Believe it or not, the syllabus for each class you take at the University is your passport for success. It is a contract of sorts and is filled with valuable information. By staying enrolled in a class, you are indicating that you have read the syllabus, understand what you need to do to be successful in that class, and accept the terms of this agreement. But like reading any other document, it helps to have guidelines to understand the information you find in a syllabus.
So what’s so important in a syllabus?
Instructor Information: A syllabus usually contains the instructor’s name, office hours, and ways of contacting him or her. If there is a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) for a course, the syllabus often includes the name of this person as well, along with his or her office hours and how he or she can be reached.
Note: If you have other classes during office hours and you would like to speak with an instructor, please email him or her to ask for a separate appointment. In addition, within the first week of classes make sure the professor will be present for office hours before attempting to speak to them there. Extra meetings and logistics often take faculty away from their offices at the beginning of the semester.
Reading Materials: One of the first things to notice is the books (titles, authors, and editions), whether there is a course pack for the class and where you can go to buy it, and whether or not there will be additional articles or materials reserved or posted on CTools or emailed to you for reading. Note: If you see that there is tons of reading for most of your classes, be cautious about whether the reading load for the semester will become too much.
A word about purchasing books…Some students choose to search on eBay or through another source and bid for a cheap textbook. This takes time you may not have. Unless you have weeks to spare before you need the book, bidding on a book is like playing Russian roulette with your academic success. It is much better to rent the book or pay full price so you will have it when you need it.
Is there an attendance policy? Attendance in classes is important. If you don’t show up, you can’t learn what is being presented. And you won’t succeed by simply reading course materials and getting class notes. So get to classes!
Some classes take attendance by doing a roll call. But others find out who is present in more subtle ways, like using quizzes or I-clickers. In labs, attendance is often taken by knowing who submitted a lab report due at the end of class.
Whether or not attendance is tracked, you miss information when you don’t show up for class. And when the number of students missing classes increases, count on more test and quiz questions coming from lectures only.
How are you to be graded? Like knowing what amount of reading you can keep up with, it’s important to notice the balance between quizzes, tests, papers, etc. If you have difficulties with writing papers, please beware if all or most of your classes have multiple papers. If you have difficulty demonstrating what you learn on tests (especially multiple choice ones), look for courses where papers, class participation, and other factors add into your grade along with test scores.
Speaking of writing and tests, look at your syllabus or elsewhere for writing parameters or expectations. If it is not written anywhere, ask your instructor. If you will be writing in APA or MLA or another format, become familiar with the rules that go with that writing style. There are internet sites and books that can help you learn everything from punctuation to citing reference sources.
You may also ask about the testing format. Will you have essay or short answer tests? If so, you will study for these far differently than for multiple choice questions or other objective testing where you are given clues of information studied.
*Please notice if late assignments and papers will be accepted at all and whether or not there is a reduced grade if they are accepted when late. **If you need extra time on any paper or assignment, please check in with your instructor to let them know of your difficulty and see what if anything is possible.
Last, how will your final grade be determined? What percentage of the overall grade will come from tests, quizzes, participation, presentations, papers, attendance, etc.? Will a low quiz or test grade be dropped? Are there any chances for bonus points? This option is rare but sometimes does occur. And what are the percentages for receiving each final course grade?
Is there group work? Students sometimes have difficulty knowing how to effectively work with other students on group projects. There can be difficulties setting up times when all can meet. There is a need to balance the work load of who does what. Sometimes there is discomfort in sharing leadership, allowing all ideas to be considered equally, and speaking up if you are asked to deliver a portion of work at a time when you have other major deadlines.
Group work is added to university studies with the goal of helping students learn to work well with others (a needed goal for work life). It is also a way to reduce the full burden of larger projects by sharing the load. If you have uncertainty about how groups will be picked or know that group work is more difficult for you, speak to the instructor and ask for suggestions.
What is due and when? Many syllabi include a list of what is to be read before each lecture and a date that material will be covered in class. They also usually include dates to let you know when there will be quizzes and tests in class. Other important dates included are: Paper and project due date and dates by which you need to submit paper/project topics.
Sometimes due dates and course reading dates are listed in a separate document. So if your syllabus doesn’t include this information, search for another document where it can be found.
OK…Where do you find the syllabus?
Hopefully you have been in class and received a hard copy of the class syllabus. But syllabi can be found other places. For some courses there is a special web page or pages where the syllabus is available. If you are enrolled in such a course, you may receive an email giving you the URL for the site. Once at this web site, information may be found specific to your individual instructor or be general for all sections of the class.
Often instructors post important course information on Course Tools (CTools). If you type CTools in the search window of www.umich.edu, you will be taken to a page with your classes listed across the top. By clicking on each course, a web page will appear with a great deal of important information.
But because instructors use CTools slightly differently, you will need to search through each of the categories listed to know what is there and how to find what you need consistently. So play around and get to know this site!
One Note about Finals!
If you have an exam in finals week (after the actual class has ended), the day and time of your exam will be different than your normal class. This is because the exam schedule is set by the Registrar for the entire University. So please make a note of these dates and times in your planner, computer calendar, or smart phone, along with other important test, paper, and project due dates you put there.
Best of luck and have a great semester!
To read other articles in the Right From The Start series, check out...