Using Syllabi in Graduate School

By: Annie Rose Stathes

Published: January 7, 2013


A syllabus may sometimes seem like a long and annoying packet of papers your teachers give to you to make your life miserable. However, a syllabus is not meant to be a torture device. Rather, it is meant to be a contract between you and your teacher and serve as a well-planned and considerate layout of the school’s and your teacher’s expectations during the semester. Therefore, a syllabus is your friend! And that's why using syllabi in graduate school can help you succeed.

Why do I Have to Have a Syllabus?

The majority of professors put a considerable amount of time into planning, organizing, and simplifying syllabi. Professors have 5-10 short pages to describe the course to students and explain what is expected of them. In part, professors plan and organize their syllabi with such rigor so students can be well-guided and prepared throughout the semester.

There are four basic purposes that syllabi serve:

  1. Orient students with the design and curriculum of a class
  2. Inform students of class rules and regulations
  3. Inform students of department rules and regulations
  4. Inform students of school rules and regulations

Syllabi Orient Students with the Design and Curriculum of a Class

Syllabi help students prepare for class, organize their workload, and take charge of their own education. By having a more thorough understanding of how the class and curriculum are organized, students can take responsibility for their own education and may have a better chance for success in the class.

Professors often include the following information in their syllabi with the hopes that it will aid in their students’ success:

  1. Instructions for contacting and meeting with the professor after class or during their office hours: Most professors are more than happy to help outside of the classroom. Use this information to contact your professor when you need extra help or guidance.  
  2. A list of prerequisites for the course: This information helps students recognize whether or not they’ve been placed in the correct class. If you find yourself in a class for which you haven’t completed the prerequisites, talk to your professor immediately.
  3. A list of course sequencing: Similar to a listing of prerequisites, this list helps you identify whether or not you’re in the right class. It also helps you identify which course(s) you may need to take in the future.  
  4. A description of the class: This description will help you become familiar with the design and intentions of the course.
  5. A list of state or school mandated outcomes: This list will help you become familiar with the particular skills you’ll need to develop, and the knowledge you’ll need to acquire in order to fulfill the requirements of the course. This list can also give you an idea of what subjects will be covered in the course.
  6. A description of the materials required for the course: This description can guide you to obtain the correct materials for the course.
  7. A bibliography-style list of the books you’ll need to purchase for the class: This list will guide you to the correct publications, editions, and versions of the books needed for the class.
  8. A list of the major assignments due throughout the semester: This list can aid you in planning ahead and making sure you know when major assignments are due.  
  9. An outline of lectures, assignments, and readings and their corresponding dates and due dates: This outline can allow you to track your own work and therefore take responsibility for your own education. It can help you identify and track assignments, class lectures, and homework. Keep in mind, many professors will divert from this outline on occasion. These outlines are meant to give you an idea of when lectures and assignments will occur—not to tell you exactly what’s going to happen in the course. 

Syllabi Inform Students of Class Rules and Regulations

Professors have particular expectations of their students in areas such as attendance, participation, behavior, and the completion of assignments. Those expectations and others are generally made clear to the class in the syllabus. In the syllabus, professors set expectations, for example, for what counts as a “late” assignment, by when students must arrive to class without being penalized, how many absences a student can have before losing points, what activities and behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable in class, and many others.

Other class rules and regulations that might be covered in the syllabus include:

  1. A description of unacceptable behaviors, actions, and circumstances such as being disrespectful, using cellphones, or turning in late work.
  2. A grading scale that identifies percentage and point systems so that students can track their own grades.
  3. An academic dishonesty policy that identifies what actions the professor will take if students do dishonest work (plagiarism, etc.).

These rules and regulations are generally listed so professors can maintain order and integrity within the classroom, and so students can understand what is expected of them, which is why effectively using syllabi in graduate school can help you earn your degree.

Syllabi Inform Students of Department Rules and Regulations

Professors are often times bound to the rules and regulations of the department to which they belong. History, English, Writing, Sociology, Science, and Technology departments, for example, may each have different attendance, participation, or scoring expectations of students. Therefore, most professors include on their syllabi a list of department rules and regulations students must follow. It is important to become familiar with departmental rules and regulations because they may be different in each of your classes.

Syllabi Inform Students of School Rules and Regulations

Most schools require professors to list some of the more important school rules and regulations in their syllabi. This information may include registration rules and deadlines, academic dishonesty policies, or student rights policies. Schools often require professors to include such information in their syllabi so students can easily access the information, understand their rights and obligations, and enter into a contract of sorts with the school.  

A syllabus may be a roadmap to academic success. Use your syllabi to prepare for classes so you can participate in classroom discussions, ensure you are meeting course requirements, and proactively manage your time. 

Using Syllabi in Graduate School to Earn Your Degree

Whether you're pursuing a master's degree, graduate certificate, or a doctorate degree, using syllabi in graduate school can help you organize your calendar and plan ahead. Your syllabus is your friend, use it effectively to earn your graduate degree.

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Annie Rose Stathes holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Political Science, both from the University of Colorado, Denver. She is currently an Instructor of Writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado

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