The Syllabus

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

16 min read

“Did you read the syllabus? It’s in the syllabus.”
—Every single professor on the planet

In the previous section we explained the necessity of knowing your time,  and more importantly, knowing how much time you have available for study. Is it going to be enough? There is no way to know the answer to that until you also know how much time you are going to need.

We believe that number one reason that students get behind in college is failure to estimate the amount of time it takes to get things done. Students continually underestimate the time they need, they wait too long, and find themselves without the time to do quality work. They are forced to cut corners. As a result, stress goes up, and grades go down.

We are going to show you how to prevent that by breaking each syllabus down into the specific tasks that need to be done. Once you know your tasks, then we’ll show you how to estimate the time each of them will take with a high degree of accuracy.

Lastly, we show you why it’s important to set everything up in one place at the beginning of each semester so you always know well in advance what’s coming up next , how much time you need to do it, and if you have time to get it done. No more guessing.

Everything Starts With The Syllabus.

The syllabus lists everything you need to do in order to successfully manage your semester. It lists the work that needs to be done, when it’s due, and the details about when to do it. Every reading, every paper, every project, every quizz, and every exam. It explains exactly what elements make up your grade.  It is your plan for the semester. Know the plan and work the plan.

You may get it as a handout, as a link to download, or in your campus course management system. No matter what the form, it is important for you to print it off and go through it in the detail that it deserves. Most students don’t.

Students treat their syllabus as just a simple checklist of things they need to do. They look at it only when they need to know what to do next. Even worse, they never consider how much time and effort will be required to get each item done. As a result, they continually underestimate the time that each assignment takes.

Before you do anything else, invest some time in really understanding what it in your syllabus.

Print out the syllabus for every class and grab a pen or a highlighter. It is CRITICAL that you slowly and methodically study every single sentence of your syllabus and know exactly what it says and means to you in terms of time and effort required. It will get you a better grade and also save you a whole lot of embarrassment.

The syllabus is filled with critical information, not only about what you need to do but hints and warnings of pitfalls if you aren’t paying attention.

Every class is different and it’s impossible to cover all of the possible variations here, but most syllabi contain some variation of the following:

  • Contact email, office address, and office hours for the professor (and teaching assistants)
  • Recommended methods and times to contact the professor
  • Class days, times, and locations, including lectures, sections, labs, etc.
  • Textbooks, workbooks, PDFs, and any other course materials you’ll be using
  • Chapters and specific pages you’ll cover.
  • Outside readings you’ll need to do
  • Objectives of the class—what you’ll be learning
  • Papers, projects, and other large assignments
  • Due dates for turning things in
  • Penalties for not turning things in, or turning things in late
  • Number and dates of quizzes and exams
  • Special instructions regarding how things should be done
  • How your grade is determined
  • Make sure that you understand each and every requirement on your syllabus.

Know Your Tasks

Ultimately the most important part of your syllabus is what’s found in the back. That’s the list of tasks that need to be done on each class date. To keep it simple, we put tasks into three main categories.

Readings. This can be textbooks, workbooks, novels, PDFs, online readings. Basically any and all materials that the professor expects you to read before class each day. Readings usually make up the majority of your study time. They are the foundation for every class lecture and will a major source for the questions on all of your exams.

Assignments. We define assignments as the things that aren’t readings and that you have to work on outside of class. They may be one time things like papers, projects, and research. They may also be periodic things like problem sets which might be due every class.

Tests. These can be periodic quizzes, midterms, or final exams. Anything you need to study for.

Understanding the quantity of these and the time and effort they are going to require is the most important thing you can do.

So, here’s the question I like to ask every student. Do you know what you need to do to get an A in your class? I’m not talking about your grading scale. That only tells you how well you need to do.

I’m talking about WHAT you need to do – the specific tasks that you need to accomplish during your semester.

Every class is different in terms of the number of specific tasks that will be required and the time it will take. I’ve seen syllabi with just 20 textbook readings and a few exams. I’ve seen others with literally hundreds tasks including readings from textbooks and PDFs, one or more papers, problem sets, daily quizzes, and exams.

On a syllabus tasks will be listed by the date they are due. However, if you organized them into categories, it might look like this.

  • Attend 45 Classes (3 classes a week for 15 weeks)
  • Complete 40 Textbook readings.
  • Complete 85 PDF Readings. (Some classes more, some less)
  • Complete 31 Problem Sets. (Maybe none at all).
  • Complete 1 twenty page Term Paper.
  • Take 12 end of week quizzes. (I’ve seen them every class!)
  • Take 1 mid-term exam.
  • Take 1 final exam.

So what do you have to ‘do’? It might be a surprise to you that your grade will actually be determined by accomplishing some 200+ specific tasks during this class. In fact, many of these will have subtasks as well. To make things worse you probably have 3 other classes and each of them may have 200 or more specific tasks that also need to get done. All of them need to be done on time, in the correct order and to a high level of quality.

The Smaller The Tasks, The Better The Plan

The ultimate goal is to create an effective study plan. Just like a contractor, you need to know what you have to do, when you are going to do it, and how much time you need to get it done. The most accurate and reliable plans are those that are built with the smallest blocks. Your goal is to create a list of every specific task for every class, in order of when they need to be done.

Once you have that list, it’s time to estimate how long each of them is going to take. Only then will you have a plan that you can rely on.

We’re going to do that now.

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