How to Read a Syllabus
Vanessa King is a fourth-year journalism student.
The easiest way to succeed in a course is to read the syllabus.
I know. That sounds way too easy. But it’s true.
A syllabus is an outline of a course, hence why it is sometimes referred to as the course outline (I hope I’m not blowing your mind here). On just a few pages, it has a ton of information on things like the professor’s expectations from you as a student, which assignments he or she sees as the most important, and what the course will cover in general.
But sometimes information does get lost in the blocks of text. So, here’s my sage advice on reading a course outline:
- Read the introductory paragraph. This seems really basic, but a lot of people never do this and are then lost for the rest of the course. This section is there for a reason – it explains very clearly and succinctly how your professor describes the course and what his or her objectives are in teaching it. Also, word to the wise, if this paragraph bores you, now would be a good time to drop the course and enroll in something you’re interested in. Nothing is worse than spending months learning about something that you really don’t care about.
- Don’t buy textbooks before reading the syllabus. I know it’s very tempting to buy a textbook before the huge rush starts after the first day of classes. I don’t recommend buying anything until the professor says (or writes) very clearly which textbook he or she will be using. Especially at the 1000-level, there are sometimes multiple professors teaching the same class, meaning that they all might have different opinions on what the best textbook is for teaching the course material. Also, don’t buy textbooks after reading an outdated syllabus.
- Don’t avoid the assignment section. This is like ripping off a band aid. It’s going to hurt, but it’s best to get the pain out of the way quickly. As soon as you get your syllabus, read through the assignments and mark down the dates. For this, I recommend buying a dry-erase wall calendar that shows four months at a time (you can get them at Staples). This will help you figure out time management and visualize which weeks will be nightmares way ahead of time. There’s nothing worse than having a deadline sneak up on you, and professors aren’t famous for being sympathetic on granting extensions.
- Take note of the professor’s office hours. Your professor probably has a few hours a week that they are guaranteed to be in their office and available to help you. These will be written somewhere in the syllabus, and I really encourage you to use them to your advantage. Students very rarely show up to office hours, even though they’re good way to stand out by asking for extra help, clarifying assignment instructions, requesting feedback, or inquiring about your prof’s research. Plus, if you ever do need an extension, chances are the prof will be more accommodating to your request than a student that they’re never seen or spoken with.
- Read the prof’s bio. Chances are pretty high that your professor added a quick paragraph on themselves somewhere in the course outline. This paragraph explains why the professor is qualified to teach your class, what his or her research interests are, where he or she studied, etc. A sneaky way to earn brownie points is by relating an essay topic in some way to the professor’s research – then, go in and speak to him or her about it for a few minutes. This will get you miles ahead in research for the assignment. Even if you can’t write an assignment around this research, I can guarantee that you’ll find your professor’s research interesting – and profs on campus have some cool interests. For example, one prof is researching how frogs can freeze and still survive, another prof researches what makes us happy (in the “Happiness Lab”), a dean was recently knighted in Italy for his contributions to Italian medieval research, and that’s only three of Carleton’s faculty members.
Long story short, don’t treat the syllabus like a miscellaneous document. The course outline is a very useful resource for understanding what your professor expects from you and how you can meet these expectations… and pick up some brownie points along the way.
Submitted by Vanessa King, a fourth-year journalism student.