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5 tips from professors for decoding your syllabus

The beginning of the fall semester means attending all the campus events with free food, reconnecting with or making new friends — and perusing numerous syllabi.

UE - The beginning of the fall semester means attending all the campus events with free food, reconnecting with or making new friends — and perusing numerous syllabi.

That stack of papers outlining your schedule for the upcoming semester be overwhelming, but follow these steps — inspired by the people who actually create them — to make good use of syllabi.

1. KEEP TRACK OF WHAT’S DIFFERENT

Certain parts of syllabi are standard and don’t change, so don’t make a fuss of reading through those details more than once, says Ray Singleton, the education department chair at the University of Charleston.

“Much of the syllabus language is repeated from course to course — academic integrity policies, plagiarism warnings and so on — so students need to focus on what’s most important for the class: key assignments and assessments, the professor’s attendance policies and whether they do or don’t accept late work,” Singleton says.

2. RECORD PROFESSORS’ CONTACT INFORMATION AND AVAILABILITY

Professors often keep hours open each week to help students in times of dire need — like when you’re racking your brain about the derivative of a calculus problem. Make sure you write professors’ information down in an easily accessible spot. You’ll thank yourself when you need your professor in the days before an exam.

Singleton adds that it’s important to know the best way to get a fast response from a professor.

“It’s also important to know how they prefer to be contacted,” Singleton says. “As an instructor, those are also the key points I try to emphasize on the first night of class.”

3. CREATE A CALENDAR FOR ALL IMPORTANT DUE DATES

 

Online calendar applications from companies like Google and Apple offer ways to keep an agenda that’s accessible electronically. Use your favorite tool and create events for all the major assignments and exams.

When classes begin picking up after the first couple weeks of the semester, assignments often have a tendency to stack up. Marsha Lovett, the director of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, says to take the online event creating one step farther.

“Put a reminder or to-do item in your calendar a bit *before* each of these key dates so you can prepare accordingly,” Lovett says.

4. PAY ATTENTION TO THE PROFESSOR’S GOALS

Syllabi will often list the takeaways of the class, and those aren’t to be ignored, Lovett says. Being aware of what the professor wants to teach can help guide reading and writing assignments.

“Ideally, this section of the syllabus will tell you what you should be able to do by the end of the course,” says Lovett. “Read through the learning objectives and ask yourself how well you could do those things right now.”

5. LET IT GUIDE YOUR DECISION TO DROP THE CLASS

It’s okay to decide that a class isn’t for you — that’s why many colleges offer the opportunity to drop or add new classes within the first few weeks of each semester. Lovett says information in syllabi should help sway the decision to keep classes on your schedule.

“If you’re unsure whether the course is a match for you, another good strategy is to read carefully what the course prerequisites are, or who is the intended audience for the course,” Lovett says. Then use this information to size up how well you fit the professor’s expectations for prior knowledge.

USA today