The Course Syllabus: Know It, Love It, Understand It, Benefit From It
This article explains the importance of the course syllabus, your roadmap for each college course. How and why you should know it, love it, understand it, benefit from it.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Your professor has given you a few pieces of paper stapled together -- or perhaps a rather large stack of papers stapled together, or maybe a single sheet of paper, or perhaps no paper at all, but rather a Web address. He or she has told you that this offering is a "syllabus." Just what is a syllabus? What are you to do with it? What is its purpose?
While the depth and comprehensiveness of a syllabus can vary wildly from professor to professor, a syllabus is, ideally, a roadmap of a course. A syllabus -- a woefully underutilized document -- can and should tell you:
- Your professor's name, contact information, office location, and office hours.
- The name of the course, its course and section number, meeting days/times, a description of the course, and its learning objectives -- what you can expect to know or do by the end of the semester.
- Information about the textbook and any other assigned readings.
- Quiz and test dates, as well as due dates for readings, written assignments, and projects. The syllabus may also include descriptions, instructions, and how-tos for assignments.
- A calendar that reveals how the course is organized and what's happening in class each day it meets and that probably integrates the due dates listed above.
- Class policies, including grading scale and policies.
- The professor's expectations of you.
So what does this compendium of information mean to you, and how can you benefit from it?
First, you can benefit before even enrolling in the class. Most professors have their syllabi available online. Those that don't might be willing to give you a sample syllabus before you register for the class. If the class is not a requirement for you, you can usually determine by reviewing the syllabus whether it meets your needs, sounds interesting, and requires a workload that you can handle at the time you plan to take the course. If the class is required, you may still have a choice of instructors. Perusing the syllabi of all the instructors who teach that course will give you an idea of the teaching style of each and help you judge which one best fits your learning style.
Be careful not to judge how challenging a class might be based on the length of the syllabus. As writer Maureen Tartaglione notes, a lengthy syllabus does not necessarily signal a difficult class; instead it's often a sign of a syllabus refined through the professor's long experience in teaching the class. Consider yourself to have received a great gift if a professor provides a syllabus packed with information -- that information is your guide to succeeding in the class.
Even if you've already enrolled in the class before checking out the syllabus, this document can be a clue to whether you should drop the class by the drop deadline or attempt to switch into another professor's section of the same course. Be very wary of any instructor who has not provided a syllabus by the second day of class. You should receive it on the first day of class, and a professor's failure to distribute it by the second day may be a red flag that the professor is poorly organized. Consider dropping the class if you have not received a syllabus by the drop deadline. You may even want to mention the deficiency to the professor's department chair or dan.
Now let's look at how you can benefit from each individual component of the syllabus:
- Your professor's name, contact information, office location, and office hours: This information could not be more important to your success in the course because it describes your options for getting in touch with your teacher. Does your instructor welcome phone calls? Does he or she respond to e-mails? When and where can you meet with your professor if you have a question or problem with the class? You should find -- and take advantage of -- that information, and if you don't see the information on the syllabus, ask about it. See also our article, When It's Time to Meet With Your Professor: 10 Do's and Don'ts for Office Visits.
- The name of the course, its course and section number, meeting days/times, a description of the course, and its learning objectives -- what you can expect to know or do at the end of the semester. Here is your opportunity to understand what you can expect to get out of the course, decide whether these objectives meet your needs, and know what you'll need to do to meet the objectives.
- Information about the textbook and any other assigned readings. This information is obviously vital because you need to obtain the text and readings. You may determine from the syllabus or from what the professor says early in the semester how much emphasis he or she places on the texts. Some texts may be supplemental or merely recommended, but you may not need to purchase them. Because textbooks are so expensive, it's important to know if purchase is absolutely necessary. See also our article, College Reading: How Much Effort and How Much Spending on Textbooks?
- Quiz and test dates, as well as due dates for readings, written assignments, and projects. Clearly, this information is some of the most crucial on the syllabus. As soon as you get the syllabus, place all the due-date and quiz/test-date information on whatever time-management system works best for you -- calendar, personal hand-held device, planner. See also our article, 10 Tips for Time Management.
- A calendar that reveals what's happening in class each day it meets and that probably integrates the due dates listed above. Two questions that make every professor roll his or her eyes are: "What are we doing in class today?" and even worse, "Are we doing anything important in class today?" Taking a look at the syllabus before each class will keep you from asking those questions because the answers are on the syllabus (and, by the way, the professor considers everything done in class to be important; otherwise, he or she would not do them). New college students also often misunderstand due dates. Any reading or other assignments associated with a specific day on syllabus's calendar must be prepared by class time that day.
- Class policies, including grading scale and policies. Some policies listed on the syllabus are college- or university-wide policies and may be required to be placed on the syllabus. A typical example is the policy on academic honesty (cheating). Other policies provide clues as to what is important to your professor -- policies on grading, late assignments, attendance, participation, tardiness, extra credit, and classroom etiquette (issues such as cell-phone use and having side conversations with classmates) -- represent your professor's pet peeves. If you want to stay on your teacher's good side and not annoy him or her, you'll read those policies carefully and follow them precisely. Also take special note of the class grading policy, which may or may not be college-wide. Know how many points or what percentage equals each grade level.
- The professor's expectations of you. Some professors consider the syllabus to be a contract with students; for others, it is more of an agreement. It should tell you -- even if you have to read between the lines -- what you need to do to excel in the class. That's why it's so important to read it, re-read it, and continue to refer to it throughout the semester.
A Few Final Tips on Using a Syllabus
- One policy your professor may include on the syllabus is a disclaimer
that the syllabus is subject to change. I've been on both the teacher and
student side of syllabus change, so I know that neither students nor teachers like
syllabus changes, but occasionally they are necessary. Be prepared for
changes, but be sure you understand them. Ask questions or meet with your
professor if the changes are unclear.
- If your professor does not have his or her syllabus online, consider making
a couple of photocopies of your paper copy in case you lose the original.
- A few professors will offer the syllabus only online, as I did
in my final semesters of teaching. You can, of course, print out this online
document, but also bookmark it/add it to your "favorites" and get in the habit
of checking it online regularly. Here's a link, by the way, to
one of my Web-based syllabi,
which contains most types of information mentioned in this article.
- Unlike in high school, you will not get frequent reminders about test
dates, quiz dates, and assignment and project due dates in college. You
are expected to know these due dates. Thus, the syllabus is critically
important for keeping you on top of what's due and when.
- Compare syllabi for all your classes at the beginning of the semester
and while you're entering due dates into your time-management system. If you note
overwhelming conflicts in due dates among your classes, you may
want to consider dropping a class or otherwise rearranging your
schedule. You can also talk to your professors to see if, together,
you can find ways around the major conflicts.
- Above all, if you don't understand something on the syllabus or if some of
the information mentioned in this article is missing from the syllabus,
ask your professor for clarification.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She is also Creative Director and Associate Publisher at Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.