The university course syllabus is almost like an agreement between the professor and their students, so you want to make sure you know how to read it. It spells out the expectations for the course. It will usually tell you what you are expected to do (assignments, exams, deliverables, readings) and how you will be evaluated (grading breakdown). The course syllabus may also provide additional resources, information on deadlines and extentions, and other course policies.
How to read your university course syllabus
- Review all the details at the start of the term so you can plan ahead.
- Read the whole syllabus! Don’t skip anything – it could be important.
- Review it again when you are working on important assignments during the semester. There may be information in it that you forgot about since the semester started.
- Follow any instructions listed. If your professor wants to be contacted in a specific way, make sure you do that.
How will you be evaluated in the course? Here’s the grading information to look for when you read your university course syllabus:
How many deliverables are there?
Fewer deliverables means you will have fewer opportunities to earn your grade. If you are nervous about a course, this may mean more pressure. On the other hand, like many other students, I don’t like taking exams, so if a course was just one midterm and one final exam, I would try to search for a replacement.
But of course, more deliverables means you will have more due dates. This is a different kind of pressure! Weekly discussion posts or short papers can really add up and take a lot of time, so make sure you’re prepared to devote more time to this course.
How is the grade weighted?
I would evaluate this similarly to the number of deliverables. Some courses only have a final exam, and it makes up 100% of the grade. Or you might see a course that’s 50% midterm and 50% final exam. You might also see a certain proportion of the grade for participation, or presentations, papers, quizzes, etc.
The main thing that you should look for here is whether the grading scheme plays to your strengths. If you don’t like to speak up in class, participation or presentation marks might be harder for you. If you are not as strong at research papers as exams, you might be able to find an exam-based course instead.
Assignment Details (Deliverables)
What kinds of assignments will you have to do in the class? How many are there?
When you have choices between courses, this can be really helpful. If the types of assignments are ones you are strong at, then you will probably find the course less stressful. You may also not have to spend as much time working on them. I really enjoy research papers, but I don’t like exams very much, so I would try to find courses with final papers instead of exams. If you work well under pressure and prefer to have exams, you can look for that, too.
You should also take a look at how many assignments there are. If the grade is broken down into 10 assignments worth 10% each, you might spend a great deal of time on low-stakes assignments. If you want to spread your work over the semester evenly, you might prefer this. But if you would rather just have a couple of big assignments, you could look for that instead.
When I was advising first-years, I would warn them about this because sometimes, you have to read the whole book! Yes, you might even be expected to read multiple whole books during the semester. I have seen this happen in undergraduate English and Humanities courses before, and I’m sure it happens in many arts, humanities and social sciences courses. I have also definitely seen this at the graduate level, although it hasn’t happened in any of my courses (yet!).
If you are a slow reader, or if you’re really not into reading, you may want to try and avoid these courses. But I will also say that just because a syllabus does not have a bunch of books listed, doesn’t mean you won’t be reading a ton in that course! You are going to university, so you should always be ready to read a lot for all of your classes!
Your university course syllabus will probably tell you what will be covered each week. When I teach, I include a table in my syllabus with the date, readings to be done that week, topics or activities in-class, and any deliverables. I use this to plan my own schedule and block off time for marking papers. As a student, I use this to plan my semester schedule, so that I know when I have to block of time for multiple deliverables. It’s also helpful if you have to miss class for some reason, because you will know exactly what you missed.
The syllabus will likely contain your instructor and TA’s office hours and preferred contact info. If your instructor lists a preferred contact method, make sure you use it. If you are not available during office hours, do not be afraid to reach out to the instructor or TA to try to find an alternate time. They are typically on campus more often than just their office hours, and now everyone knows how to use video conferencing software (like Zoom of Microsoft Teams), so they can probably set up an appointment, either in-person or remotely, to meet with you.
The course syllabus is kind of like an agreement between the professor and their class. This means that your prof will usually include any important policies that you need to know about. This might include policies for late assignments (such as: can they be late, how can you get an extension, what are acceptable reasons for extensions, how many marks will be taken off…), academic honesty (what is acceptable and what is not), missing class, and information about classroom conduct. Even if the syllabus is long, make sure you read it so you are aware of any requirements or policies. If you ask your instructor something, one of their first responses will be “It’s in the syllabus!” so make sure you’ve checked.
Hints, Tips and Resources
Some instructors (but definitely not all) will include some hints, tips and resources in the syllabus. I have seen campus writing resources included for classes that require papers, or information on using specific style guides (such as APA or MLA), or even hints about what will be on the exams. Don’t ignore these tips when you read your university course syllabus! They can help you excel in your course!
What would you look for in a university course syllabus?
I know that you don’t always have the option to change your courses, or find one that you’re better suited to. However, you can also use the information in the syllabus to help plan your semester. For courses that don’t play to your strengths, you will probably have to devote more time, and the assignment and deadline information can help you plan out your semester.
What is important to you when you are selecting and planning your courses? What do you look for (or what would you look for) when you’re reviewing a syllabus? Comment below!