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Writing a Syllabus for a Distance Learning Class

Introduction to Distance Learning Syllabi

A syllabus is an important document in any class because it informs students of how the class will operate, the policies they must adhere to, when assignments are due, etc. In a distance learning class, the syllabus is an even more important document because it is the main information source about the class. The syllabus for a distance learning class requires much more detail and information than a syllabus used in a traditional class on campus.

In a distance learning class, students are not able to ask questions about the class, policies, and assignments and get immediate clarification from the instructor. Distance learning students often do class work during weekends and they are very likely to have questions at this time, which will often go unanswered if the instructor is not available to answer e-mail and discussion boards questions on the weekends. A detailed syllabus can eliminate many of these problems.

Benefits of a Well Designed Syllabus

A well designed and detailed syllabus can have the following benefits for instructors and students in distance learning classes:

Elements of a Distance Learning Syllabus

There are some elements of a distance learning syllabus that are highly recommended and others that are optional, but may provide additional clarification for students depending on your course requirements.

Recommended Syllabus Element Description
Instructor information
  • Be sure to list your name, title, department, e-mail, phone, and fax.
  • Let students know the best way to contact you.
Contact policy
  • Indicate your turnaround time for getting back to students. For example, you may want to indicate that you will respond within 24 hours, Monday through Friday. Let students know whether or not you will be available on weekends.
  • You may want to schedule a couple hours a week when students can count on reaching you live either by phone or chat.
Course description The official description of the course is provided by the Registrar's Office in the course catalog. You may want to add additional details that better describes what the course will cover.
Required and optional course materials
  • List all required and optional course materials that students must obtain. If providing textbook information, be sure to provide the title, author's name, and ISBN, as many students will order the book online.
  • You may also want to mention additional course materials that you will be providing via the myWPI site. For example, indicate that students are required to view all video and audio clips you post in myWPI.
Course logistics This is where you explain course logistics that will make the class run smoothly. For example:
  • When does the class week start? Since most distance learning students do their class work on weekends, try scheduling your class week from Wednesday to Tuesday or Thursday to Wednesday.
  • When are homework assignments due? For example, all homework assignments are due at noon on Mondays. If you are concerned about students in different time zones having different deadlines, indicate the Eastern time zone as being the deadline.
  • Indicate a naming convention for assignment filenames, if you wish. For example, a homework file must be appended by the student's username, such as homework1-username.doc. This may make it easier for you to manage assignment files you download to your computer.
  • If you require students to submit assignments written in a particular style (i.e. APA or Chicago Manual style), mention it here.
Learning objectives

Write learning objectives that explain what students should be able to demonstrate at the end of the course. Consider also indicating how you expect them to demonstrate or fulfill each objective.

Upon completing this course, you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a functional understanding of the nature and importance of [content] (fulfilled through discussion board contributions).
  • Define [content] and state how they are related (fulfilled by written assignment).
  • Demonstrate the use of course concepts to solve problems in a real world setting (fulfilled by a group project).
Assessment/grading policy
  • Let students know what they will be graded on to assess their achievement of the learning objectives and the criteria that will be used in determining those grades. You may want to explain what constitutes excellent, good, fair, or poor work for each assignment and provide examples of each.
  • Indicate how much of the total course grade each assignment is worth.
  • Indicate how final grades are assigned. For example, a grade of A is given to students receiving at least 93 out of 100 possible points on all graded assignments.
  • Include your policy about the grading of late assignments.
  • You may want to consider including a policy about Incomplete grades.
Participation policy State your participation expectations and policies for the discussion boards and any other communication tools (i.e. chats) you use in your course. For example, you should indicate the following:
  • Whether or not discussion postings are required and graded.
  • The number of original postings and follow-up postings students are expected to make.
  • Deadlines for posting, as well as a suggested schedule for reading and posting questions (i.e. post an original posting by Wednesday and two follow-up postings by Saturday).
  • If discussions are graded, how will points be given? For example, to get full credit, follow-up postings must add value to the discussion by building on the ideas of others, challenging the position of others, or incorporating personal experiences that provide a different perspective to the posting of another student.
See Improving the Use of Discussion Boards for more information on participation in your class.
Course timeline with content and assignments indicated Prepare a list of the topics you will cover in your class, broken out by week, if possible. For each topic, indicate required readings and assignments that are due. Having this amount of detail will be very helpful to your students who have busy lives and appreciate knowing what is coming up so they can plan ahead to work around travel, vacations, and other commitments.
Assignment details
  • Provide descriptions of the graded assignments and explain the criteria for how they will be graded. For example, describe the purpose of the assignment, list the major elements you are looking for in the assignment, indicate the value of each element to the assignment grade, and criteria you will use for assessing each element of the assigment.
  • Be sure to indicate the due date and the instructions for how to submit the assignment.
Students will appreciate having details about the assignments at the beginning of the class so they can plan ahead.
Academic Honesty Policy Mention your expectations for academic honesty in the class and link to the university's Academic Honesty Policy.
ADA considerations Provide a statement indicating that students who need special accommodations to participate in your class should contact you, the instructor, as well as the Student Disabilities Services Office as early in the semester as possible so that the appropriate accommodations can be arranged.
Optional Syllabus Element Description
Information on library resources If students in your class will be using library resources to complete their assignments, link to an overview of off-campus library access at Gordon Library.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) Think of questions you've been asked by past students and either address them in the other sections of your syllabus, or create an FAQ document where you provide answers to the questions students have frequently asked you in the past. This will save you and the students time in the long run.
Discussion forum moderation guidelines

If you will be requiring students to moderate the discussions, provide them with guidelines for doing so, or link to resources that provide them with guidelines. Some possible resources include:

Collins, M. & Z. Berge. (1997). Moderating Online Electronic Discussion Groups.

Rohfeld, R. & R. Hiemstra. (1995). Moderating Discussions in the Electronic Classroom.

Group project guidelines If you will be assigning group projects, make it clear why a group project is being assigned and provide guidelines for how you expect the group members to work.


Luck, A. (1998). Syllabus Writing 101: A Template. Retrieved June 10, 2005, from the Penn State University World Campus Web site.

Northeastern University. (n.d.). Syllabus Design. Retrieved June 10, 2005, from the Northeastern University Educational Technology Center Web site.

Rochester Institute of Technology. (2004). Online Course Syllabus [Word Document]. Retrieved June 14, 2005, from the Rochester Institute of Technology RIT Online Web site.

University of Alaska, Fairbanks. (2005). Creating an Effective Syllabus [PDF]. Retrieved June 10, 2004, from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Center or Distance Education Web site.

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Last modified: Aug 30, 2005, 13:50 EDT
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