While the thought of reading monumentally long and tedious course syllabi for each and every class at the start of each new semester may seem less than tempting, having a solid understanding of course specific expectations, guidelines and policies is absolutely necessary for a number of reasons. It has been my experience that the most successful students pay attention to the syllabus from day one; they print it, they read it, they know it, they respect it. If you want to maximize your chances of a successful semester, you would be wise to consider the following tidbits sooner rather than later.
The syllabus is a user’s manual – Smart people read the instructions before attempting a complicated task. Similarly, smart students read the course user’s manual (a.k.a. the syllabus) prior to attempting a college level course. At minimum, the course syllabus is meant to give you an overview of each class you have registered for in terms of content, course structure, major assignments, etc… In addition, the syllabus provides you with important instructor contact information such as phone number, office location and hours, e-mail address and website, if any. Most importantly, the syllabus lists and explains each of the course policies that you will be expected to adhere to. Know these policies and when in doubt, refer to the manual.
The syllabus is a contract between you and the instructor – You don’t have to submit a signed, notarized copy of the syllabus for it to serve as a legitimate agreement between you and your course instructor. Once the instructor makes the syllabus available (print, online or both), you are responsible for its content. Period. If there is something you are unsure of, it is your responsibility to ask for clarification. Do note that changes may apply to the syllabus throughout the semester. However, your professor should notify you of any such changes in class (absences do not excuse you if you miss such announcements).
Where there is a well written syllabus, the well formulated excuse is moot – In other words, the syllabus is the law. And we all know what happens when we try to fight the law… the law wins (just ask Bob Marley). Having access to the syllabus means there are no excuses for violating course policies. Ignorance will definitely not be bliss as you attempt to plead said ignorance to your very caring, yet highly unsympathetic professor. There’s just no arguing the law, or the syllabus.
The attendance policy can make or break you – Each and every instructor you have will subscribe to a different philosophy regarding class attendance which will be outlined in the course syllabus. Believe it or not, your professors really do have your best interest at heart as they formulate their attendance policy, which is typically an extension of their personal teaching philosophy. Policy specifics detailed in the syllabus will undoubtedly range all over the map from daily participation grades, point deductions for absences, late arrivals or leaving early, automatic course withdrawal for a certain number of absences, etc… Bottom line, adherence to the attendance policy for each specific class is expected and essential. Having a firm understanding of these policies from day one will help to ensure your success as a college student.
The syllabus is a valuable resource – Aside from important course information, the syllabus typically contains a list of institutional and/or campus resources available to students. For example, my home institution has a wide variety of student support programs and resources geared toward academic success such as tutorial services, writing labs and academic counseling. Additionally, most colleges offer counseling and intervention services for personal issues that may interfere with academic success. Most, if not all of these services are free for students (ie… already paid for by your tuition and fees). A friendly word to the wise... colleges are all about student retention and academic success these days. They legitimately want to help you succeed. But, they can’t help you unless you let them know that you need it. Do yourself a favor and go get what you’ve already paid for.
The course syllabus: print it, read it, know it, respect it. It's what smart people do.