Novice learners—your students—depend on you to have sufficient knowledge of the course content and its structure to build a clear and easy-to-follow pathway to successfully learning the course material. Students have little idea what actually learning material in your specific discipline looks like. Should your students be highlighting their course textbook and making flash cards for memorization? Should your students be working problems in the back of the book and even making up problems of their own to swap with classmates? Should your students be seeking out and listening to lecture from other scholars in your domain? Should students read the assigned readings twice, and critically challenge the conclusions the author is drawing? It certainly isn’t all of these things, because different disciplines require different learning activities from their students. Physics professors clearly do not want their students to compose philosophical essays on why their textbook author is incorrect whereas literature professors sometimes do! Whatever people need to do in your discipline to engage and learn it, your students do not know this, and need you to help them engage in those specific activities.

At the same time, students have no idea how fast to be moving through the material. And, so it seems, some professors seem to have given little thought to how fast they should be moving through the material, as evidenced by how far too many busy professors tell me at the end of the term that they are madly rushing their lectures to get through all of the concepts that they had planned or are required to cover.
Given all of that pre-amble, professors who are highly successful and peacefully prepared teachers purposefully build for students—and themselves—a detailed, daily schedule of course learning activities, distribute to students, and refer to it frequently both by themselves and with their students during class. And, they and their students are committed to sticking to the schedule no matter what happens during scheduled class time.Imagine a syllabus that includes a five-column table where each row is a class-meeting day. The columns going from right to left are labeled: | Class Date | Before Class | During Class | After Class | Notes |. You might also benefit from adding a column for “topic;” but, an even better column addition would be one for a guiding “focus question,” such as, “How is starlight generated?” A syllabus schedule that really works is sufficiently detailed that not only can an unexpected substitute professor pick up and use in your absence, but a learning pathway students could follow in the absence of an instructional leader.

The best teachers always make a detailed learning plan for students and themselves to follow, and religiously stick to it even when scheduled class time doesn’t go as planned or, for some unanticipated reason like inclement weather or worse, class gets canceled. This keeps your courses and their teaching under control and out of the crazy-making whirlwind that inevitably happens at universities, causing frantic professors to crumble and endlessly complain. Sound like a lot of work? It is…but there are other benefits to a highly structured, student-centered syllabus.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming,

Suggested Citation: Slater, T. F. (2018, January). Students benefit from structured a structured syllabus. Society of College Science Teachers Blog, 3(6),


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