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What Is a Syllabus and Why Is It Important?

liberal arts
By Shorelight Team
Last updated on September 22, 2022

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

A woman sits on a library floor with a her laptop and a stack of books and consults her syllabuses.

“It’s on the syllabus!”

As an international student, you may have heard the word “syllabus” and wondered what that is, or the term “syllabus” might be a brand-new word for you. Either way, a syllabus is an important tool when you begin your studies in the USA. 

On the first day of your college courses, your professors may spend some time reviewing the syllabus for each class. Reading and understanding your syllabus can help you know what to expect from the class over the course of a semester.

But 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 of a syllabus are:

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

  2. Reading materials and supplies This syllabus 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 A syllabus will 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 The syllabus will include when assignments are due and when tests will be given. This section contains all coursework for the class, including in-class assignments, homework, essays, labs, and assessments.

Depending on which college courses you take, some syllabuses or syllabi (there are two plural terms for more than one syllabus) may be more detailed or will structure information in different ways. But each syllabus will cover at least the four topics we listed above. 

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

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

How You Will Receive a Syllabus

In the past, professors handed out paper copies of the syllabus on the first day of each class. Today, most instructors of college classes put their syllabuses 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.” When you have a question about how your class works, check your syllabus first.

Taking time to read and understand the syllabus might not sound like fun, but it can be really useful. Your syllabus will help you: 

  • Meet deadlines

  • Be prepared for class

  • Understand assignments

  • Know how you will be graded

  • Manage your time

  • Stay organized

  • Connect with professors and classmates

You can print out the syllabus for each class and keep it in a binder, or just bookmark it for easy access online. That way, any time you have questions, you know exactly where to look. 

Here is a study tip: review all of your syllabuses at the beginning of the semester and enter important due dates into your calendar. 

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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