Top 10 Secrets Of The College Syllabus
Students often view the course syllabus as something they glance at on the first day of classes, and then toss in their backpacks, never to be seen again. In reality, the syllabus is a treasure trove of information: one of the few places in the course where the professor reveals his or her true conception of the course and explains what you need to do to excel in the course.
The trouble is, very few students know how to read the syllabus and unearth the important clues that are often found there. You’re guaranteed to do a bang-up job in each of your courses if you pay attention to
the top 10 secrets of the college syllabus:
1. What Is The Course Really About?
It is a known fact that each professor has he/her own teaching style. This means that no two courses are taught the same. Especially if there are different professors instructing them. Physics 286 University Physics, Part II can mean very different things to different teachers and it’s worth your while to pay careful attention to see what your prof is going to be up to.
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2. How Hard Is The Professor Going To Be?
Professors are usually required to put all their course policies in writing on the syllabus. So the syllabus should tell you more than you want to know about your professor’s policies about everything from attendance, to late papers, to missing tests, to eating in class.
Some students like really tough profs, some like softies. Pick accordingly.
Extra Pointer. Sometimes professors use the syllabus to make their bark sound worse than their bite. You can detect this common phenomenon when your professor or TA goes over the syllabus orally and immediately starts relaxing the rules. The syllabus for your German class might state that you only get two unexcused absences before you start to lose points, but then your TA says all you have to do to get an excused absence is to tell him or her in advance. Things aren’t always quite as bad as they seem.
3. What Is The Structure Of The Class?
Any half-way decent classhas a plot – that is, an ordered sequence of lectures that, taken together, have some point. It’s always easier to learn the material if you know the plot, and where in that plot you are at each point throughout the term. Many syllabi provide you with a week-by-week – and sometimes meeting-by-meeting – listing of the topics to be covered; looking this over will let you see what the different parts of the course are and how they relate to one another. Also, the syllabus’s schedule of topics should let you know if the course stays on the same level of difficulty throughout or takes a jump off the deep end after midterms. It can happen, and you’d best be prepared when it does.
4. What’s Going To Be On The Tests?
You might not think that the prof is going to tell you on day 1 what’s going to be on the tests, but the section of the syllabus called “course goals” or “course description” usually tells you what the professor thinks are the most important issues in the course — in other words, what they’re likely to ask on the tests and/or papers.
When your class on Civil War history states, seemingly innocently, “Among the topics to be considered are the economic reasons for Civil war and the failure of Reconstruction,” you should prepare yourself for essays on these topics. And not for questions asking you to match the names of generals with the battles they fought.
5. How Much Do The Papers Count?
One of the most standard parts of any syllabus is the list of requirements and what they’re going to count. However, students often forget to consult this as the course progresses. They end up tearing out their hair about quizzes that count .05% of the final grade, while blowing off the research paper that counts 30%.
6. Do I Really Need To Do The Reading?
Syllabi often contain a lot of information about the reading assignments. They usually give not only the actual assignments, but also often tell you when to do the reading (before or after class) and how to do it (some professors give you study questions in advance). If you neglect to follow these directives, you can end up out of sync with the class.
Plus, the syllabus can also give you a pretty good indication of the role of the reading in the class, that is, how important it is that you actually do it.
4-Star Secret. You should only consider doing any “recommended reading” if you’re really interested in the subject or are planning to go on in the field. It’s much better to get a really good grasp of the required reading than to go off on all kinds of specialized reading that’s only recommended.
7. How To Find The Key Resources For The Course?
The syllabus generally lists the main course resources and how to access them. The resources can be amazingly helpful, but often, after listing them on the syllabus, the prof never bothers to mention them again. So some students can go through an entire course without realizing that there’s a course web page, facebook or Blackboard page, where the professor posts things such as all the PowerPoints he or she showed in class, lecture notes, sample exams, weekly reviews of course content. Seems like a bad idea to miss this stuff, doesn’t it? Especially when it turns out that the actual exams are practically the same as the samples posted by the prof.
5-Star Secret. Be sure to make a mental note of when your professor and/or TA is holding office hours. This is where you can get one-on-one help with your work in the course – often in advance of it being graded. Pay attention to how your prof or TA feels about email and Skype. If he or she is into it, you can often get an answer to a question about a paper or test to come right as you’re working on it. It can be a real lifesaver.
8. Whether you’re going to have to “perform.”
Some courses require you to do some share of the heavy lifting, either by answering questions in section, leading a discussion, or giving a seminar presentation. If you’re one of those students who’d rather die than talk in front of a group, it’d be good to know in advance that you might as well write your will. Of course, since learning to think and talk on your feet is one of the most important skills in some fields, it wouldn’t be half-bad to stare down your fears and join the learned.
9. Are You Ready For The Course?
Sometimes courses have prerequisites, which are courses you need to have taken in advance, or co-requisites, which are courses you need to take concurrently. (Both of these are usually listed on the syllabus.) Pay careful attention to what these are, and how important the professor says it is to be taking, or have taken, them.
For example, if your Economics 452 Game Theory professor says it “might be useful, but is not strictly necessary, for you to have taken the intro economics course and have a basic knowledge of elementary calculus,” you might give it a stab if you’re reasonably smart, but haven’t had these suggested prerequisites.
However if the prof
says “every homework will have problems that couldn’t possibly be done without an A-1 knowledge of two-variable calculus”
– and you’re still taking College Algebra– well, maybe you should stick to Angry Birds.
10. Is The Course Right For You?
Ultimately, as a student, you’re a consumer and you should view the information on the syllabus just like the information on the side of the box of a product you’re thinking of buying. Careful reading of the syllabus should help you decide if the course covers the kind of material you want to learn and teaches you the skills you want to develop. Hey, you’re paying good money for these courses. Why not take good ones?