What Exactly Is A Syllabus?

School is upon us, and those on the front lines of educating the masses are preparing for the onslaught of people seeking to add value to their knowledge base. Some people are simply needing to create a knowledge base. Not only are educators concerned with the precise means of communicating knowledge, through lessons, but also in meeting the bureaucratic needs of the administration. One of those needs is a syllabus.

For decades, the syllabus has been an expected document, an anticipated document, a document that students greet with chagrin and consternation. What is a syllabus, though?

The word, "syllabus," arrives from the Latin, which was probably incorrectly interpreted from the Greek. In any event, "syllabus," means "list." Makes sense as a syllabus is really a list of policies, procedures, instructions, and other information pertaining to a course.

Thus, a syllabus is simply a set of policies, procedures, guidelines, and other course-related information.

Over the last couple years, I have heard many administrators referring to a syllabus as a "contract between you and your students." I have heard a few faculty describe a syllabus in this way, too. In fact, the other night, at an educators meeting, an administrator held a 14-page syllabus aloft, proclaiming the syllabus as, "a contract between you and your students."

Over the years of teaching, and as a student, I never made the leap a syllabus was a contract, thinking the contents of those pages merely outlined the details of the course. Students need to know, to some degree, what the course entails. As an educator, I need something to remind myself on occasion what the course entails.

These recent comments made me consider my understanding of what a syllabus actually is, though. I did some research, googling terms like "syllabus," and "contract," "legal document." What I found was an interesting and strange disconnect.

The court system does not view syllabi as legal documents. Syllabi are not contracts, and faculty are not legally bound by syllabi.

Of much concern to me is institutions, i.e. administrators, calling syllabi "contracts." Doing so creates a mistaken perception among faculty have entered into a contract with their students. Students mistakenly believe they can hold their faculty legally liable for holding to the language of the syllabus. Many, many school sites I visited on the Internet discuss the syllabus as a legal document.

Alternatively, the legal side says, No; syllabi do not fit the definition of a contract. As such, a faculty person is not bound to their syllabi. Students have no legal basis to sue if the course misses a day, if a chapter is omitted, if point values are modified, etc.

A faculty person who engages in a behavior of considerable syllabus modification during the course of a semester may face angry blow-back from students, though. However, the courts often sided with faculty on these occasions.

The question becomes, who is correct? The answer is easy. U.S. Courts and the legal system, as it stands today, do not view syllabi as enforceable contracts. An administrator holding a syllabus to the sky, as if those pages are the academic equivalent of the Ten Commandments, proclaiming the academic holiness of those pages as "your unbreakable covenant between you and your students," simply does not make the syllabus a contract. A professor who says, "my syllabus is a contract between me and you," is not creating a contract between himself or herself and the students in the classroom. The legal system has the final say, not you, me, or the administration.

OK, I say, “the syllabus is not a contract.” You should say, “But, why not?”

First, let me begin by saying I am not a lawyer, nor pretending to be one.

A contract has four parts (some ascribe as many as six parts http://bit.ly/qlS6t0): An Offer, Consideration, the Parties, and a Legal Objective. The syllabus cannot be a contract simply because the instructor is not offering anything. A syllabus is not an offer for the course. The offer was made by the university during the enrollment process. Part of the Offer is “acceptance.” Acknowledging the rule and policies of the course does not equivocate to accepting the offer of the course. The student is merely acknowledging the rules & policies of the course. Again, the offer of the course was tendered by the university, not the instructor.

The syllabus implies no “consideration.” Grades could be considered a “consideration,” something of value offered in return for something else of value. The student, though, is not required do anything. The student may fail the course, but the student made a choice which did not nullify or break a “contract” as there is no contract to enforce. While the instructor might be mandated by the university to perform duties for the course, the student is not required to do anything. In fact, the student could potentially absolve his or herself from any responsibility by dropping the course. Dropping the course is engaged through the Registrar’s Office, i.e. via administration, and not by the professor.

As for the Parties, the instructor engages in the creation of the syllabus with no input from the student or students. Therefore, acting alone, the instructor creates a syllabus outlining the details of the course, in accordance with the guidelines of the academic institution.

Finally, the question is then, “what is the legal objective of the syllabus?” Typically, contracts not only outline the duties of each party, consideration or compensation, but also provide for damages or penalties should the contract be broken or voided. The contract for the course is between the student and the university. The contract goes into effect when the student registers for the course. Should a student withdraw, the contract between the student and the university comes into play to determine the affects on financial aid, GPA, etc. The syllabus, being a document which outlines course material, objectives, rules, and policies, and part of the creative license afforded to faculty, has no legal objective, per se. The syllabus can, as I have found, and will cover in another article, contain elements of legal policies, such as the confiscation of cell phones, and other electronic devices. But, the syllabus is still not a contract.

Merely saying a syllabus is a contract does not make it one.

Over the decades of experience I have in education, I have often heard students comments along the lines of, "She has to cover that. It is in her syllabus;" or, "it’s not on the syllabus, so I don’t have to do it;" and the "it’s in the syllabus that way, so it cannot be changed."

The technically correct responses to the above are: "No, she doesn’t" and "Yes, you do" and "Yes, it can." The reality is faculty will often consider the effect of their choice in terms of student reaction. Faculty do not generally punish students, but will take measures to address concerns or inadequacies they see in classes or students. Those modifications might upset students. Ultimately, they are designed to help, not harm. Generally.

I author this entry mostly to solidify the notion of what a syllabus is for my own benefit. Additionally, maybe a search engine will pick this up and students and faculty can use my words to educate themselves. I will provide links at some future date, to provide evidence.


I mentioned above I would provide some links.

This link http://bit.ly/nvXIhP (United States Jurisprudence) outlines a theoretical situation between a student and professor using historical court cases to arrive at a verdict.

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece March 14th, 2008, addressing such a topic. I cannot post the article here as the article was “premium” content. Briefly, the article essentially discusses what I have shared above, that is, while administrators would like to think a syllabus is a contract between a faculty person and students, the courts do not share the opinion.

The true contract exists between the university/college and the student. The university extends an offer of a course at a price. The student then can accept the conditions of that offer. As I stated above, calling a “syllabus” a “contract” does not make it such.

Administrators that continue calling syllabi contracts are perpetuating misinformation which, in my opinion, is detrimental to both faculty and students.



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