EDTEC 690 Research Paper

EDTEC 690 Methods of Inquiry

Educational Technology Dept. at San Diego State University

Prepared by Su Tuan Lulee, Spring 2007


Literature Review

Research Paper

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Case Study Report: The Components of Syllabus

A Study on syllabi from US Leading Education Programs


Su-Tuan Lulee

Educational Technology Dept., San Diego State University

            The Components of Syllabus       


       Altman (1992) argued that, a syllabus is to communicate about “What the course is about, why the course is taught, where it is going, and what will be required of the students for them to complete the course with a passing grade.“ While the Internet is restructuring education and the current use of technologies are enhancing a course with special features such as hyperlink, e-mail, conference room, and course web pages, what are the appearances of current course syllabi? What messages were communicated to students through syllabi?

50 syllabi from education department of Columbia University, Harvard University, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt University plus three syllabi from San Diego State University were studied. This paper describes the process and the results of a qualitative study examining general education syllabi from five leading education programs in US (US News, 2007) to discover the present and the transformation of syllabi by comparing the components embedded. Ultimately, the study intends to address the important but ignored syllabi components and to propose further researching on technology enhanced syllabus tools.

          Research Purpose

       Many leading universities web sites, e.g., Penn State niversity, Harvard University, and individual studies have made recommendation about what components should be contained in course syllabi. Some syllabus components seem to be well recognized, standard and obvious to many instructors; however, the researcher suspect that many college instructors write their syllabi only to serve few purposes, such as responding to the request from administration, reminding students for important schedule, or capturing interests from students who are shopping for courses to enroll. The researcher intents to find that, in practice, course syllabi have contained these components. What are, in practice, the most commonly used syllabi components? What are most commonly ignored syllabi components?

       More and more courses are offering online over the Internet. Syllabi are not only shifting from print to electronic in format but also serving important communicating roles in online courses. While many courses are transforming from traditional classroom teaching to online distance teaching, do syllabi components evolving into new characteristics? What are the changes taking place in terms of content, form and functionality?  

     Previous research (Tungare, M., Yu, X., Cameron, W., Teng, G., Perez-Quinones, M. A., & Cassel, L., 2007) found that by collect and classify syllabi, a syllabus repository can provide recommendations to instructors when creating a syllabus, or offer syllabi that matches one's own and see what other instructors thought while teaching similar courses. In this research, the researcher tends to find what have been done for improving quality of syllabi in top US education programs.

     To conclude, the research conduct a qualitative research of 53 syllabi from leading education programs in US to answer following research problems:

1. Identify components embedded in syllabi.

1.1   To what extent, do practiced syllabi components identical with recommended syllabi components?

1.2   What are the similarities and differences of syllabi components between universities?

1.3   Which components are well known 'hard' genre[1] that shows some degree of uniformity in syllabi components?

1.4   What components are evolving into new characteristics while traditional classroom courses were provided with new media and technologies? 

2. Identify what and how syllabi communicate to students in terms of content, form and functionality.

 Impact of the Literature Review

The literature review of 20 research papers covered a great deal of information and many aspects of course syllabi. Some of which discussed about roles of syllabi as a guiding map or contract between participants; others discussed about components of syllabi; or the impacts that web-based education brought for syllabi. Due to time and other constrains, this case study chose to focus on analyzing the components of syllabi because this is an aspect that can to the maximum reduce the influence of the researcher’s biases and values. Moreover, the research limited the data collection to 5 major sources and one minor source to further narrow down the scope so that the research could be completed within timeframe while various perspectives on each single issue could be gathered.

In particular, the literature review had an emphasis on how web-based education changed the expectation for syllabi from online students and how new functionalities, form and contents for online course syllabi were demanded. The researcher purposefully chose about the same quantity of syllabi from both categories, traditional classroom courses and online or blending courses, so that the comparison between two course formats could be ensured.

In addition to provide diversified perspectives on examining syllabi, the literature review also suggested several practical methods for collecting syllabi. The method that depicted in the paper of Tungare & et al. (2007) had contributed to this research especially.

Finally, the content analysis framework, <content, form, and functionality>, used in Maurino (2006) research, provided a valuable model for examining characteristics of course syllabi in this research.

          Contextual Factors

The present study offered several important findings to the literature. Yet, there were some limitations to the study as well. First, the sampling design was based on convenience sampling. It took syllabi that are readily available through online searching. The conclusion drew from the research provided the thoughts of robust that would not guarantee of high reliability.

A second limitation to this study is that the data collection was limited to five major and one minor data sources therefore the results might well represent the situation in upper level of American higher education but could not represent the whole population.

The third limitation to this study lies on rather small sample size for online course syllabi. Most of non-traditional syllabi in this research were retrieved from blending courses in which the instructors met students face-to-face on a regular basis. The samples would not reveal full range of characteristics for course that were completely executed online.

A final limitation to this study is the content analysis. Although a great deal of information had been wading through, the resource constrain for individual researcher did not allowed a detailed examination of the body of syllabi to identify typical patterns or themes such as how instructors divided course hours between different activities; how instructors weighted different criteria in computing students works; and etc. The problem here was that a detailed content analysis requires a great deal of time to undertake.


The issues discussed in research purpose session will be investigated using data from sample syllabi. A sample of leading universities is appropriate for this study because it is a direct way to find out the best quality that higher education instructors have performed in constructing syllabi. The following sub-sessions depict the method and rationale of data collection, as well as process for pilot analysis and data coding.              

Data Collection

       The researcher used Google to find syllabi. First, find domain names for top five graduate schools of education in United States (USNews, 2007), e.g. gse.harvard.edu for Graduate School of Education, Harvard; tc.columbia.edu for Teacher College, Columbia University; and etc. Second, a query of "syllabus site:[department domain name]" was submitted to Google search engine to locate syllabi within specific department, e.g. "syllabus site:gse.harvard.edu". These queries obtained five lists of syllabus-like documents from the department.

     The initial searching resulted in a large number of documents. Each of the five lists contained hundreds of items. By scanning the documents retrieved, the researcher identified all four categories of documents (Tungare, 2007): full syllabus, partial syllabus, syllabus entry pages, and noise. A full syllabus is one that contains most of syllabus components; a partial syllabus contains only some important components of syllabus; a syllabus entry pages, such as a course web site home page, contains links to a syllabus; a noise is often are web pages that contains the keyword 'syllabus' but not a syllabus, such as articles provide guideline for writing syllabi. The researcher manually examined each documents from the beginning of each list until ten full syllabi were collected for each of five universities. All syllabi obtained were stored for later retrieval.

     The initial collection of 50 syllabi included 31 classroom teaching courses and 19 online or blending courses. To balance the quantity of two categories, the researcher added three online course syllabi to the collection that formed a 53 syllabi database for the research, 31 classroom teaching courses and 22 online or blending courses. The final 3 syllabi were selected from Educational Technology Department of San Diego State University.


Garavalia 39 components (1999) and Becker & Calhoon 29 components (1999) were compared and combined into 24 items. Each item was given several weight values, using multiple choice questions, according to the characteristics of the component. These 24 items were taken as the initial schema for component research. In order to assess inter-rater reliability, a reliability sample of 10% (5 syllabi) was coded by 2 researchers. Each syllabus was coded for each of the variables by both researchers. Discussion held every 20 minutes. The initial pilot test found it difficult to analyze with any statistic instrument. The multiple choice questions were thus changed to binominal type questions and 24 items had to be expanded to 50 items because some questions need to be divided into several sub-questions. 50 components were defined and recorded.

In second pilot, 5 syllabi were coded with revised 50-item schema. 4 new components were added into schema after pilot research while 7 components were deleted or combined. Finally, 47 dependent variables (syllabi components) and 3 independent variables (case number, institution, and course format) were Definitions of components were further specified and a standard procedure for coding was written to minimize possible differentiation between two researchers in coding. The working procedure was recorded as a guideline.



A content analysis of course syllabi was conducted. The first researcher coded all 50 syllabi. Ratings were tallied. The second researcher coded 15 syllabi, 30% of randomly selected from collected syllabi, and tallied the ratings, too. The results from two researchers were compared. An average of three different coding, 6% of fifty variables, were found. The researchers discussed the differences and decided a final value for each difference. Due to time limitation, the researchers decided that 6% is an acceptable level of difference and the second researcher was not asked to code the rest 35 syllabi.  


Frequency, binominal, and Kruskal-Willas analysis of the coded data were conducted to find answers for the first and part of the second research problem. Also, the syllabi from six universities were examined using the theory of content, form, functionality framework (Maurino, 2006; Shepherd & Watters, 1999). All syllabi were analyzed individually and coded for components used. 


Differences between practice and recommendation

A frequency analysis was conducted to identify components included in syllabi. Table 1 shows 22 most commonly used components. Each of following syllabi components was found in more than half of collected syllabi.

Table 1 Commonly Used Syllabus Components

       From literature review, several studies on syllabus were found to have provided guideline for constructing effective syllabus. Among those articles, many similar syllabus components were suggested by more than one professional researcher or educator. It seemed that a group of standardized syllabus components had been well recognized and commonly used. The result of a content analysis on 7 articles was listed in Table 2.

Table 2 Syllabus Components Recommended by Academic Sources[2]

        The researcher compared the highly recommended list in Table 2 with the most commonly used components in Table 1, obvious inconsistency were found in several components (Table 3). Components 'Late delivery policy', 'Philosophy of teaching', 'TA' information, and 'Academic honor ship' that were recommending by over 70% of academic articles were obviously ignored in practices.

Table 3 Differences of Syllabus Components Between Recommended and Practices

        The analysis found, syllabi presented on course web sites, either for classroom or online courses, contains more than one web page that disassemble the traditional syllabi. Since in this research, different web pages were not considered as part of the syllabus, this could be accounted for the high ratio of missing basic information components, e.g., 71% of syllabi didn’t included institution names and 55% of syllabi didn’t show the department name.

Reveal of policies, such as late delivery and academic honor ship were often ignored (77% and 87%) even in schools that had publicly requested their instructors to announce certain policies, course policies were often missing from syllabi.

It was surprising to find that 57% of syllabi didn’t contain a statement of course objectives, 48% of syllabi didn’t state course requirements, and 31% of syllabi didn’t tell students how their grade would be computed.


Differences between Universities

There were some differences existed in course syllabi between universities. Most of them could be explained by the supporting systems of universities. For instance, Harvard and Stanford university suggested academic integrity be included in all syllabi therefore syllabi from these two universities have higher positive percentage in 'Academic honor ship'; and syllabi from universities that required instructors to upload their syllabi on formatted course web sites were either contained more components than other universities or surprisingly missing some basic information. The possible reason for missing basic information was depicted in later session of this research paper. Other differences were suspected to be caused by the characteristics of disciplines. For example, technology-related course syllabi would include ‘Technology used’ components while other technology-independent course syllabi won’t; and courses had field study or lab classes would state requirements about those activities but courses without outside classroom activities would not have those description in the syllabi. These differences were not necessary to be related to university divergence.

By a Krusakal-Willas analysis, Table 4 shows the similarities or differences in syllabi components from different universities.

Table 4 Different Use of Syllabi Components between Institutions

From a Krusakal-Willas analysis, 8 components had larger Chi-square value than 9.49. Those revealed the differences between universities.


Differences between Tradition and Non-Tradition Course Syllabi

The syllabi components between traditional classroom courses and online or blending courses didn't show great difference as the researcher estimated. This might due to 80% of the collected syllabi were composed in 2004 or later, by that time, online courses have bloomed in higher education in US and many instructors were aware of the advantage of WWW as an effective communication tools therefore they composed their syllabi as if the syllabi were serving for online courses even they were teaching classroom courses. In the meantime, instructors who delivered their course in blending format were assumed that they could always communicate with students in classrooms therefore it is acceptable if the syllabi were obscure partly. One obvious trend were that either online or classroom course syllabi were transforming into electronic, distance communicable form.

Table 5 Different Use of Syllabus Components between Classroom and Online Courses


Instructor's email

Course overview

Technology used in the course









Asymp. Sig.





From a Krusakal-Willas analysis, only 3 syllabus components have larger Chi-square values.


‘Hard’ Genres Found in Syllabis

In spite of various differences, certain degree of uniformity that could be recognized as the ‘hard’ genres for course syllabi were found during the research. 17 components listed in Table 6 were used in 80% collected syllabi from different instructors, different courses, different universities, and different composing years.

Table 6 Syllabus Components Used by 80% of course syllabi

Evolving Characteristics in online Courses Syllabi


A cross-tab analysis for basic information, such as institution and department names, course title and code, instructor and teaching assistants’ names and contact information, course offered year and semester, and etc, showed that non-traditional course, blending or online courses, syllabi were paying less and less attention to delivery these information when classes were shifting from classroom to online. This might be a consequence of popular use of multi-page course web site. The syllabus creators separated necessary information into multiple web pages, for example, the basic information about a course was often presented with individual web page. As a result, a syllabus web page contained smaller quantity of information than a stand-alone syllabus.

In delivery information about course content, course policies, such as policies for participation requirement and withdrawal, appeared on more online or blending course syllabi. These non-traditional courses also provided more supplementary out-linking resources for students.

Table 7 Components that Appeared more Often in Non-Traditional Courses Syllabi


In analyzing each syllabus for form characteristics, an increasing trend for using learning management system were found. Syllabi embedded in instructors’ personal web pages appeared to have more diversity in form characteristics including the use of font, heading, and alignment. For syllabi embedded in Blackboard or university course management system, uniformity in form was obvious. The uniformity significantly showed in the structure that syllabi were separated into sub-sessions. Syllabi using the same course management system were similar in the forms mandated by systems.



Based on the literature review, it was expected that the online course syllabi would have additional functional features; however, many instructors created their course syllabi by simple uploading PDF or Microsoft Word document. Those syllabi were basically the same with traditional print syllabi with the same functionality. This also explained why there were much less hyperlinks than estimated were found in collected syllabi.

Other course syllabi that took advantages of the Internet technologies, additional features were found, including e-mail to instructors directly, links to activities or materials, download data files and plug-ins.

Inner-course or external-course links for electronic syllabi were much less than the researcher’s previous estimate. The possible reason might be instructors did not upload syllabi to course web sites by themselves due to insufficient technical competencies or time constraint. If the instructors didn’t create their syllabi in HTML format, it would take much trouble to describe to their assistants about the links they would like to connect their syllabi to other course pages or external resources.

While learning management system enriching functionality for syllabi, it created a confusing issue: it is getting more and more difficult to distinguish the syllabus body from the course content area. Should those sub-pages expanded from main syllabi page be taken as part of syllabi? The boundary was blurred by interlaced hyperlinks which actually have constructed a new space - learning environment.

What institution has done to improve the quality of syllabi?

The evolving characteristics of syllabi appeared to be interfered by course management systems using in schools. These systems had their own limitation in the document formats as well as teaching and learning activities. It was reasonable to assume that universities used the management systems to maintain course syllabi in an acceptable quality level. For example, Stanford University provides syllabus tool that guided to the integration of the syllabus components; Harvard University provides unified course web site to carry course syllabi and incorporate functionality features.

               Conclusions and Discussions

The research identified the inconsistencies between desired and practiced syllabi components; discovered the different syllabi components existed in different course formats and different institutions; depicted, through content analysis, the hard genre accepted by the community of syllabi authors; delineated the evolving syllabi components using ‘content, form, functionality’ framework; and detected the impacts of course management system on syllabi constructing.

The analysis of syllabi provides global view of instructor focus and course processes. For instructors to effectively construct their course syllabi, an expert tool that can walk instructors through the process of syllabi composing, remind instructors of important components, provide sample paragraphs, and easy enough for instructors to edit by themselves, might be necessary.

Also, a syllabus repository for instructors to find a similar course syllabus to improve one’s own course design; or for students to foresee or review core content of a course would be a useful instrument for teaching and learning.

While online distance courses are getting prevalent today, effectiveness of communication between all stakeholders, instructors, students and school administrators, are becoming the key factor for successful teaching and learning. As an initial point of interaction and a written commitment or contract between stakeholders, more researches on syllabus are necessary.        


Altman, H.B., Cashin, William E., & Kansas State Univ., (1992). Writing a Syllabus. IDEA Paper No. 27. , 5.

America’s Best Graduate Schools, 2007 (2006, May 7). U. S. News & World Report. Retrieved February 25, 2007, from: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/grad/rankings/edu/brief/edurank_brief.php

Becker, A.H., & Calhoon, Sharon K. (1999) What Introductory Psychology Students Attend to on a Course Syllabus. Teaching of Psychology, 26(1), 6-11.

Designing a Learning-Centered Syllabus. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2007, from University of Delaware. Center for Teaching Effectiveness web site: http://cte.udel.edu/syllabus.htm#note.

Garavalia, L.S., Hummel, John H., & Huitt, William G. (1999). Constructing the Course Syllabus: Faculty and Student Perceptions of Important Syllabus Components. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 10(1), 5-21.

Grigorovici, D., & Nam, Siho. The Effects of Online Syllabus Interactivity on Students' Perception of the Course and Instructor.

Maurino, P.S.M. (2006). Syllabi as Cybergenre. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 34(2), 223-240.

Shepherd, M., & Watters, C. (1999). The Functionality Attribute of Cybergenres. IEEE Computer Society.

Syllabus/Course Design. (2007). Retrieved February 25, 2007, from University of South California, Center for Excellence in Teaching web site: http://www.usc.edu/programs/cet/resources/creating_syllabi/..

Syllabus Planning. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2007, from Harvard University, Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning web site: http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k1985&pageid=icb.page29695

Syllabus Suggested Form. Retrieved February 25, 2007, from Honolulu University web site: http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/syllab-1.htm

Syllabus. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2007, from Stanford University, Coursework Admin Help web site: http://www.stanford.edu/group/coursework/docsUser/adminHelp/ch12.html

Tips for an Effective Syllabus. (n.d.). Retrieved February 7, 2007, from Pennsylvania State University. Teaching and Learning with Technology Department web site: http://tlt.its.psu.edu/suggestions/syllabus/#suggestedfield. February, 2007.

Tungare, M., Yu, X., Cameron, W., Teng, G., Perez-Quinones, M.A., Cassel, L., et al. (2007). Towards a syllabus repository for computer science courses . ACM Press. Retrieved February 25, 2007, http://manas.tungare.name/publications/tungare_2007_towards.pdf


Woolcock, M.V. (n.d.). Constructing a Syllabus. Retrieved January 20, 2007, from Brown University, The Harriet W. Sheridan Center web site: http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/pedagogy/syllabus.shtml 2007     

Appendix A Analysis Workflow & Tally

Figure 1 Workflow chart for data coding and analysis.

Figure 2 The researcher coded each syllabi component on tallies

[1] ‘Hard’ genres: Well known by the community in which they are used. (Maurino, 2006)

[2] Data sources: Altman (1992) and web sites of Brown University, Derek Bok Center, Harvard University, Honolulu Community College, Pennsylvania State University, University of Delaware, University of South California