How to Effectively Use Your Course Syllabus
During the first week of school, you'll get handed a course syllabus that often just gets tossed into a folder and forgotten. But, a syllabus can be a very valuable tool when taking a course.
So, what's usually on a course syllabus and how exactly can it help you do well in a course?
1) Course Description, Major Topics & Pre-requisites
Since you signed up to take this course, you should already have a pretty good idea of the course description. More importantly, the first section of a course syllabus should outline any pre-requisites the course has and indicate whether you may need to re-learn or review anything. If your syllabus doesn't explicitly list out pre-requisite courses or at least a topics list, then ask your instructor about it if you're unsure.
2) Contact Information for Your Instructor
It’s natural to need to ask questions and get clarification from time to time, so don't be shy about contacting your teacher or professor. If you're taking a college course you may also have a teaching assistant who is a little more accessible than your professor, so make sure you have their contact information as well.
3) Information About Course Textbooks, Other Reference Materials & Any Online Components
Make sure you have access to everything you need to complete assignments, readings, and projects. For textbooks, sometimes you can purchase an older edition for a fraction of the cost of the most recent edition. However, if you have a lot of specific assignments out of your textbook then it may not be a good idea to use a different edition. Page numbers and example problems don’t always match up with different editions. If your text is mostly used as a reference, then check out those older editions.
4) Grading Policies and Percentage Breakdown
This is one of the most important things on the syllabus, as it will typically show how your grades will be calculated. Sometimes a final grade is just the average of all the exam scores while other times homework and other assignments (i.e. group projects) can have a major factor in grades. These breakdowns are usually shown in percentages and allow students to clearly see where they should focus their time and energy.
5) Course Schedule
The course schedule is such an important part of a course syllabus that sometimes it is left off entirely and given out to students as a separate document. If your syllabus doesn't have a detailed weekly breakdown then check elsewhere for it or ask your instructor.
With a course schedule, you can plan our your weeks, months, and whole semester.
First, determine when your tests or exams are and add them to whatever type of calendar you use. Doing this with all of your courses will give you an overview of how busy you'll be at different times during the semester and when you need to prepare for different exams. Especially note any times when you have multiple exams that are close together.
Next, consider the weekly schedule for your course. Note when it meets and when homework assignments are due. During the first couple weeks of class, use this weekly schedule to come up with your own weekly study plan. Figure out when you'll be really busy and when you'll get a break. Plan time to review and work on homework assignments.
6) Review Any Other Rules or Policies That Apply
This isn't an exhaustive list and there are likely going to be other things on your course syllabus. Here's a few that tend to come up in math, science, and engineering courses.
Rules About Study Groups and Homework Groups
Studying together is usually not a problem and is almost necessary for advanced courses. Teaming up to work on homework assignments is a great strategy, but some professors will prohibit it and check assignments to see if anybody obviously worked together. If this is the case, be careful to stay within the rules. If you are going to work in a group anyway, always make sure your assignments are not identical.
Check if your class allows the use of a calculator and which types of calculators are ok. Many courses as well as standardized exams don't allow graphing calculators but will allow scientific calculators. If graphing calculators are allowed, make sure you know how to use it well and are familiar with the most useful functions.
Equation Sheets on Exams
This is most very common in high school courses, but for many college courses in math, chemistry, physics, and engineering you are allowed to bring a hand-written equation sheet to exams. This should be spelled out clearly in your course syllabus along with any specific guidelines and limitations.
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