I have seen it happen again and again. I hand out a syllabus on the first day of class, and half the students fold it up and stick it in the pocket of their 3-ring binder. One or two leave it on the floor, and the rest dutifully open their prongs and insert the syllabus. A few of the students in the latter category will actually read it.
The syllabus isn't just a stack of papers that a professor is required to give students; the syllabus is a necessary tool—a road map for the class. Students who stick it in the back of a notebook and forget about it are driving without a GPS.
So what is inside a syllabus? Basically everything a student needs to know about the class.
Class expectations and objectives. This includes what knowledge and skills you are supposed to obtain throughout the class. The "what's this class about?" and "why am I here?" This is basically the thesis statement of the class. A good teacher will often remind students what the goal of the class is; but if you can do that on your own from the syllabus, you will be an excellent student.
Contact information for your professor. This includes where his or her office is located and a preferred method of contact. Some prefer phone calls, others prefer e-mails. Some have very specific guidelines (e.g. "put 'Biology 130' in the subject line" or something like that). We'll talk more in later posts about interaction with professors, but the syllabus is the place to find out the correct way to contact them.
When and where to go. There are often different rooms for the same class, particularly classes with labs, lectures, and/or discussion sections that are separate.
What textbooks and resources you will need to get. Many colleges are now having online systems that you have to buy. There may be multiple books (e.g., lecture + lab), other technology items (like clickers), and/or online homework licenses to purchase. This information will all be in the syllabus. Can you imagine how aggravating it is for a professor to hear repeatedly, "What books should I buy?"
A schedule, including assignments and due dates. Never assume that professors will remind you of when an assignment is due. It's in the syllabus, and students should be constantly checking for due dates. (We'll talk about time management in another post.) Students should not expect to get daily assignments, written on the whiteboard, at the end of every class. The syllabus contains the all-important schedule of assignments: what book chapters (or other materials) to read to prepare for each part of the class, what needs to be turned in when, and when exams will be. If a professor doesn't say, "Be sure to read Chapter 2 for next week," that doesn't mean you don't have to read it. Follow the schedule unless s/he specifically changes something in it!
Policies. Every college, department, and even professor may have different policies about attendance, academic dishonesty, technology (including cell phone and laptop use), and more. Don't assume that because you can use a laptop in one class that you can use it in another. Read the syllabus and find out your professor's policies. If s/he doesn't have specific ones, go by the college's.
Grading. It will give the percentages of what everything is worth—attendance, lab, tests, essays, participation, etc.— and how letter grades are calculated from point percentages. Students should be able to figure out their own grades based on this information.
Where to find resources for help. If a student in struggling or just needs extra assistance, the syllabus will indicate how to obtain educational and even personal, whether it is from the professor or another college source.
The syllabus answers the all-important questions: What does my professor expect from me? How do I go about doing it? and When is this due?
With that in mind, no one should ever stick that syllabus in the back of a notebook. To do so could be detrimental to a student—and really aggravate a professor.
This is #2 in the series: "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew." See also:
#1: Write Well.
#3. Be Responsible
#4. How to Interact with Professors
#6. Get Involved