Six Great Reasons to Read Your Course Syllabus Right Away!

Guest post by Liz Ahmann, ScD, RN, ACC, Edge Foundation coach

On the first day of class, your professor hands out a few pieces of paper stapled together and titled “Syllabus.” You glance at it, no-doubt feel a bit overwhelmed by its detail, stick it in your backpack and forget about it. Right?

No way! A successful student will read that syllabus cover to cover – likely several times – will make and file away a copy so there is no chance it will be lost, and will refer to it frequently, using it throughout the semester.

“Really,” you ask? Yes! … and here’s why. Your syllabus is basically a contract between your professor and you, the student. It identifies the terms of the course as well as your rights and responsibilities as a student taking it. To get the most out of the course, and to be as successful as possible in it, you need to read and understand the syllabus!

Let’s break it down and look at six key reasons to read your course syllabus right away:

1. Understand the course objectives:

  • Read the objectives through to see if this is a course you are interested in. If not, consider how you will handle it: if it’s optional, will you drop it? If it’s required, can you take the course with a different professor who may teach in a way that works better for you? If you don’t have an option, put your thinking cap on to consider how you can generate motivation for success in the class.
  • Assure that you understand what the class is about and what you are expected to learn by the end. Talk to your professor early on if you are unclear about any of the objectives so that you understand what you are supposed to get out of the class.

2. Textbooks:

  • Look to see what books are required and what are optional or supplementary.
  • You can also glance through the assignments and other sections of the syllabus to see how heavily any particular text is used.
  • Plan to order textbooks immediately so you won’t get behind in required reading! (Tip: Sometimes you can find the syllabus or list of textbooks online in advance. This makes it easier to both shop around –, Amazon used, and so forth – as well as to be ready with your books the first week of classes.)

3. Professor’s (and/or TA) office hours:

  • Plan to go to office hours once or twice during a semester so that you make personal contact with your professor, especially in a large class.
  • Consider this advice from the blog Inside the Professor’s Mind: “Professors are most impressed by students who have read the syllabus and then ask clarifying questions.”   Use the first week or two of classes to do this. Just don’t ask about anything already detailed in the syllabus!
  • Use office hours throughout the semester to get help in understanding course material, or just to discuss ideas that interest you in the course.
  • Copy the behavior of top students who often use office hours to get feedback on assignments before they are due.

4. Assignment scheduling:

  • Put due dates for papers, projects and exams in your calendar or planner right away so you’ll always be aware of what’s coming up. Then, work backwards in the calendar to mark when you want to start a paper or project or begin studying for an exam.
  • Copy the schedule of assignments for the class and keep it in your class notebook or folder for ready reference.
  • Take note of weekly reading and homework assignments – some students put these into their calendars as well so that everything is in one place.
  • Check your calendar and syllabi regularly since, unlike in high school, college professors don’t always give frequent reminders of due dates. That’s what the syllabus is for!
  • Check your calendar at the beginning of the semester for times that assignments or exams from various classes you have “bunch up,” and plan ahead for how you’ll handle these busier periods. If the schedule looks unmanageable, consider either dropping a class or discussing the situation with one or more professors to see whether you have any options on due dates.
  • Be prepared for possible changes in due dates. As Katherine Hansen mentions on, be sure you understand any changes that occur: “Ask questions or meet with your professor if the changes are unclear.”

5. Grading policies:

  • Understand what weight different assignments and tests carry in the final grade for the course so there won’t be any surprises later!
  • Learn whether attendance and/or participation matters to the grade.
  • Become familiar with the policy on late work or missed exams – though hopefully you’ll plan carefully and won’t need these!
  • Check to see if the professor offers any extra credit opportunities: it never hurts to boost a grade.

6. Support services:

  • See whether the professor directs you to support from a writing or math center, or if departmental tutoring is offered. Then, plan to use the support!
  • Understand expectations related to the use of any disability-related accommodations. What does the professor need to know?

You’re in college now, so be forewarned. As the What’s up NCC?  blog says:  “If you don’t pay attention to the syllabus and mess up as a result, well, it’s on you.”

So what do you plan to do with each of your syllabi this semester? Hopefully you now understand how you can benefit from reading, reviewing, and using each class syllabus regularly. Put the syllabus from each class to work for you, starting now, and you’ll be setting yourself up well for success this semester!


Referenced blog-posts:

See the following blog-posts for more on a strong start to the college semester:

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