The Course Syllabus, Decoded

The Course Syllabus, Decoded

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When I first started college I had no idea what my professor meant when she said she was about to distribute the syllabus. Over the rest of that first day I came to understand that a syllabus is a guide to the course. Many students don't take advantage of the information provided in the syllabus to plan their semester. The syllabus contains all of the information you need to know regarding what is expected of you and what you need to do to prepare for each class. Here's what you will find on the syllabus distributed on the first day of class:

Information about the Course

Course name, number, meeting times, number of credits

Contact Information

The professor lists the location of his or her office, office hours (times that he or she is in the office and available for meeting with students), phone number, email, and website, if relevant. Plan to use a professor's office hours to get the most out of class.

Required Readings

Textbook, supplemental books, and articles are listed. Books generally are available in the campus bookstore and sometimes are on reserve in library. Articles are sometimes offered for purchase in the book store, other times are on reserve in the library, and increasingly common, are available on a course or library webpage. Read before class to get the most out of class.

Course Components

Most syllabi list the items that compose your grade, for example, midterm, paper, and final, as well as the percent each item is worth.

Additional sections often discuss each course component. You might find a section on exams, for example, that lists information about when they occur, what form they take, as well as the professor's policy on making up exams. Pay particular attention to sections discussing papers and other written assignments. Look for information about the assignment. What are you expected to do? When is the final assignment due? Are you expected to consult the professor prior to beginning your paper or project? Is a first draft required? If so, when?


Many professors count participation as part of the grade. Often they will include a section in the syllabus describing what they mean by participation and how they assess it. If not, ask. Professors sometimes say that they simply record it and provide few details on how. If that's the case you might consider visiting during office hours in a few weeks to inquire about your participation, whether it is satisfactory, and whether the professor has any suggestions. Many times participation is used as a synonym for attendance and professors may list it in simply order to address students who do not show up for class.

Class Rules/Guidelines/Policies

Many professors provide guidelines for class behavior, often in the form of what not to do. Common items address the use of cell phones and laptops, tardiness, respecting others, talking in class, and attention. Sometimes guidelines for class discussions are included. In this section or sometimes a separate section, professors often will list their policies regarding late assignments and their make-up polices. Pay particular attention to these policies and use them to guide your behavior. Also recognize that you can shape professors' impressions of you with appropriate class behavior.

Attendance Policy

Pay particular attention to the professor's attendance policies. Is attendance required? How is it recorded? How many absences are permitted? Must absences be documented? What is the penalty for unexcused absences? Students who don't pay attention to attendance policies can be unexpectedly disappointed with their final grades.

Course Schedule

Most syllabi include a schedule listing due dates for reading and other assignments.

Reading List

Reading lists are particularly common in graduate classes. Professors list additional readings that are pertinent to the topic. Usually the list is exhaustive. Understand that this list is for reference. Professors likely will not tell you this, but they don't expect you to read the items on the reading list. If you have a paper assignment, however, consult these items to determine if any are of use.

One of the simplest and best pieces of advice I can offer you as a student is to read the syllabus and make note of policies and deadlines. Most policy, assignment, and deadline questions I receive can be answered by, "Read the syllabus - it's in there." Professors don't always remind you of upcoming assignments and due dates. It's your responsibility to be aware of them and to manage your time accordingly. Take advantage of the course syllabus, an important guide to your semester.


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