What Is a Syllabus? Why Syllabuses Are Important

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By Shorelight Team
Last updated on August 7, 2023

Get to know the parts of a syllabus, see syllabus examples, and learn how a syllabus can help you succeed in your coursework.

A female student sits on a university library floor with a laptop and a stack of books and consults her syllabuses. A syllabus or class syllabus is a road map for each university course.

As an international student, you may have heard the word “syllabus” and wondered what it is, or the term might be brand new for you. Understanding this important aspect of US university academic life is key to doing well in your classes. So, what exactly is a syllabus and why is it so important? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is a Syllabus?

A syllabus is a document that outlines all the essential information about a college course. It lists the topics you will study, as well as the due dates of any coursework including tests, quizzes, or exams.

Your professors will give you a syllabus for each of your college classes. Read each one carefully to learn about grading policies, professor office hours, and everything else you need to know.

The four basic parts are:

  1. Instructor information Near the top you will find the name of your instructor, their contact information, and office hours.

  2. Reading materials and supplies This section lists books, online resources, and other content you will need for class. Additional tools, like a calculator or specific software, will be listed here, too. Typically there is a note about which materials are required and which are recommended.

  3. Policies The document should outline how you will be graded, attendance requirements, and how the professor expects students to behave. This section may also include university-wide policies on academic honesty and respect, or how students with disabilities can request support.

  4. Class schedule This section covers when assignments are due, when tests will be given, and all coursework for the class, including in-class assignments, homework, essays, labs, and assessments.

Depending on which college courses you take, some syllabuses may be more detailed or will structure information in different ways. But each will cover at least the four topics we listed above. 

Check out this sample syllabus collection from the University of South Carolina. Most will look like the ones featured here. 

Some professors try to stand out, with fun graphics and designed versions. For example, try searching the term visual syllabus to see some interesting examples.

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How You Will Receive a Syllabus

In the past, professors handed out paper copies on the first day of each class; today, most instructors put them online. If your university uses Blackboard, Canvas, or another digital course management system, you might find your syllabuses there. You may also get it as a link from your professor or can find it on your course website. 

If you do not know where to find the syllabuses for any of your classes, your professor or teaching assistant can help. Make sure to ask them on the first day of class so that you are prepared for the rest of the semester.

Why Your Syllabus Is Important

Your syllabus gathers all the vital information about your class in one place. If you have questions about class schedules, due dates, or office hours, your professor will probably say “it’s on the syllabus.” Check it first, as it will likely cover: 

  • Deadlines

  • Key preparations for class

  • Assignments

  • How you will be graded

  • Time management

  • Organization tips

  • Preferred ways to connect with professors and classmates

Here is a study tip: review all of your syllabuses at the beginning of the semester and enter important due dates into your calendar. Print them out for every class and keep them in a binder, or bookmark them for easy access online. That way, any time you have questions, you know exactly where to look. 

As an international student, you might have a lot of questions about how classes will work. Your syllabus is the document that has all the answers and can help you stay organized for each class.

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