Defining the Syllabus

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of a syllabus, we must start by defining it and considering how it relates to curriculum since there is sometimes confusion over both terms.

Reflective Question:

  • When you think of the term “syllabus,” what words come to mind?
    Make a list, then click the SAVE button, which will allow you to work with these responses in a second activity at the bottom of this page.

The usual first stop when trying to define a term is the dictionary. defines a syllabus as “an outline or other brief statement of the main points of a discourse, the subjects of a course of lectures, the contents of a curriculum, etc.,” thus indicating that a syllabus includes the body of knowledge to be covered but the “etc.” at the end of the definition suggests that other elements can also be included. In fact, as Doolittle and Siudzinsla (2010) explain, “despite the almost universal agreement on the need for a syllabus in college courses…what actually constitutes a syllabus remains unclear” (p. 30).

Extensive research exists, including in the field of applied linguistics and language education, on what a syllabus is. One distinction scholars make is between curriculum and syllabus. For Allen (1984),

curriculum is a very general concept which involves consideration of the whole complex of philosophical, social and administrative factors which contribute to the planning of an educational program. Syllabus…refers to that subpart of curriculum which is concerned with a specification of what units will be taught (as distinct from how they will be taught, which is a matter for methodology). (p. 61)

Dubin and Olshtain (1986) distinguish between a curriculum and a syllabus as follows: A curriculum “contains a broad description of general goals by indicating an overall educational-cultural philosophy which applies across subjects with a theoretical orientation to language and language learning with respect to the subject at hand” (p. 35); whereas a syllabus “is a more detailed and operational statement of teaching and learning which translates the philosophy of the curriculum into a series of planned steps leading towards more narrowly defined objectives at each level” (p. 35). Breen (1987) explains that a “syllabus conventionally refers to the purposes and content of the curriculum and is usually assumed to have only indirect influence upon methodology and the procedures for evaluation” (p. 82). The conclusion we can draw from these quotes is that a syllabus is part of a wider curriculum, and that it is primarily concerned with “what is to be achieved through teaching and learning” (Breen, 1987, p. 82) and less with methodology and evaluation. Breen refers to a syllabus as a plan that 

most typically, maps out that body of knowledge and those capabilities which are regarded as worthwhile outcomes from the work of teachers and learners in a particular situation for which the syllabus was designed. In most cases, the plan will specify and select particular aspects of a target language and/or its use in social situations for a range of personal and social purposes. The plan details the objectives or selected outcomes of teaching and learning work. The plan might also address the route towards these outcomes and thereby function as a guide during teaching and learning. (p. 82) 

However, Candlin (1984) wonders “whether it is possible to separate so easily what we have been calling content from what we have been calling method or procedure, or indeed whether we can avoid bringing evaluationEvaluation is understood here as assessment of student learning. into the debate” (p. 32).

Although a consensus exists on the distinction between curriculum and syllabus in the scholarly literature, differences of opinion exist when considering whether syllabus and teaching methodology/approach and syllabus and assessment should be kept separate or not. Opinions also differ regarding whether a syllabus is a theoretical or practical document.

Scholars like Krahnke (1987) highlight the importance of language learning theory as the necessary foundation of any L2 syllabus design effort. The selection of course goals and objectives, the selection and sequencing of content, the articulation of learning activities, and the selection of assessments closely reflect our understanding of fundamental second language acquisition processes (Richards, 2013; Yalden, 1987). Rabbini (2002) claims that “a syllabus is an expression of opinion on the nature of language and learning; it acts as a guide for both teacher and learner by providing some goals to be attained” (Par. 3), thus seeing it more as a practical rather than a theoretical document. For Widdowson (1984) “the syllabus is simply a framework within which activities can be carried out: a teaching device to facilitate learning” (p. 26), and therefore a practical document.

Today, a common standard definition of a syllabus in higher education is that of a statement of intent and schedule of topics/activities that serves as an implicit agreement between the instructor and students. In other words, a syllabus is viewed as a legally binding document that includes a description of the course, a set of intended goals and objectives, a chronology of topics to be covered and a schedule of assessments. As Afros and Schryer (2009) put it,

the syllabus offers instructors a constellation of rhetorical strategies to describe the course, its goals and objectives, its structure and its correlation with other courses within the program, classroom and institutional policies as well as general logistical and procedural information. It mediates the interaction both between students and instructors and between instructors and their colleagues. Therefore, the syllabus has to be balanced so that it can appeal to students, motivate and structure their learning, while, at the same time, can convince (senior) colleagues and external evaluators of the instructor’s professionalism and the course quality. (p. 225)

One new element introduced in this quote is that the function a syllabus serves depends on the user and can serve as the following:

  • a communication mechanism
  • a planning tool for instructors
  • a course plan for students
  • a teaching tool or resource
  • an artifact for teacher evaluation 
  • evidence for accreditation 

(Albers, 2003; Hockensmith, 1988; Matejka & Kurke, 1994; Parkes & Harris, 2002; Slattery & Carlson, 2005; Smith & Razzouk, 1993; Thompson, 2007).

Although there are some similarities in use, overall, students, faculty, administrators, and accreditation personnel all use the syllabus for different purposes. From the perspective of the LPD, a syllabus can provide uniformity and accountability across multiple sections of a course taught by different instructors. When designing course syllabi for the program they oversee, LPDs will have to decide which of these stakeholders’ perspectives to take on because this will determine the content to include, the organization to adopt, and the presentation to follow. We will come back to these points later.

Reflective Question:

  • Earlier you made a list of words that you most readily associate with the term “syllabus” which you see below. Now modify or add to that list by taking into consideration the information just presented.
  • In what ways, if any, does this list differ from the one you made earlier? What prompted the changes you made?
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