Your Course Syllabus

The most important document a college student receives from an instructor is, arguably, the course syllabus. A well-written syllabus explains everything a college student needs to know to be successful in that course.

Course Syllabus or Contract?

It probably does not say “Contract” at the top, but it is a contract between you and your instructor. A well-written syllabus spells out what the course is about, what the instructor’s expectations are, what you will be required to do, and how your grade will be determined.  Some college instructors make student sign an affidavit acknowledging that they have read and understood their syllabus.

In their book The Course Syllabus – A Learning-Centered Approach, authors Judith O’Brien, Barbara Millis, and Margaret Cohen provide excellent advice for writing a good syllabus. They emphasize the need to prepare students for the course and clarify expectations. Not all college instructors have read this book, and not all who have adhere to the sage advice. So what does a dedicated college student do?

It is your responsibility as a college students to know and understand your instructor’s expectations, what the course will entail, and how your final grade will be determined. A poorly written, or even non-existent, syllabus is no excuse for a student failing. College students should take responsibility for their own learning.

As a college student, you should look for the following information and be sure you understand it. If it is not included in your instructor’s syllabus or if you do not understand it, ask. Don’t be unpleasantly surprised later that semester.

Instructor Information

  • NameRead this.  It is important!  Instructors always provide their name, but the way they provide it is important.  When talking a college instructor, you should not arbitrarily refer to your instructor as Professor. Professor is not a title assigned to all instructors.  Instructors who precede their name with Dr. should be addressed as doctor.  Instructors who follow their name with their doctoral credentials (i.e. Ph.D. Ed.D., J.D., M.D., etc.) should all be addressed as “doctor.”  Many instructors with doctoral degrees accept or even eant students to call their by their first name.  However, never call Janice M. Evans, Ph.D. “Ms. Evans.”  It should either be “Dr. Evans” or if she is less formal simply “Janice.”  Even if an instructor is comfortable being addressed by his or her first name, it is appropriate to refer to those who hold doctorates as Doctor when speaking about them.
  • Contact Information – This will include office and office hours, phone number and e-mail address.  Note that some part-time college instructors do not hold formal office hours.

Basic Course Information

  • Course Number & Section Number – Make sure that you are in the correct section.  Every semester, a few students start out attending the wrong section of a course.
  • Description – Hopefully it is what you thought it was.  If not, you may want to consider dropping
  • Prerequisites – Not all courses have prerequisites, but many do.  Students who have not met the prerequisites are usually prohibited from enrolling in those courses.  If you have not met the prerequisite requirements but somehow gained enrollment, you may be setting yourself up for failure.  Beware.
  • Co-requisites – These are requirements for other courses that may be, or sometimes must be, taken concurrently.  blocked from At most schools, you cannot register for a  course.
  • Recommended Prerequisites – Look these over carefully.  For example, if Psychology 100 is a recommended prerequisite for an Abnormal Psychology course, you may be setting yourself up for failure if you have not taken it.  Assumptions will be made about knowledge you should have gained.  For example, terms new to you may be used without defining them.
  • Textbook – Most, but not all courses require a textbook.  Some courses have both required and recommended or option materials.  You may want to save money by not purchasing a problem solving guide for your math course, but if you fail the course or drop in fear of failing, the cost is huge.  You are one semester behind and you forfeited your tuition.
  • Textbook Edition – Be sure you are using the specified edition of required textbooks.  But if own an older edition, discuss that with your instructor.  It may or may not be satisfactory.

Learning Outcomes or Objectives

  • What You Must Learn – The learning outcomes, sometimes called learning objectives, are what you as a student are expected to achieve.  Review them.  Are these consistent with your goals?  The reality is that you may not have any goals or expectation for the course.  However, you don’t want to agonize over learning things you don’t want to learn!
  • Action Verbs – Well written learning outcomes begin with action verbs like explain, recite, calculate, identify, etc., etc.  Not ever instructor uses action verbs.  However, they give a good insight into how you will be assessed.  Verbs like know and understand say little. but these commonly occur in many syllabi.

Grading Policy

  • Importance – This is the single most important part of your syllabus.  This identifies how your grade will be determined.
  • Objective vs. Subjective – What will be graded and how  it factors into you final grade should be clearly stated.  Objective grading refers to grades on tests.  Subjective grades are assigned for things like class participation.  As a student, you have a right to know how your grades will be assigned.  If you like to participate in classroom discussions and 15 percent of your grade is on class participation, do not automatically assume you will meet your instructor’s  expectations.  Find out exactly what he/she evaluates in terms of class participation.  You might want to ask for an appraisal and feedback during the term.
  • Due Dates – Pay especially close attention to due dates.  Do not assume your English 102 instructor will accept late work  because your English 102 instructor did.
  • Extra Credit – If there is no provision in the syllabus grading policy for extra credit, do not assume it is available.  Many instructors will specifically state whether extra credit opportunities exist.

General Course Policies

  • Attendance – Many instructors state their expectations on their syllabi.  Whether stated or not, be sure you understand it and then comply with it.
  • Tardiness – Chronic tardiness is frustrating to instructors.  Students who come in late disrupt, if only briefly, the attention of their fellow students and the instructor.  Some instructors have a stated policy for dealing with tardiness.
  • Make-up Work – Be sure you know if you will be able to take a make-up test if you miss class.  Not every instructor allows this.  Those who do have their own set of rules.
  • Classroom Conduct – College instructors will often state their classroom code of conduct.  Study it and abide by it.
  • Dropping the Course – Your instructor may have a specific policy for dropping the course.  Some will not drop you themselves, no matter what the  issue.  Be sure you know the college specified drop dates, which will seldom be found in your instructors syllabus.  You need to know when you can drop with a full refund and when with a partial refund.  You must know the last date for dropping the course without a failing grade.

Course Schedule

  • Calendar – Instructors normally provide a breakdown of what will occur throughout the term.  Some do so by explicit dates.  Other refer to weeks or class sessions.  Regardless, this provide an invaluable guide for the conscientious student to plan out his or her semester.
  • Due Dates – Be sure you know when assignments are due and when test will be administered.

Resources

  • College Services – These include services such as tutoring and counseling.  Be sure you know what services are available to you and take advantage of them.
  • Online Resources – Your instructor may or may not recommend  online resources to you.  If, however, he or she does, you would be wise to take advantage of them.  Your instructor may refer you to his or her own website or to references available on the web.

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