Understanding the Syllabus & Getting Organized

Understanding the syllabus for each of your courses and getting yourself organized are important keys to student success. 

Understanding The Syllabus

A syllabus is a document that you will receive on the first day of class from each instructor.  It includes important information you will need for the entire semester.  Keep it and read it as it will include all or some of the following:

Instructor Contact Information Course Policies

These could include: 1. Attendance policies 2. Late assignment policies 3. Classroom etiquette (electronic devices, respecting others, etc.)

Grading Policies

These will show you what is included in your final grade and how much each item impacts your final grade. See the examples below:

Example 1

Midterm 30%
Final 40%
Group Project 20%
Participation 10%

In the example above, there are only four items impacting your final grade. Since the mid-term is worth 30 percent of the final grade, it has a big impact. If you get a D on your mid-term, the highest grade you can earn in the class is a 72 percent (C-), and this is only if you earn a 100 percent (A+) on everything else.

Example 2

Weekly Journal 100 points
Five-page Essay 500 points
Term Paper 1000 points
Two Tests 1000 points (500 points each)
Final Exam 900 points
TOTAL 3500 points

In the second example you need to understand the overall impact of each assignment. 100 points for the journal may seem like a lot, but it is actually just under 3 percent of the final grade. The items that impact your grade the most are the term paper (worth nearly 30% of the final grade) and the final exam (worth just over 25 percent of the final grade).

Why is this important? It is not so that you can think that the journal is unimportant (you would not be asked to do the journal unless it was important and helped you to be more successful. It is important to note because having an A on the journal does not necessarily mean you are close to having an A in the class.

Here is an example of how you could think you have earned a B but actually have a C+ for the course:

Weekly Journal 100 points A- (90) = 90 points
Five-page Essay 500 points B (85) = 425 points
Term Paper 1000 points C- (70) = 700 points
Test One 500 points B (85) = 425 points
Test Two 500 points B (85) = 425 points
Final Exam 900 points C (75) = 675 points

This is 2740 out of a possible 3500 points which is a 78 percent C+ final grade.  In this example a C+ is earned even though there were only two C's earned on individual assignments.

Reading Assignments and Weekly Topics

If your instructor lists this information on the syllabus, then it is not their responsibility to tell you the weekly assignments during class. You need to consult the syllabus to keep track for yourself.

Test and Project Due Dates

If your instructor lists this information on the syllabus, then it is not their responsibility to remind you of due dates. You need to consult the syllabus to keep track for yourself.


Planners and To Do Lists

The examples below are all great tips to start your own method of organization. Don't go overboard and attempt to try all of these though. Find the strategies that work for you.

  • Buy a planner and write in all of your classes and assignments (including reading assignments).
  • Make a weekly list of reading assignments and keep it somewhere you will see it.
  • Buy a separate notebook for each class. Write out the assignments and readings in the front and use the rest for notes and studying.
  • Write the dates and reading assignments on the inside cover of your textbooks. Every day you can open your book to see what needs to be done.
  • The syllabus you receive on the first day of class includes your semester to do list. Don't lose it and please READ it.

The 60 Hour Principle

The number of hours you spend working, studying and attending class should be less than 60 hours per week for you to have the best chance of success.

Scheduling Study Time

  • How much time do you need to study? You will hear that you need between two and three hours of study time for each hour you spend in class. You will find that the actual time you need to be successful will vary depending on the course and the types of assignments given.
  • Expect to have an assignment every time you have class. This may be a graded assignment or it may be reading and preparing for class. Make sure you give yourself time to do this work.
  • Also expect that there will be key points in the term where you will have even more homework and tests. The middle and end of each term typically include exams and large projects for most courses.
  • You can better plan for study time when you use one of the organization tips above to map out your project and exam dates. This will allow you to plan ahead for busy parts of the term.
  • You do not have to study at the same time or location each week.  You do need to have short review sessions several times a week.
  • Know what percent of your final grade each assignment or test is worth and spend an appropriate amount of time on the assignment. For example, you better be sure to do a great job on something that is worth 50 percent of your final grade in a course.