Reading a Course Syllabus

Course syllabi lay out the expectations that course instructors have for students and that students can have for them. Most courses post their syllabus on a dedicated course website. Course staff may also distribute paper copies of the syllabus at course meetings during Course Selection Week.

It’s a very good idea to review the syllabi of every class you’re considering taking, and to discuss them with the members of your advising network, especially (if you’re a freshman) your freshman adviser.  Experienced readers can help you decipher elements of a syllabus that might not seem clear to you, or raise important questions for you to consider.

If anything on a syllabus is unclear, or any questions of yours are not addressed, talk to your instructors, other members of course staff, or the members of your advising network!

Here are some of the typical features of course syllabi:

Instructors

A syllabus tells you who is teaching your course – the course head and, as applicable, other course staff, such as teaching fellows. A syllabus usually provides the contact information for teaching staff and the schedule of office hours for advising.

Useful tip: Note the office hours for all the courses you’re taking on your personal calendar.

Course Overview

A syllabus typically describes the learning objectives of a course and the topics it will cover. If there are any prerequisites for enrolling in the course, these will be noted as well.

There are many additional things you can learn about a course by scanning its syllabus, for instance:

  • whether work in the course is primarily reading/writing- or problem set-based
  • whether the course has a lab or other non-lecture component
  • whether you are expected to do all your work on your own, or are encouraged/allowed to collaborate with other students
  • when course exams are scheduled and course assignments are due
  • whether students are expected to participate in class
  • how assignments and exams are graded
  • what the readings for the course are and (sometimes) where they may be obtained

Course Materials

A syllabus typically notes whatever course materials (textbooks, course photocopy packets, books, etc.) students will need for the entire term.  Syllabi may provide information about vendors and pricing to assist you in planning your purchases.  Some courses (especially large lecture courses) make some or all of their course materials available, on reserve, in the Harvard College Libraries.  This information is typically noted on syllabi as well.

Course Structure

A syllabus provides a schedule of course meetings, typically noting which specific topics will be covered each week (in lecture, section, or lab) and letting you know about any advance preparation that may be needed. Additional meeting times, such as problem solving workshops or exam review sessions, are also often noted. (Some of these extra meetings may be required, others not. You are strongly encouraged to attend all course sessions, including optional ones.)

When planning your courses, it is very important to note all key course scheduling information (course meeting times, due dates for course assignments, exam times, etc.) on your calendar.  Note, in particular, the dates of first assignments and midterms since these will give you valuable feedback about how you’re progressing in your courses. 

Compare the schedules for different courses you’re considering.  Do they meet at conflicting times?  Are major assignments in them due the same week?  Are their final exams scheduled for the same day?  Aside from conflicting meetings times (which is not allowed), even if the answer to these and other such questions is yes, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, simply something you want to be aware of and plan for from the outset.

Don’t be caught off guard.  To assist you in thinking about how to plan for particularly demanding stretches of the term, be sure to speak with the members of your advising network ahead of time – your freshman adviser in particular (if you’re a freshman).

Grading Policies

A syllabus will typically indicate how different components of the course (such as course assignments, midterms and final exam, final papers or projects, and class participation) are weighted in the calculation of students’ final grade. Weighting schema can vary widely in different courses.  In some, weekly assignments may combine to only a small percentage of the final grade; in others, they may be weighted heavily.  The same can be true of midterms, final exams, final projects/papers and other course components.  It is important to know how the components of your courses (or ones you’re considering) are weighted, since this can help you think about how to best manage your time. 

Some courses provide optional extra-credit assignments; or offer students the option of skipping – or throwing out the results of – certain assignments (while reweighting other ones).  These options may be noted on syllabi as well (though sometimes they’re simply announced in class).

A syllabus will also generally note the course’s policy on late work or makeup exams.

Collaboration Policy

Different courses – and different fields of study in general – are liable to have different guidelines about whether and what kind of work students are permitted do with the assistance of other students. For instance, course X may encourage you to work on problem sets in groups, whereas course Y may require that all the work you submit be entirely your own. It is essential that you understand what is allowed, encouraged, or prohibited in each of your courses.  The College holds you responsible for knowing this information, and the consequences of even accidental violations of course collaboration policies can be severe.

A course syllabus typically notes the collaboration policy for that course.  If yours does not, or if you have any questions or concerns about a particular course’s stated policy, be sure to speak with the course instructor or another member of course staff.