A syllabus can be many things, but faculty should not neglect its power to communicate important messages, motivate and set high standards. In addition to serving as a contract with students and a way to clarify the goals of the course, a syllabus is students’ first contact with you and the course material. A long syllabus with lots of resources and options can be intimidating, but it also conveys your expectations.
Your first motivational opportunity is the learning outcomes. Most accrediting bodies require a syllabus for every class that includes learning outcomes. Articulating learning outcomes for each class and then discussing them at faculty meetings is an excellent opportunity for departments to integrate learning in individual courses and to make sure that the four-year undergraduate experience adds up to more than the sum of its parts. But learning outcomes are also important learning tools. Telling students what you want them to learn provides clarity and focus. (See Developing Learning Outcomes (LINK) Connecting class sessions back to course learning outcomes increases learning; just telling students that they are using critical thinking skills improves their critical thinking skills. Having and using learning outcomes also demonstrates that you care what students learn.
Your learning outcomes also set the height of the bar. Since we know that high expectations matter, your learning outcomes should convey what you expect. If you also convey that the class will be a supportive place for failure and learning, you can immediately establish the two most important learning strategies: high standards and a nurturing environment.
Lots of universities have public templates you can borrow:
Cornell: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjAwLy1q6zKAhWFPiYKHazVBXAQFggjMAE&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cte.cornell.edu%2Fdocuments%2FSyllabus%2520Template.doc&usg=AFQjCNHe8KQ4zdIOUvX9NUILPulHiXQUygHarvard: http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/syllabus-design
Stanford Humanities: http://ihumstudy.stanford.edu/Program_Appendices/Syllabus_Templates.htm
James Madison: http://www.jmu.edu/curriculum/syllabus.shtml
The Syllabus Quiz
A syllabus quiz gives students control by providing an opportunity for everyone to do well, simply by reading their email and making sure to do the work before class. Email students the course syllabus or the website link in advance, and then provide a short online quiz on just the syllabus before the first class. If you really want students to know you are serious, also administer a short closed-book quiz on the syllabus in the first minute of class.
If you can then make this first exposure relevant to what happens in that first class—follow-through with the promise to make class more interactive when students arrive prepared–you will have firmly established that coming to class prepared is important and useful. For example, spend a few minutes having students come up with ways in which mastering these learning outcomes will help them in some future task or life goal.