Using a Syllabus Wisely

In organization on August 27, 2009 at 10:00 am


I remember my first day of college. I had a literature class at 11am, and the first thing the teacher did was hand out a thick packet of sheets, single spaced, in tiny font. This was the syllabus, and over the course of the first week, our professor kept talking about it. I didn’t know what a syllabus was. We didn’t have them in my high school, but it seemed like it was important, at least to my teacher.

I quickly learned that a syllabus is a class plan for the semester. The plan includes all the papers, tests, and projects you’ll be doing over the semester, along with the due dates. In the following years, whenever I got a syllabus for a new class, I would read it and promptly panic. I’d imagine reading the five novels we’d have to read in the next 16 weeks. I’d imagine all those tests, all those papers to write. I learned after a while, though, that it was never as bad as I’d imagined. I didn’t have to read all those books in a day, and I didn’t have to know all that information immediately. I learned to look at the big picture but also to think of the class just one or two weeks at a time.

What I never knew as a student was that teachers think of the syllabus as their contract with the student. This is the real reason that my teacher kept talking about the syllabus on my first day of college. This was her agreement with us, and she wanted to be clear in making that agreement. This is where we could find our teacher’s policies on everything from attendance to late assignments to what happens when you use your cell phone during lectures. The syllabus serves as a record that students received the information.

What do you do with all that information, then, when you get your syllabus? I’m glad you asked!

  • Take a look at your teacher’s policies for things like absences and late assignments. Then  make any preparations you need to now. If you know that you’ll miss class on a particular day in the semester (even if it’s three months from now), now is a great time to approach your teacher about it. She’ll probably need reminding of it again later, but she’ll know that you’re concerned about the policies in the syllabus and that you’re planning ahead to make her life easier.
  • Take a look at your teacher’s grading policies. Usually, the syllabus will tell you how your grade will be calculated. What percentage of your grade depends on your final exam? The research paper? Class participation? Take note of these things. If something on the list makes you nervous, now is a great time to talk with your teacher about it. For example, if class participation makes you break into a cold sweat, ask your teacher for advice now. She can help you before it becomes an issue for grading.
  • Look at the due dates for major assignments — and add them to your calendar (if you’re not keeping a calendar, now is the time to start). The syllabus probably lists due dates for each major assignment. Grab the date and mark it on your calendar. A couple of months from now, when you’re deciding whether to throw a party or spend the weekend at home, you’ll have a reminder about that major test to be studying for–
  • Look at your teacher’s contact information and office hours. Keep the contact information for your teacher somewhere easy to find (in your cell phone or in an address book). This way, if your car breaks down on the freeway on the day of your midterm, you won’t have to hunt for her contact information to let her know what happened. Also, take note of her office hours.
  • Even after looking at all the details above, you’ll probably want to keep the syllabus handy throughout the semester. A great way, if you can do this, is to scan the syllabus and keep it on your computer. This way, it won’t get buried in those folders later on.

With just a little bit of time now, your syllabus can become a tool not only for keeping track of information for each class but learning how your teachers like to work with you. Use your syllabus wisely, and you could make the semester run much more smoothly.

*     *     *


I want to apologize for my absence last week! I didn’t mean to leave the blog empty for the week. I’m now back on my regular posting schedule.

School is starting up again around the country, and blogs are full of back-to-school tips and tricks. One of my favorite sites for all these organizational and technological is Lifehacker.com, which is about “hacking,” or figuring out life.  First, is a post on David Allen’s organizational system, Getting Things Done: “Getting Things Done Explained For Students.” In this post, Chris Lesinski writes  about how to keep careful track of all the things you need to get done for your classes — without trying to remember all the assignments in your head.

Lifehacker also has a guide of “10 Must-Dos for the First Week of College.”  This list includes some obvious advice, like showing up in class and some less common tips, like “Find Yourself a Cave.” It’s well worth a read, for getting yourself off on the right foot this fall.

If you need all the help you can read and can sit down for a good stint of reading you might check out Lifehacker’s “Hit the Books” guide to hacking college.  This comprehensive list of posts includes advice on everything from finding cheap textbooks to fitting in a nap after pulling an all-nighter. It’s well worth a read.


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