No matter the subject or the level, almost every first class in almost every college or university course will have two things in common. The first is early dismissal. The second is that the professor or instructor will hand out and go over the course syllabus.
Don’t let the idea of early dismissal tempt you to skip the first class altogether, because the course syllabus is actually really important, and you’re better off not waiting to pick it up after the second class. The syllabus is basically a summary of the course. It should tell you everything you need to know about the class, and if you’re not happy with it, it’s better to know right away so that you can drop your current class and pick up a new one without falling behind.
A good syllabus will have the following elements:
1) The instructor’s contact information, including the location of his or her office and his or her office hours. If he or she has a TA (teaching assistant), the TA’s contact information may also be included, depending on the level of the TA’s involvement in the class.
2) A description of the course. You might think that this will be painfully obvious; that you won’t need to read this because you know what you signed up for, but you could be surprised. I have been surprised by novel study in a European history course, and by a focus on Existentialism in what I expected to be a more general study of French novelists. Again, this is a good reason to attend the first class!
3) The prerequisites for the class. This is helpful because sometimes it is possible to sign up for a course even if you have not yet met the prerequisites. If you’re going to need a prerequisite waiver or even to drop the class, you’ll want to know as soon as possible. It’s also nice if the instructor indicates whether or not this course is a prerequisite for higher-level courses – if you find that you enjoy Biology 2112 and you know that it’s a prerequisite for Biology 3112, this can help you decide to take Biology 3112 next semester instead of Biology 3415.
4) The required textbooks and readings. The instructor should indicate whether or not readings are on reserve at the library, on the course website, or available at the campus bookstore. Also, the instructor should indicate whether or not you need a particular edition of a textbook: you might be assigned the 11th issue of a textbook, believe that you’re fine with a used copy of the 9th or 10th edition, and then find out that the revisions made in the 11th were actually vital to your understanding of the course. Or the opposite might be true: the 11th issue has been updated, but the 10th edition still has everything you need to know for less than half the cost of the 11th.
5) Information about the exams and/or papers. This, along with the list of required reading, is really the meat of the syllabus. The instructor will tell you the dates of your exams, the due dates of your assignments, whether a paper should be written in MLA or APA format, how much each assignment is worth toward your final grade, guidelines for what should be included in each assignment, the grading criteria, and so on. Everything you could possibly need to know to stay on top of your coursework and produce satisfactory work should be on the syllabus.
6) Any of the instructor’s personal policies and any accommodations that instructor is willing to make. Every school has an official stance on plagiarism, but instructors are often given a lot of leeway when it comes to other matters. For example, some professors at my alma mater do not accept late assignments at all (unless you have a doctor’s note or a copy of a death certificate), while others accept late assignments but with penalties ranging from 2% to as much as 20% per day. Some professors will allow extensions, but only if the student requests an extension by a certain date, or if the student can provide documentation explaining why an extension is needed. Some professors will only accept hard copies of assignments, turned in during class time, while others will accept electronic submissions at any point on or prior to the due date. Some professors keep attendance, while others do not. The syllabus should let you know what to expect from that particular instructor.
You might be amazed by what the course syllabus will reveal about the class. A syllabus riddled with typos and with no set due dates for assignments tells you that the instructor is disorganized. A syllabus with very strict policies about late assignments tells you that the instructor is inflexible. The syllabus sets the tone for the whole class, so pay attention to it. It’s the best way to ensure that you’re in the right class for you.