instructor and laid out rules for my students to help them succeed. In my syllabus, there is a section called “The 16 Essential Points.” These are elements that are designed to help students know me and know my expectations, style requirements, paper organization, interactions in the classroom, and many other requirements that make the classroom run properly. The last part of the syllabus that helps it transform into something more useful is a FAQs area. Instructors know all of the questions that they get asked, so it is in their interest to answer them. When instructors give their students a sense of the instructor’s personality in the responses, the document will be richer and more effective.