How to Make the Most of Your Course Syllabus
Woody Allen once said, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” While that may not be the case for college life due to demanding time commitments and rigorous course loads, the adage does hold true for the first week of college. Just showing up on time to those first three yawn-inducing days of course syllabus handouts and classroom policy lookovers for your 8am class is an accomplishment in and of itself. That’s half the battle, if not 80 percent of it.
But that crucial 20 percent of syllabus substance that many students overlook can be the difference between acing the class and failing the grade. Here’s what to keep an eye out for during your school’s showing of “Attack of the Syllabi!” that will pay serious dividends throughout the semester.
Related: How to Beat Your Classes
Cell Phone, Gum, and Food Policies
If your professor rules the classroom with an iron fist, imposing a strict prohibition on all “electronic devices” (a term that makes them sound really old and really lame) in the classroom, it’s best to take note of their dictatorial tendencies as early as possible, lest you be forced to read aloud in front of your classmates that embarrassing text you got from your overly attached mother.
Reading over these policies are also an effective means of gauging where your professor stands on the hypocrite scale. Oftentimes, the first person to break these rules are the course instructors themselves — whether they’re taking an oh-so-important call from a colleague of theirs, chowing down lunch during class because their schedule is so much busier than yours (sure), or chewing Orbit because their breath stinks worse than the class (this one might hold true, so give them a break).
Grading Scales and Point Distribution
Generally, college courses run on the standard scale of 90-100% = A, 80-89% = B, and so on, with the occasional plus/minus letter grade variant depending on the college. Occasionally, though, profs like to cruelly shake things up with funky point percentages, such as a minimum of 92% for an A, 83% for a B, and whatever other figures they arrive at on a whim.
Most profs aren’t this arbitrary, but it’s worth double-checking the grading scale just to clear things up before moving on to the crux of the syllabus: point distribution. As the most intimidating part of the handout, riddled with scary words like “quizzes,” “exams,” “papers,” and “final,” many students shy away from what is also the most important component of the syllabus.
By having a solid understanding of where the points are piled on, you’ll be able to craft your study plans to yield maximum return on investment. For example, if the five written assignments are worth as much as the one final, try to allocate equal prep time to both.
Similar to point distribution, investing more time than just a cursory glance at the list of course objectives can prove to be a guiding light for your study strategy. Don’t get me wrong, this is hands down the blandest part of the packet, but there’s a reason profs include it: context.
There will inevitably be dull or pedantic course content to muddle through at some point in every class, but by keeping in mind the overarching learning objectives from which the course was designed (in order to make you a smarter person), then maybe, just maybe, you’ll begin to trust your biology professor’s decision to spend an entire week probing the chemical nuances of photosynthesis in excruciating detail.
Attendance and Makeup Exam Policies
Although mandatory attendance policies may be a hot topic of debate within academic circles, don’t expect to be able to argue your way out of docked points for skipping or missing class by playing the dumb card. Get smart and read up on the particulars of attendance class-by-class to determine which of your professors harbor a hardline stance on religiously attending every session.
While you’re at it, you should see exceptions to such rules that accommodate for the extenuating circumstances that occasionally force students to miss exams and other important in-class dates. I call this the “life happens” clause, since professors have a morbid tendency of using this vaguely broad euphemism to cover every sort of misfortune under the sun, from deaths in the family to zombie apocalypses.
Relax, Take It One Day at a time
Just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, neither should you judge a course by its syllabus. That is, just because syllabi are bound to frighten students, since they lay bare everything about the course on opening day, doesn’t mean the course will actually be as intimidating or demanding as billed.
For example, professors love to ramble incessantly in their syllabi about how the universe as we know it will come crashing down should any student of theirs fall behind on textbook readings. In reality, though, only time (and students who took the course semesters prior) will tell just how much textbook reading factors in to final grades. Bottom line: Get a feel for the course as best you can one day at a time for at least a solid week before signing the add/drop slip.