The Course Syllabus: Roadmap to Success

This is one of those articles designed to help you, as a college parent, understand your child’s world in college.  It may be helpful as you have conversations with your college student throughout the semester.

Almost every college course will begin with a syllabus.  It is generally handed out to students on the first day of class.  Some instructors may post their syllabi on line.  The syllabus is the roadmap of the course.  It lets the student know, at the very beginning of the course, what the expectations are, how to contact the instructor, what assignments will be due, and often a class by class or week by week plan of what will be happening.

Here are ten important pieces of information that may be gleaned from the syllabus.

Faculty contact information

There is a reason that this piece of information is usually listed first.  This may be one of the most important pieces of information that the student receives in the syllabus.  The instructor usually includes office location, office hours (often underutilized by most students), phone and e-mail.  One honor student said that this is the first piece she looks for and she highlights it right away.  Communication between the student and the professor can be the difference between success and failure.

Textbook information.

The syllabus will list required and recommended textbooks and other course material.  Students need their books, and they need them at the beginning of the course.  Although the cost of college textbooks is high, this is definitely not a place to skimp because of cost.

Course objectives.

The syllabus will often contain the course objectives or outcomes.  If students have a clear understanding of the goals of the course they will be more apt to succeed in the course.  You need to know what your target is before you can aim the arrow!

Attendance policy.

This is extremely important.  Some professors don’t care whether or not you come to class as long as you do the work and some have strict policies about the number of absences allowed.  Some will excuse certain absences and others will not.  Students need to read this policy carefully and consider it when they miss class.


Quite simply, the syllabus usually lists all of the assignments that will be due throughout the semester.  Sometimes more detail about assignments will be added later, and sometimes all of the information that the student will need is contained in the syllabus.  Although it is sometimes overwhelming to students to see the entire semester laid out in front of them all at once, they will know at the beginning of the course what they will need to do.  This can be extremely helpful with time management as they look ahead throughout the semester.

Grading policy.

Professors often explain their grading policy in order to help students evaluate the importance of assignments.  Professors may explain the percentage or value given to each assignment.  They may even include a rubric (measure) of what they consider a good assignment.

Classroom behavior.

We often assume that, by the time students are in college, they know how to behave in the classroom.  However, professors may have differing expectations. Unlike high school, there may be more diversity in expectations from class to class. Many instructors will spell these out in the syllabus.  Are hats allowed in the classroom?  Are food and drink allowed?  Are students expected to be on time?  Are there assigned seats?  Are laptops encouraged or not allowed?

Additional resources.

The syllabus may provide information about additional resources available to the student.  These may be course materials, such as on-line sources or tutorials, or they may be tutoring services or extra lab times.  The more students explore the support available to them, the more they are in a position to take advantage of them.

Daily schedule or plan.

The syllabus very often contains a plan or outline of the semester’s classes.  This may be listed week by week or even day by day.  This may include topics to be discussed, reading assignments and due dates, due dates for written assignments, dates of tests and exams, etc.  Although plans sometimes change, this outline is extremely helpful as students work on the skills of time management.

Instructor’s personality and tone.

This requires reading between the lines, but is crucial information.  The syllabus may give the student a sense of the personality and, more importantly, the teaching style of the professor.  Is the syllabus extremely businesslike, or more casual and chatty?  Is the schedule a day-by-day schedule, or is it more loosely week-by-week?  Are explanations clear?  Are expectations clear?  Often there is much more information in the syllabus than first meets the eye.

Using the syllabus carefully, finding all of the important information provided, can mean the difference between success in the course and struggling in the course.  Most professors work hard to provide a clear and thorough syllabus.  Students who take advantage of the information in the syllabus lay the groundwork for success at the beginning of the course. Simply put, students who use the roadmap provided are less apt to get lost along the journey!

Related Posts:

College Textbooks: Tools of the Trade – Part 1

College Professors Are People Too!

College Parents Can Help Freshmen Understand the Differences Between High School and College

Helping Your College Student Find Support on Campus

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2 thoughts on “The Course Syllabus: Roadmap to Success”

  1. Equating a syllabus with a map is really helpful. Explaining how to derive a sense of the professor’s personality and his or her teaching style from a syllabus is brilliant!


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