The Basics: What’s a Syllabus Anyway?

Ah, the infamous syllabus. Alas, we meet for battle and I shall not be thwarted!

For those of you who are not familiar with the video game Skyrim, which is depicted in the featured photo, dragons are a key component. The funny thing about these dragons is that the whole game is based around them, yet they only seem to appear and demand attention at some of the worst possible times. In a similar manner to Skyrim, assignments, exams, and due dates will all seem to “randomly” popup if you aren’t paying careful attention to the course syllabus.

Role of the syllabus

A syllabus is a contract detailing the professors goals and expectations for the course. Not all course syllabi are created equally, so you may find that a syllabus in one course is 20 pages long while another is at most 5 pages. Some professors will take the time to really detail each assignment so that you have reference material when it comes time to begin. Below is a list of common things you will see in many syllabi:

  • Course title, course number, time/meeting place
    • Helps you keep better track of which syllabus goes with which course; also lets you know if you’ve joined the right class on the first day
  • Information about your professor
    • Office hours, office location, whether you are expected to schedule an appointment or drop in during certain hours, email address, best phone number to reach them at (which is becoming less common now that we have smartphones and the ability to check our emails more frequently)
  • Course materials
    • This is the section where you will find all of the required books/supplies you are required to have as well as any books/supplies which are not required but highly recommended
    • Side note: when it comes to buying books, obviously you can get every book you need at your university bookstore; however, it’s worth knowing that there are many websites out there selling the books for much cheaper. You’ll also find that many of these sites (and sometimes your own university bookstore) will allow you the option to rent textbooks, which need to be returned by a certain date. Some of the more credible sites include: Amazon Books, KindleChegg, and Google Books.
    • You should always check with others around campus to see where they are getting their books. Some professors have even been known to let you know the cheapest places to get their course materials.
  • Learning Objectives
    • These are essentially the things you should know/have the ability to do once you’ve completed the course
    • Ex: Understand the role of the electoral college in presidential elections
  • Grading System
    • Each professor will grade their assignments slightly different from one another. Their specific way of measuring your grades will typically have its own section in the syllabus. Some professors grade on a point value system, with a range of points being equivalent to certain grades. Other professors may use some wacky formula that only they understand.
    • Also in the section, you will usually see what the professor will base your grade on and things are usually distributed based on percentages.
      • Ex: Participation = 10%, Quizzes = 25%, Homework = 15%, Tests = 50%
  • Attendance Policy
    • Very important! You’ll notice that some professors don’t have a very strict policy while others will decrease your overall grade after 2 unexcused absences. This is a great section to familiarize yourself with so that you aren’t surprised later on when you find out you’ve failed a course because of your attendance issues (trust me, it sadly happened to me early on).
  • Course Calendar
    • Details each class and what is expected to be covered that day as well as any assignments that are due
  • Academic Integrity Policy
    • You’ll eventually get to know this without needing the reminder, but it details what can be expected if you ever get in trouble for academic dishonesty. Hopefully none of you will ever need to refer to this section.
  • Disability/Accessibility Policy
    • Details how to go about getting any accommodations you may need in order to help enable you to participate in the course
  • Miscellaneous Items
    • Detailed instructions for assignments
    • Late work policy
    • Classroom conduct
    • TA’s office hours/contact information
    • A statement letting you know that the information in the syllabus is subject to change and you will be informed right away about any changes that take place

I truly recommend that you refer back to each syllabi before their respective class in order to prepare you for what may be ahead. Unless something isn’t detailed in their syllabus, your professors will expect you to know everything that is required of you, including all due dates. Your professors (typically) spend a great deal of time crafting their course syllabus in order to give you all of the information you will need to be successful. I know it may not seem like it at times, but your professors tend to want you to pass their course and with flying colors if possible. Take advantage of all the help they’re willing to provide because your grades are in your hands.

Just remember: every syllabus will eventually demand attention, whether you’re prepared for it or totally caught off guard.

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6 thoughts on “The Basics: What’s a Syllabus Anyway?”

  1. I would recommend waiting until after the first class to see if you need the text books at all. I found that most of my professors didn’t require it!
    Also, making appointments with professors is a good alternative to office hours if you can’t make it to those.


  2. Another great place to check for cheap textbooks is a place called “Half Price Books”. It’s an awesome store and there are actually two here in Lexington. Most people don’t know that they sell textbooks and they’re typically even cheaper than other places I’ve checked such as Amazon and Kennedy’s. Plus, if they don’t have a book you need, they can check their national database and have the book shipped to their store (for free) so that you can purchase it. Pretty handy.


  3. Make sure you go through all of the due dates for homework, quizzes, presentations, projects, and exams on each syllabus and put them into a planner or calendar. That way you won’t have to go back and look at your syllabus all the time, you can just flip through your planner.


  4. Always look on Amazon or Chegg for a book because I promise they will ALWAYS be cheaper than from your college’s bookstore. Some classes require access codes and a book so see if you just purchase the access code and find the book cheaper. I also recommend renting any book you can to help you save money.


  5. I recommend talking to the professor and asking if an earlier edition of the textbook would work because they tend to be a lot cheaper.


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