What Is a Syllabus?

Instructors must provide a syllabus. But what is a syllabus exactly? Learn about the parts of a syllabus and how it can help you succeed in class.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published July 11, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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What Is a Syllabus?
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In fall 2021, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hid a surprise in his syllabus. When students read through the entire document, they'd find a hidden treasure — a description of how to open a locker containing $50. At the end of the semester, Dr. Kenyon Wilson checked the locker. The $50 bill sat untouched.

"It is an academic trope that no one reads the syllabus," Wilson explained to CNN. "It's analogous to the terms and conditions when you're installing software, everyone clicks that they've read it when no one ever does."

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But finding $50 isn't the only reason to read your syllabus. Spending time with the syllabus will tell you the instructor's approach to the course, what the professor expects from students, and how to succeed in the class.

What Is a Syllabus in College?

A class syllabus provides an overview and road map for a college class. It lists assignments, grading policies, and other important information.

The syllabus also lets students know what to expect. At many schools, instructors must hand out a syllabus and post it on the school's learning management system.

On the first day of class, many professors go over the syllabus. Instructors typically highlight key information, like the number of exams or the grading policy. The syllabus also explains what the professor expects from students. Pay close attention to these expectations to do well in the class.

What Is the Purpose of a Syllabus?

A syllabus introduces the class. In the document, the instructor lays out the class requirements and the grading system. Students can use the syllabus to find reading assignments, plan ahead for exams and essays, and figure out which books and supplies to buy for class.

But the purpose of the syllabus goes beyond providing information. A syllabus acts as a contract between the instructor and students. By reading the syllabus closely, students can understand more about the topic and the instructor.

The syllabus also tells students what to expect from the instructor in terms of grading and policies.

Where Can You Find the Class Syllabus?

You should receive a copy of the class syllabus during the first week of class. Most colleges require instructors to hand out copies for in-person classes and post the syllabus online for in-person or online classes.

Often, you can look at the syllabus online before the first day of class. If you can't find the syllabus after the first day, ask your instructor. If your instructor doesn't provide a syllabus, contact the department.

The 6 Parts of a Syllabus

The average syllabus should be 5-8 pages, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology. But sometimes syllabi are much longer, with pages of legal documents stapled to the end.

Understanding each part of the syllabus will make it easier to find useful information — and to know which pages you can skim.

1 Professor Information

At the top of the syllabus, you'll find the professor's name, office location, and office hours. You'll also usually find contact information like an email address or office phone number.

Most students skim over this section, but it's worth reading — you don't want to get to finals week and realize you can't remember your professor's name!

2 Course Description and Books

The course description tells you what to expect in the class. What themes and topics will you cover? What are the main focuses of the course? Read this section to understand your professor's approach to the subject.

Under the course description, you'll often find learning objectives. These typically list the knowledge and skills you'll develop in the class.

This section also includes a list of required books and supplies. Pay careful attention to this section — you can often find more affordable books and supplies by searching online rather than heading to the campus bookstore. Check with your professor about books with multiple editions.

3 Assignments and Grade Breakdown

The syllabus lists every assignment for the class, along with due dates. And it provides a breakdown of final grades.

You'll see a list the points or percentages for exams, papers, presentations, lab reports, and any other assignments. The syllabus will also tell you whether participation or attendance counts toward your grade.

Pay close attention to this section because it gives you a roadmap to succeeding in the class. You'll learn whether the instructor weighs exams or papers more heavily and how much participation factors into grades.

4 Class Policies

Can you submit work late? What happens if you miss a class? The class policies section lays out your instructor's expectations of students. Many students skim over this section, but it's important to read it closely.

Instructors typically include attendance and participation policies in this section, along with late penalties or makeup policies. The syllabus will likely list academic integrity rules and the course's policy on plagiarism.

This section might also include policies on technology in class or recording lectures. Many instructors include information about the writing center and other student services in this section as well.

5 Weekly Schedule

Most syllabi include a weekly schedule that lays out the lecture and discussion topics for each class session. The schedule also lists reading assignments, due dates, and other deadlines.

Review the weekly schedule at the beginning of the term and return to it regularly. The schedule gives you an overview of what the course will cover, along with your weekly workload. Use the syllabus to plan ahead. If you have a paper due the week after your midterm, schedule extra time to devote to the class.

6 University Policies

The final section of a syllabus typically lists university policies. Instructors often do not write this section — they add pages required by the university.

Not surprisingly, many students skip this section, especially if it's the same on every syllabus. However, it's a good idea to read over the policies so you know your rights when it comes to discrimination, disability accommodations, and more.

Why You Should Read the Syllabus

Professors understand why students often skim the syllabus or only glance at it briefly — many syllabi are long, repetitive, and dull. But it's still important to read the syllabus.

The syllabus acts like a contract. It lays out what you can expect in the class and what the instructor expects from you. It's also a road map for the course. You'll learn about extra credit opportunities and whether the class uses a curve in the syllabus.

The syllabus also explains how to ask for an extension and how your professor will handle suspected plagiarism. So set aside time at the beginning of the term to read every syllabus in full. Then, return to the syllabus regularly for reminders about class policies and due dates.

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