Some of my educationally-minded friends and I were debating whether creating the syllabus should be the first step of designing a course or the last. I argued that it should be the last step. Instructors creating syllabi before completing the other steps of course design seems analogous to students prioritizing good grades over learning. Though the aspects reflect each other, creating the syllabus first puts university-related goals ahead of learning-related goals.
If you share my viewpoint, the syllabus is the culmination of the course design process. An instructor mindfully determines what and how to teach in a course, and the syllabus reflects the aspects that are most important. The syllabus is then used as the students’ introduction to and reference throughout the course: it tells them what they should be learning and when. Given that most instructors tend to underestimate the support that students need in order to organize and prioritize new information (due to the gap in knowledge between experts and novices; Bransford et al., 2000), perhaps the instructor can build this support into the syllabus.
Because the instructor has already decided which learning goals are important through the course design process, he or she could communicate those learning goals for each unit in the syllabus. Then students can use the syllabus throughout the course to help organize and prioritize new information. That being said, the learning goals in the syllabus should be integrated with the instruction and assessment in the course. Instructors should make it clear during instruction which learning goals are being addressed. Additionally, if students have met the learning goals for each unit, then they should do well on assessments.
For more on creating a syllabus — O’Brien, G., et al. (2008). The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Reference — How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. (2000). Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368
For more information about the course design series or more course design posts, visit the course design series introduction.