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Constructing Legally Sound Syllabi

Faye Hardy-Lucas, Esq.
Hampton University General Counsel

In constructing course syllabi that are legally sound, you are basically focusing on avoiding educational malpractice. Just as a background, “Educational Malpractice” is a claim generally based on contract law and is a claim which is generally unsuccessful for the student/plaintiff. The claim arises from the duty assumed by a professional not to harm the individuals relying on the professional’s expertise. You, as a professor are required to exercise that degree of skill and knowledge usually had by members of your profession.

Although a syllabus is not considered to be a legal document, it is a good safe practice in this litigious society, for you as a professor to treat it as one.

Although courts often sympathize with students who claim that they have not learned, or that their professors were negligent in teaching or supervising them, traditionally courts have been very reluctant to create a cause of action for educational malpractice citing reasons such as the following:

  1. There is no satisfactory standard of care by which to measure an educator’s conduct.

  2. Permitting such claims would flood the courts with litigation and would thus place a substantial burden on educational institutions.

  3. The courts are not equipped to oversee the day-to-day operation of educational institutions.

But in constructing syllabi that are legally sound, and in turn avoiding educational malpractice, it is first and foremost important for you to comply with the contractual documents of the institution, such as the Faculty Handbook and the student catalog. Courts view these as legal contractual documents. Make sure that the description of the course in your syllabus is consistent with the description of the course in the student catalog.

In constructing course syllabi that are legally sound, you must follow and comply with Section 8.5 (Course Outlines/Syllabi) of the Faculty Handbook. Remember, the Faculty Handbook is viewed as a legal document by the courts. Under Section 8.5, you are required to prepare a course outline/syllabus for each course taught. Copies must be distributed to each student on the first day of class.

The course outline shall:

  1. State succinctly the objectives of the course.

  2. List the required textbook(s).

  3. List dates major projects are to be submitted.

  4. List dates for tests and examinations.

  5. Summarize the major topics to be covered.

  6. Enumerate the expectations of students, including attendance, make-up and honor code policies.

  7. State the criteria for grading students’ performance.

All of the above criteria are extremely important in making your syllabus legally sound.

It is also important to place language in your syllabus that reserves your right to modify, supplement or make changes during the semester – language similar to a disclaimer clause, such as “This syllabus is intended to give the student guidance in what may be covered during the semester and will be followed as closely as possible. However, the professor reserves the right to modify, supplement and make changes as the course needs arise.”

If you need to make changes or adjustments to the syllabus during the course of the semester, make them to the benefit of the students, not to the student’s detriment.

Always ask, “Is what I am doing fair to the students?” Good public relations with students is very important. Be cognizant of placing yourself in a legally defensible position.

Although there have been no successful claims presented by students over whether they have learned what was presented in class and institutions normally win educational malpractice cases, an obligation of fair dealing is implied between the institution and the student.

Communicate with your students. If changes to the syllabus have been made consider this: Have you so fundamentally changed what is presented in the course syllabus, that it is unfair to the students.

If you make changes to your syllabus during the course of your teaching, make them for student fairness only.

Common sense should prevail.

Ask, would it be “fair”?

What was the reasonable expectation of the student coming in the class?

Remember, even though the courts do not view a syllabus as a legal document- it is safe for you to view it as a contract. View your syllabus as an agreement between you and the students. If it is necessary to make changes, do so only to benefit the student.

Your specific policies regarding make-up exams, etc. should be specifically outlined and strictly and consistently followed. Never do for one student, what you would not do for another.

Virginia does not currently recognize Educational Malpractice as a tort, although in other states there have been claims of Educational Malpractice.

In researching the subject matter, I came across an article in The Higher Education Law Bulletin, Volume VI, Number 4 published by the National Association of College and University Attorneys which I thought would be of interest to you:

“Private University Responsibility for Professors Taking the Afternoon Off” by James B. MacRobbie. Is a private university liable to its students for failing to provide a complete course? Hardened veterans of higher education law generally answer no, dismissing such claims as further examples of the discredited “educational malpractice” cause of action. But what if a student alleges that she is entitled to a tuition refund because her instructors failed to provide the required number of hours of instruction or failed to cover topics mentioned in the catalog or syllabus? What if the professor routinely canceled a Friday meeting of class or refused to cover a key topic that is generally considered essential to such courses?

The Traditional Approach: Judicial Deference of Academic Decisions, Educational malpractice claims have not been looked upon with much favor by courts. Courts often dismiss claims against private universities whenever they even so much as resemble this discredited tort. If such cases are not dismissed on this basis, courts often dismiss them out of deference to the academic decisions of professional educators.

This approach has been taken in cases involving a parent’s attempt to recover tuition paid for hours of instruction that the university allegedly failed to deliver. In Paynter v. New York University, an appellate court held that it would be an “error to substitute its judgment for that of university administrators” in second guessing a decision to cancel classes. The court also found that a private institution or instructor was privileged to make “minor or insubstantial” changes in the amount of time spent in the classroom. Furthermore, the court determined that the service to be rendered by the university should not be measured “by the time spent in the classroom” and a minor change in scheduling did not constitute breach of contract.

Similarly, courts have long applied the same doctrine in rejecting tuition refund claims arising out of an instructor’s failure to strictly adhere to catalog descriptions of courses. In Barngrover v. Maack, a Missouri appellate court found that an instructor was not bound to comply with the “minute subdivisions” of prospectus (or catalog) descriptions, and within “reasonable limits” he or she had the discretion to allocate classroom time to each topic as he or she wished.

These and similar authorities are still valid, and likely to be followed by most courts considering such issues. Nevertheless, you need to realize that some courts are now taking an approach that is much less favorable to colleges and universities.

The New Trend: Holding Colleges Accountable
There is a new trend to find liability in tuition refund cases developing in some courts. In rejecting a student’s educational malpractice claim, a recent New York appellate court opined that “[a] different situation might be presented if defendant [the college]. failed to meet its contractual obligation to provide certain specified services, such as designated hours of instruction.” A Number of other recent cases have opined that a school may be liable in contract if it failed to deliver the agreed upon number of hours of instruction.

Even in cases where courts admit that the amounts in controversy are relatively small, an institution may be required to undertake considerable legal expenses in defending apparently trivial claims as far as either the summary judgment or trial stage of litigation.

Preventative Strategies In order to minimize legal expenses arising out of tuition refund claims:

  • You should continuously be reminded of your obligation to provide the requisite number of hours of instruction for your course and to cover certain course topics in classroom lectures, especially those topics which have been promised in course offerings found in the college catalog, course syllabus, or in today’s world of advanced technology, on your future web page.

  • Insert disclaimers in your course syllabus regarding your right to modify the class schedule when necessary and your freedom to cover course topics as you wish.

  • Communicate with your students. Remember the obligation of fair dealing. If changes are made to your syllabus, make them for student fairness only.

Effective Grant Writing

Zina T. McGee, Ph.D. and James B. Victor, Ph.D.
Hampton University Behavioral Science Research Center

Decisions to write grant proposals should be based on knowledge about the competition and funding agency. As you decide what you want to do, consider your expertise, interests, and available resources. Develop proposals that are related to your professional strengths, your current activities, and the strengths of your institution. The first step to preparing a proposal is conceptualization, which will allow you to summarize your entire project. Development of a preliminary or draft proposal depends on your ability to conceptualize your project by considering the following elements:

  • Problem the project will address

  • Goal(s) of the project

  • Objectives the project will achieve to accomplish the goal(s)

  • Anticipated, measurable outcomes

  • Procedures or methods for determining accomplished goals and objectives

  • Population served

  • Theoretical or conceptual framework that the project is based upon

Several key references discussing the theoretical or conceptual model must be reviewed in preparation for a full proposal. Reviewers will expect you to know the literature pertaining to related research. They are critical of vague constructs and weak background references. Find reliable sources and thoroughly review the published research. Use bibliographies to further assist you in your literature searching. As you develop a budget for your project, be certain to include personnel costs, fringe benefit rates, consultant costs, travel (including staff and consultants), equipment and materials, supplies, and institutional direct cost rates. Allow enough time for your institution to review and approve submission of your proposal at the department, dean and administration levels. Competitions with high probability success rates are usually those where few proposals are submitted, many proposals are submitted, and there is a high ratio of projects funded to submissions.

After you have conceptualized your project, become familiar with funding sources. Spend time reviewing what certain agencies and foundations support, and compare your project with the purpose and objective of the funding source. Utilize your campus resources and be aware of your institution’s eligibility for the award. Discuss your project with colleagues, especially those who have been successful proposal writers. Your proposal must be substantive, and should be written in a manner that convinces the reviewers that you have strong theoretical and methodological skills. You must also demonstrate that you have obtained adequate university support for your project. Reviewers want to be certain that you will be able to successfully complete your project at your institution. Include as many letters of support from university officials and external consultants as possible. Finally, you must place your proposal within the context of previous work. Provide as much preliminary data as possible in your initial proposal. Discussions of how your project is supported in the literature are extremely important as you relate the goals and objectives to existing sources.

Remember that the more comprehensive your information, the more you will be able to accomplish as you complete the initial draft of your proposal. Among the more common proposal weaknesses are:

  • Vague constructs and weak background references

  • Too many variables, many of which are unspecified

  • Theoretical or conceptual frameworks that are too simple

  • No specific hypotheses, or hypotheses that are not measurable

  • No alternate hypotheses (this often occurs with poor literature reviews)

  • Errors in design or feasibility

  • Incomplete proposals, limited detail

  • Serious human subject concerns

  • Inadequate requests for funds and unrealistic time scales given the scope of the project

  • Insufficient rationale for items defined in the budget

The significance of the proposal will be based primarily on your literature background, context for the problem, and anticipated outcomes. Be persistent. Expect to be successful. After you receive your initial reviews from the funding source, revise and resubmit until you are funded.

For more information on grant writing or assistance with proposal development, please contact:

James B. Victor, Ph.D., Director,
Zina T. McGee, Ph.D., Co-Director,
Behavioral Science Research Center
114 Phenix Hall
Hampton University
Hampton, VA 23668

Developing the Pedagogically Sound Course Syllabus

The course syllabus, defined by Webster as “an outline of a course of study“, is cited as the component most often contributing to effective college/university teaching. Course syllabi, considered as quasi-legal documents, are appropriately written to convey course requirements, critical learning experiences, and faculty expectations of student performance to satisfactorily complete the course. Course requirements and expectations should be clearly established and communicated at the beginning of the course.

Matejka & Kurke (1994) describe four distinct purposes of a comprehensive syllabus: as a contract representing an agreement between the faculty member and the students; a communication device where in the instructor seeks to communicate with students the general purpose of the course and how it will be carried out; a plan which represents the overall plan of action for the course; and, a cognitive map for the intellectual journey for the course.

The Hampton University Faculty Handbook, a legal document, describes requirements for the course outlines/syllabi in section 8.5.

8.5 Course Outlines/Syllabi
Faculty members are required to prepare a course outline/syllabus for each course taught. On the day of the first class meeting, copies of the course outline/syllabus must be distributed to each student, the department chairperson, and the school dean/division director. The course outline shall:

  1. State succinctly the objectives of the course

  2. List the required textbook (s)

  3. List dates major projects are to be submitted

  4. List dates for tests and examinations

  5. Summarize the major topics to be covered

  6. Enumerate the expectations of students, including attendance, make-up and Honor code policies

  7. State the criteria for grading students’ performance. The course outline should also include a bibliography of suggested or required readings

The course outline/syllabus serves as an official contract or an agreement between the faculty member and the student. It is recommended that course syllabus include the following information:

  1. Course name, course number and course credit hours

  2. Faculty responsible for teaching the course

  3. Office hours

  4. Office location and room number

  5. Telephone number

  6. E-mail address at school

  7. Methods of instruction

  8. Description of the course

  9. The course objectives

  10. Class schedule

  11. Attendance policies

  12. Topical outline

  13. Required and recommended textbooks

  14. Evaluation tools and methods including the grading scale and the University’s grading scale

  15. Assignments and course calendar

  16. Late work” policies

  17. The standards that must be met for students to pass the course

Learning facilities, information technologies related to the class and resources available to the student must be included in the syllabus. Policies specific to the course must be written in the course outline. For information on the course syllabus. The due dates for class assignments and requirements may be presented in a separate document or may be attached to the syllabi. The course syllabi should be distributed the first day of class and discussed with the students, allowing the students the opportunity to clarify any questions they may have about course requirements. Additionally, the syllabus should be referred to weekly to allow the student to become familiar with the contract and how to use the syllabus to facilitate or enhance learning.

The course outline/syllabus should also include policies as outlined in the Hampton University Faculty Handbook such as class attendance. The class attendance policy follows:

8.6 Class Attendance
Students are expected to attend all classes. Students shall be responsible for class work and assignments missed during their absence. Faculty members have the right to establish attendance requirements in each of their courses. Instructors are responsible for clearly informing the students in the course syllabus at the beginning of the semester of the attendance requirements and the consequences of poor attendance. Faculty members should refer students to the Official Student Handbook, Living, Learning, Leadership and Service, at the section on Academics, for additional regulations on class attendance.

Faculty members are requested to allow students to make up work missed when the absence is a result of:

  1. Illness (verified by an official statement from the Student Health Center)

  2. Participation in an institution-sponsored activity (verified by a written statement from a faculty sponsor)

  3. Recognizable emergencies approved by the appropriate dean of women or men and the Provost

The syllabus should include specific course policies related to make up assignments missed when absences due to the circumstances described in the class attendance policies and/or other circumstances that may arise. Faculty may also reference the honor code (current catalog) and the University’s policy on plagiarism in the syllabus. It is recommended that the outline/syllabus contain a clause such as “this outline/syllabus is representative of what is expected to be taught in this course this semester, it may be changed or modified as necessary to reflect other activities.

The contributions of a comprehensive coherent syllabus to the success of any given university are numerous. The benefits to be derived from a carefully designed, well achieved outlines/syllabus include:

  1. Comprehensive development which requires the instructor to confront course specifics in a way that the “syllabus“, which is actually little more than a list of weekly activities such as unit test or quizzes and reading assignments, cannot. It requires specifically defined objectives; and learning activities to achieve those objectives. The objectives are considered the most important element of a course outline/syllabus.

  2. The outline/syllabus that represents the course as actually taught makes it easier to define and correct specific instructional problems within an overall context, re-focus objectives and incorporate additional materials or delete those no longer deemed timely or relevant. Putting the syllabus on Blackboard or distributing it through other commercial products makes the process of refinement and modification easy and efficient from one year to the next.

  3. The syllabus serves to establish a serious purposeful academic environment while presenting a positive professional image and instructor role model. The syllabus reduces the chances for misunderstanding and confusion, especially with respect to grades A comprehensive syllabus enables students to plan and direct their own efforts more effectively than is possible when they have significant in the case of students who have to miss class for whatever reason.

  4. The syllabus makes an objective statement concerning the characteristics, scope and quality of an instructor’s course. It is recommended that new courses or revised courses follow the major components identified in this sample course outline/syllabus

Call for Papers

Date Description
Open Adult education Articles for possible publication
in Perspectives: the New York Journal of Adult Learning.
Contact: Kathleen P. King, Fordham University, 113 West 60th
Street, Room 1102, New York, N.Y. 10023;,

Open Adult learning Proposals
on the theme “The Adult Learner: Programs to Attract, Serve,
and Educate Adult Students” for possible presentations at a
conference, in June in Orlando, Fla. Contact: (803) 777-9444
or (803) 777-2260, fax (803) 777-2663,
Open Adult learning Manuscripts for possible
publication in Perspectives: The New York Journal of Adult
Learning. Contact: Kathleen King, Fordham University, 113 West
60th Street, Room 1102, New York, N.Y. 10023;,
Open Affirmative action Suggestions
for possible contributions to “Affirmative Action, an Encyclopedia,” to
be published by Oryx Press/Greenwood Publishing Group in 2003.
Contact: James Beckman, (813) 253-3333, ext. 3534
Open Arts Articles and reviews for possible publication
in FATE in Review, the journal of Foundations in Art Theory
and Education. Contact: Kay Byfield, Department of Art, Northeast
Texas Community College, Mount Pleasant, Tex. 75456-1307;
(903) 572-1911, ext. 333,
Open Communication Manuscripts
for possible publication in Science Communication. Contact:
Carol L. Rogers, Editor, Science Communication, Philip Merrill
College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park,
Md. 20742-0001; (301) 405-2430, fax (301) 314-9166,
Open Community colleges Manuscripts for possible publication
in Michigan Community College Journal: Research and Practice.
Contact: Gordon Wilson, (734) 462-4400, ext. 5283
Open Cultural studies Proposals for possible presentations
at the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association/American
Culture Association, in March in Toronto, Ontario. Contact:
Ray Browne, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green,
Ohio 43403; (419) 372-7861, fax (419) 372-8095
Open Environment Articles for possible publication in
the Society of Advocates for Sustainable Environment’s Journal
of Environmental Monitoring and Restoration. Contact: Ambrose
O. Anoruo, South Carolina State University, 300 College Street.
P.O. Box 7411, Orangeburg, S.C. 29117;
Open Health Proposals for possible presentations at a
conference on health and wellness on campus, in March in
Myrtle Beach, S.C. Contact: Wellness 2002 National Conference,
University of South Carolina, Continuing Education, 937 Assembly
Street, Suite 108, Columbia, S.C. 29208; (803) 777-9444,
fax (803) 777-2663,,
Open Information technology Proposals on the theme “Computers
on Campus” for possible presentations at a conference, in
November in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Contact: (803) 777-9444, fax
(803) 777-2663
Open Information technology Proposals on the theme “Stop
Surfing, Start Teaching: Teaching and Learning Through the
Internet” for possible presentations at a conference, in
February in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Contact: University of South
Carolina, Continuing Education, 937 Assembly Street, Suite
108, Columbia, S.C. 29208; (803) 777-9444, fax (803) 777-2663,

Open Interdisciplinary research Articles for possible
publication in Christian Scholar’s Review. Contact: Don W.
King, Department of English, P.O. Box 1267, Montreat College,
Montreat, N.C. 28757

Open Interdisciplinary research Papers for possible publication
in Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge and Strange
Attractions, an online journal. Contact: Carol Siegel, English
Department, Washington State University, 14204 N.E. Salmon
Creek Avenue, Vancouver, Wash. 98686-9600

Open Investment management Manuscripts for
possible publication in The Journal of Investment Consulting,
a publication of the Investment Management Consultants Association.
Contact: Bonny L. Brill,
Open Korean War Papers on the theme “War and Literature:
Memoirs” for possible presentation at a conference, in February
in Independence, Mo. Contact: Paul Edwards, Director, Graceland
University, Center for the Study of the Korean War, 1401
West Truman Road, Independence, Mo. 64050; (816) 833-0524
Open Reading Manuscripts for possible publication in the
Journal of College Reading and Learning. Contact: David Lemire,
P.O. Box 1287, Manhattan, Kan. 66505-1287;,,

Open Retention Manuscripts
for possible publication in Journal of College Student Retention:
Research, Theory & Practice. Contact: Alan Seidman, Editor,
Journal of Student Retention, 30 Windsong Circle, Bedford,
N.H. 03110; (603) 471-1490,,
Open Social issues Manuscripts for possible publication
in the Journal of Children & Poverty. Contact: Institute
for Children and Poverty, 36 Cooper Square, 6th Floor, New
York, N.Y. 10003; (212) 529-5252, fax (212) 529-7698

Open Social issues Proposals on the theme “Educating for
Peace and Social Justice” for possible presentations at the
annual gathering of the Friends Association for Higher Education,
in June in Wilmington, Ohio. Contact: FAHE, 1501 Cherry Street,
Philadelphia, Pa. 19102; (215) 241-7116,

Open Teaching and learning Articles for possible publication
in Radical Pedagogy. Contact: Timothy McGettigan, Department
of Sociology, University of Southern Colorado, 2200 Bonforte
Boulevard, Pueblo, Colo. 81001; (719) 549-2416

Open Technology Articles about “the role of
technology in education, research, practice, and social policy” for
possible publication in Reflections. Contact: Janaki Santhiveeran,
Department of Social Work, California State University, 1250
Bellflower Boulevard, Long Beach, Calif. 90840; (562) 985-5237.
Open William James Articles
for possible publication in publications of the William James
Society. Contact: D. Micah Hester, WJS, Mercer University School
of Medicine, 1550 College Street, Macon, Ga. 31207-0001;

Grade Calculation Aid
Center Resources

New Resources (2022)

Grade Calculation Aid

› Download “QUO VADIS!” (221kb .xls)

These utilities run in recent versions of Microsoft Excel. To open “QUO VADIS!“:

  1. Right-click the icon then choose “Open” or

  2. Double-click the icon

There are “tabs” at the bottom of the program that allow you to move from one utility to another. If you do not see tabs at the bottom labeled “GPA NEEDED” and others then:

  1. Click “Tools” from the menu at the top

  2. Click “options”

  3. Click the box for “sheet tabs”

If the screen is too large or small for your monitor:

  1. Click “View” from the menu

  2. Then click “zoom”

  3. Choose the percentage that fits your screen best

Information has already been added to the screens to illustrate how to enter data. To remove this information, highlight it and hit delete. You cannot hurt the program by entering or deleting information incorrectly–it has protected cells. If you do manage to disable it or have any other problems, email me at the address given on the “GPA NEEDED” tab.

GPA Needed Utility

To use the “GPA NEEDED” utility, you need your quality hours received prior to this semester, your current GPA and the number of attempted hours for this semester. These data should be on your mid-term report or transcript. A 2.0 GPA will automatically be calculated. If your “DESIRED GPA” causes the next row “GPA NEEDED…” to be greater than 4.1, you need to lower your “DESIRED GPA” or enter more attempted hours to represent more than one semester.

Mid-Term Average Utility

The “MID-TERM AVERAGE” utility takes your mid-term grade report and translates the letter grades into numerical grades and averages them, using the weighting of the quality hours. Your “GPA NEEDED” is brought forward from the first screen for comparison.

Departmental Honors Utility

The “DEPARTMENTAL HONORS” utility is useful for students and advisors. Enter all courses to be used for departmental honors in your department as you did mid-term grades. If you exceed a 3.5 GPA, you will graduate with departmental honors. I would suggest keeping a separate copy of this program labeled “departmental honors” and update it each semester. This sheet can be used by chairs and advisors by pre-slugging the appropriate courses and then changing the grades for students and printing them when finished.

Course 1,2,3,..AVG Utilities

The “COURSE 1,2,3,..AVG.” utilities calculate grades in each course by using the numbers and weights of assignments from you syllabi, then entering your scores in the “EVALUATIONS” section. An important aspect of these utilities is that you can enter your own “Desired Grade” at the bottom. If the “Average Grade Needed” exceeds 100, lower your “Desired Grade”. Be sure to enter your “Course” and “Quality Hours” at the top so that your cumulative running course averages and GPA will be calculated on the “AUTO SEMESTER AVG.” sheet and appear as the “AUTO SEM. AVG” on the first page.

Please share this program with others and let me know if you think of improvements or have problems. My email address is:

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