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Learning About the College Syllabus

written by: Heather Marie Kosur•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/7/2011

What is a syllabus? Many new college students are unsure of the best answer to this question. However, learning what a syllabus is and how to use one for course management is necessary for successfully making it through each semester.

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    Syllabus Basics

    According to the dictionary, a syllabus is "a statement of the subjects covered by a course of instruction in a school." However, a syllabus is much more than just a list of the topics to be covered in a college class. A good syllabus provides information about the class as a whole including mundane information like meeting times and assignment due dates as well as more detailed information like course objectives and assignment descriptions. By learning about what a syllabus is, all college students can learn to use their course syllabi effectively.

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    Elements of a Syllabus

    Course Information

    As the first section that most students will read, the course information section of a college syllabus includes the basic quantitative information about the class. The main points listed in the course information section include course name, course number, credit hours, and any prerequisites if applicable. Addition information includes the location, times, days, and dates of the class.

    Instructor Information

    The second section that students may refer to often is the instructor information section. Because students may need to contact the instructor throughout the semester, the instructor information section lists the full name, office location, phone number, and email address of the instructor as well as office hours during which students can stop by without an appointment. The instructor information section also lists contact information for any teaching assistants.

    Course Materials

    The course materials section of a syllabus lists the required textbooks, journal articles, webpages, and other materials for the class. Students should note the location of each item; for example, textbooks may be available at a campus bookstore or from the library course reserves, while articles may be available on the Internet or through a library database. For laboratory classes, the course materials section also lists other required materials such as a lab coat or art supplies. The course materials section may also list any recommended reading outside the scope of assignments.

    Course Description

    The course description section of a college syllabus provides an overview of the class including the course goals or objectives. At a minimum, the course description section will repeat the description of the class from the course catalog. Most instructors, however, will include more detailed information describing the specific class outside the catalog description. Some instructors will also include a section on the goals or objectives of the course to help students better understand the purpose of the class.

    Course Calendar

    The most important section of a syllabus is the course calendar sections. The course calendar outlines the due dates for readings, assignments, discussions, papers, presentations, tests, and all other coursework. Students will refer to the course calendar frequently through the semester. Some course calendars break down the class by week while other give more detailed information for each day. Note, however, that course calendars are not set in stone but may be modified according to specific class needs.

    Course Policies

    The final section of a college syllabus is the course policies section. Course policies include information on policies such as attendance, participation, missed assignments and exams, classroom management, safety, academic dishonesty and plagiarism, grading and assessment, and computer or cell phone use.

    For an example of a syllabus for a college course, please download Sample Syllabus.

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    Using a Course Syllabus

    By learning about the basic elements of a college syllabus, you as a college student will be better able to use a course syllabus effectively. If you use your syllabus for nothing else, use it as a calendar of important class dates. Highlight the dates that important assignments and tests are due. As you complete a reading or assignment, mark it as finished. If the instructor changes a date, make this change on your syllabus as well. If you do find yourself having trouble turning in homework on time, mark the dates on which you need to start future assignments on the course calendar. There is no excuse for late assignments or missed exams if you follow your syllabus closely. If you do need to miss class, check your syllabus for the attendance policy. Some instructors take late assignments but only if you contact them about your absence ahead of time. Other instructors take points off your final grade depending on the number of days you missed. However you end up using your class syllabus, make sure to carefully read it all at least once.

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    Many new college students are unsure of how to effectively use a course syllabus to manage the reading, assignments, exams, and other work necessary to complete their classes. By learning what a syllabus is students can learn to use one more effectively to assist them.