The Key to Undergraduate Success: Unlocking Your Course Syllabus

homework help study skills
By Pat C.


One of the differences between high school and college can (depending on your particular experience) be how much you know about what you are going to be reading and when, and what days your exams and papers will be. Professors may have different levels of detail but generally speaking the syllabus is supposed to tell you what you’ll be reading, when your assignments will be due, how your grade will be calculated, what you have to do to pass, fail or excel in the class, the rules of the class (the absence policy, what happens if you text in class, can you turn in your work late?), and sometimes the rules of the University that affect the class, like what would happen if someone cheated. Most importantly, your professor and the University assume that you know and understand the policies on the syllabus. At the end of the course, you can’t say you didn’t know about a requirement you didn’t meet or a rule you broke if those things are clearly spelled out on the syllabus. It’s helpful, too: don’t have the money to buy all the texts immediately? The syllabus will tell you which ones to buy first. And you can hightail it to the university and public libraries to see if you can check out any of the required texts.

Active Versus Passive Students

Professors usually reserve the right to change the syllabus and different professors will have different ideas about what this means. I try never to change anything unless it becomes clear to me that I’ve made a mistake in deciding on a policy, due date or amount of reading that makes the course unfair to the students or interferes with learning. Other professors feel more comfortable making changes or in giving a syllabus they may fill in as they go along. The fact remains that your new academic life beyond high school changes your role in your education. Instead of passively waiting to hear what each night or week holds (with a duty to groan when an exam for the next week is announced) the existence of the syllabus means you are now active and responsible. Most professors do not think they need to remind you about dates, ask what you are doing to study, warn you about a sinking grade, tell you to take notes if they never see you taking any, or put you in check every time you do something that they’ve said is not allowed. For instance you may not get called out on texting during class or on not having your text with you but if your professor has noted that phones should be away and students should be prepared, likely s/he’s noticed and it will figure in your grade. And this is not just about a grade—this is about your education. In high school the assumption is that teachers are responsible for making students learn. In college, you are responsible. It is your professor’s job to help you (not least by giving you a well-structured course) but you have to take the initiative, not wait to be told to do or not do things. And always remember that it’s OK to ask what you can do to do well in the class. If you don’t feel comfortable asking in front of everyone, go to office hours. Have a specific question: “I have been getting low grades on the quizzes—can we talk about how I can prepare better?” “I don’t understand these comments on my paper.” I have sat with students and helped them learn to take reading notes. But that was because they took the first step to come to my office.

How to Read Your Syllabus

1. Studying the Syllabus the First Day

On the first day of class, your professor will likely discuss the syllabus, some course requirements and his or her expectations. But I would recommend that you read the syllabus carefully on your own. We don’t always mention every single thing. We don’t always know what our students don’t assume. Make sure you understand how you are going to be graded, how absences affect your grade (and what you have to do if you are absent), what the professor expects you to bring to class and do in class (do you have to participate in class discussion?), whether there are out of class time meetings with other students, what book purchases you might have to make –all the fine print! If there is anything you don’t understand, you should ask the professor about it sooner rather than later.

2. Plan Your Time Ahead of Time

OK, let’s say you’ve read the syllabus and you understand it well enough to pass a test on it. Now what? Well, remember that thing I said about a syllabus requiring you to be active? The way to use the syllabus is not in a way that imitates your high school teacher seeing you every day and making sure you do every step listed on your high school syllabus or course outline. You may not see your professor every day, but s/he is assuming that you have made your own plan to divide up the reading and get it done by doing some each day.  

Don’t just look at the assignment for the next class, take advantage of all the knowledge the syllabus gives you. Plan! At the beginning of the semester look at all your syllabi together with whatever calendar or calendar app you use. Are there weeks where big assignments in different classes come at the same time? Make a plan to read ahead in one or the other of the classes, or to start one assignment early. Do you  already know that you want to use your university’s writing center after you write your first draft of a paper? Some writing centers get very busy at the end of the semester. You may want to schedule an appointment for finals week now, and note that you need to have your draft done before that date. And here’s something I’ve found not all my students know: at most institutions, you can go to the Registrar’s page and find out the final exam date and time for your class if the professor hasn’t put it on the syllabus. This will help you plan things like travel home at the end of the semester. If you have a number of exams on the same day, you should check your institution’s policies now to see if you are entitled to take one on a different day. If your class has a final paper or project instead of an exam and the due date isn’t listed, it is OK to ask. The professor may not have decided (I have, but that’s me) at that point but you can follow-up again later in the semester.

3. Calculate Your Grade

Use the syllabus to keep track of your grade.  I don’t think it is a good idea to be obsessed with points more than with learning the information. But I see many students who don’t understand how each assignment may affect their grade. The syllabus will tell you what each thing is worth. Play around with it. Go to The Amazing Grade Calculator Use the grade scale and weights your professor gives you when you first get your syllabus and play around with “what ifs.” (As I say to my students, I am not responsible for any errors in the mathematics of this site, but I’ve found it generally reliable.) You’ll see that preparing well enough to ace 15% of your grade in pop quizzes is a very nice little anchor even though 15% doesn’t seem like much. You should never plan to skip an assignment or just get by. But if you don’t make the grade you want, then at least you’ll know what you need to do for the rest of the semester. And be realistic—don’t say ”I’ll just have to get an A” if you haven’t been getting that kind of grade on your assignments. Instead, go to your professor and ask how you can improve your studying to get that grade. Be prepared to answer questions about how many hours you are working outside of class, what you are doing to prepare for class or exams and to show the professor your reading notes and class note-taking. That’s the only way to get his or her take on how you might improve your situation.

In one of my earlier posts, I write about making a study schedule for yourself and understanding how much time you need to prepare for class and really absorb the content. The syllabus is what makes that possible. You have advance notice. You don’t have to be like a deer in the headlights when midterm or finals week come along or when the professor brings in a quiz. So don’t just stuff that syllabus in your shiny new folder and leave it at that– make it work for you! You can origami it after the semester is over.

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Craving more tips on study skills?  Read some of our previous blog posts below!

Sleep, Social Media, and Routines: Challenges of Time Management

Brainfood: Optimal Nutrition for Thinking & Test-Taking

Avoiding Decision Fatigue – 3 Habits to Free up Mental Stamina


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