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How to Read and Understand a College Syllabus

Updated on April 7, 2015

On the first day of most college classes, professors hand out and review the syllabus. This will be the first time ever seeing such a document for many new college students. Needless to say, they can be quite confusing to navigate and understand. Taking the time to make sure you understand the course and course policies can set you on the road to success.

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Why is the Syllabus Important?

A syllabus is your contract for the course. A good syllabus tells you exactly what to expect from the professor and the course. A good syllabus also helps you understand what the professor expects from you. Research proves that students who read the syllabus more than once do better in a class than those who read it only once (or not at all). You should not only read and understand the syllabus at the beginning of the semester; you should also be referring back to it throughout the semester to ensure you're on track.

Sections of the Syllabus

Each syllabus is different, but in general, they consist of several sections. These sections include:

  • Contact information
  • Basic course information (including course description and objectives)
  • Needed materials
  • Class policies, including:
    • attendance policy
    • grading policy
    • Required policies (such as an academic dishonesty policy)
  • Support services
  • Calendar or list of due dates

Contact Information

While this section of the syllabus is typically skipped over by students, it's one of the most useful sections. Usually, a professor will include:

  • Their name
  • Office number
  • Office hours
  • Email address

Sometimes, they will also include:

  • Office phone
  • An alternative contact (such as the department's number)
  • Social media contact information

You should know which method of contact your professor prefers. Successful students rely on their professor's office hours and other means of contact to ensure they understand the syllabus, the course material, and their grades.

Basic Course Information

Most universities and colleges required professors to include a course description and course objectives at the beginning of the syllabus. Read through these carefully. Do you understand what each objective actually means? Are you already able to meet some of the objectives? Do you anticipate being able to meet the objectives by the end of the semester? This section of the syllabus outlines what the course is about and what the professor expects you to learn and understand by the semester's end.

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Needed Materials

Some classes don't require a textbook. Some require a specific edition of a book. Others require 12 books, while some require a packet you can pick up at a copiers. One class may require each students to purchase a colorful folder, while another class my require students to purchase a certain computer program. Some classes may require a code that is found in textbooks, so make sure you know whether or not you need to get the code as well as the book. The last thing you want to do is get halfway through a semester before realizing you're missing a needed book (or other material) and don't have the time or money to purchase it. Review the needed materials, and check with your professor to ensure you have the correct materials.

Attendance Policy

Many students dismiss the attendance policy, only to have their high B dropped to a C at the end of the semester. Attendance policies range in type. For example, some professors take a certain amount of points for each day missed after a set number of absences. Others just drop a letter grade, while others dock points from class participation. In order to perform well in a class, it's essential that you understand (and follow) the attendance policy. How does your professor take attendance? How many absences are allotted before penalty? What is the penalty? And, how might that penalty affect your final grade?

Grading Policy

The grading policy can help you determine what is important to the professor and the class. Take note of the weight each assignment has so that there won't be surprises later in the semester. Look at the types of grades the class has - are there only 4 test grades or are there 4 test grades along with quizzes, an essay, and participation - this information can help you determine the professor's priorities and expectations. Review the policy for late assignments and missed exams; hopefully, you won't need this information but you'll be armed and ready if you do. If noted, review information on any extra credit work. If there's no information on extra credit, it's safe to assume that there isn't any offered.

You should also review what the professor has to say about each assignment. Are the tests essay tests, short answer, or multiple choice? How long should the essay be? How is participation calculated? Furthermore, you should check for any directions on turning in assignments. Do you need to turn in a hard copy of the essay? Or, do you need to turn it in somewhere on online? Or, do you turn it in online and in person? Where do you take the tests? Are they in the class or online? Or, are you expected to go to a testing center to take the test?

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Required Policies

Some departments require certain sections on the syllabus. One example is the academic dishonesty policy. While this section is required, professors frequently add to it. Be sure to read and understand each of these policies. Understanding how your professors and school defines academic dishonesty will prevent you from unintentionally plagiarizing or otherwise being dishonest. If you have any questions or doubts concerning the policy, the beginning of the semester (not when you're in trouble) is the time to ask.

Support Services

A good syllabus includes information on various support services, including:

  • Advising center
  • Counseling center
  • Disabilities office
  • Tutoring
  • Services offered by the library (such as research or documentation help)

Review this information. If you think you may need help from the disabilities office, the beginning of the semester is the time to go and figure it out. If you realize that you need it halfway through the year, you're less likely to get accommodations in time to help you that semester. Note the type of tutoring, along with the time and location. Tutoring isn't just for those who struggle. Writing tutors can help an A paper become even better. Or, they can help you brainstorm and outline your big research paper.

Calendar, Schedule, List of Due Dates

This area of the syllabus differs on the professor's own preference. Some include a calendar that lists what's due, in-class activities, and homework for each class day. Others will just include a list of major due dates. Likewise, some professor's may include the entire semester while some only include the first part. I like to leave the last four weeks a bit sparse so that I can adjust and add to it when the class gets closer to end of the semester, which helps ensure I'm teaching something interesting and challenging to each individual class.

Here are some strategies to using the calendar/schedule:

  • Add major due dates to your phone's calendar. Be sure to turn on reminders. When I was a student, I would have my find remind 1 week, 5 days, 3 days, and then 1 day before any major assignment was due.
  • Add daily homework and minor due dates to your planner or phone's calendar (whichever one you're most likely to use).
  • Carry the calendar/schedule with you so that you're able to refer to it at home and in class.
  • Carefully note any changes the professor announces in class

What do you think is the most important section of the syllabus?

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Other Syllabus Tips

  • Know where to find another copy of the syllabus in case you lose it. Most professor's post their syllabus online for their students, and you should know exactly where it's posted before you lose your copy. If the professor doesn't post a copy online, then you may want to make a few extra copies to keep in a safe place.
  • Be prepared for changes. Sometimes things happen and due dates have to move or assignments have to change. This can be frustrating for both the students and the professor. If your professor announces changes, be sure you write them down and change them in your phone/planner.
  • Review all your syllabi (plural for syllabus) and note any possible conflicts. Do you have two 15 pages papers due on the same day? Start planning now how you will spend your time to ensure you're able to be successful on both papers.

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Remember, properly reading and understanding your syllabus can be the difference between succeeding and failing. Referring to it throughout the semester can help make sure you're on the right track.

So, what tips and hints do you have to ensure you understand your syllabus?

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