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Autism and Understanding Unwritten College Expectations: Part One, Syllabus Overview

Autism and understanding the college syllabus: this is the first in a series of posts about determining what, exactly, the professor’s expectations are for your successful completion of a course. We call it “Hidden Curriculum” because the resources that we’re carefully  explaining here often have implicit expectations and repercussions that accompany explicit instructions and directions. These posts will support your better understanding of the resources at your disposal and help you make use of them more fully.

It’s your first college semester. Whoop, Whoop! You’ve been accepted to a school or program, paid your fees, bought a new laptop, and signed up for your first class. You’re probably thinking, “Okay, now what?” Sometimes knowing what to expect from a certain professor or class can be hard to figure out. Fortunately, a course syllabus is often available for you to read before your class even meets for the first time.

So, what exactly is a course syllabus? A syllabus is a document that serves as a guideline for the entire course.

A Syllabus Will:

Include important information about the instructor or instructors, such as their email and office hours

Communicate what, when, where, and how students will learn

Outline what students need to do to be successful, through resources such as reading material lists and grading systems

Convey clear expectations in terms of student responsibilities

Explain any applicable administrative and/or disciplinary policies regarding things like absences, plagiarism, and class behavior

It will be your job as a student to make sure you obtain a syllabus, read it over, and keep it in your records. Some professors will email the syllabus to all the students or have it available online (usually available online via Blackboard or another online classroom platform). Print out a copy if your professor does not hand out a hard copy in class. Keep the syllabus with your class notes and assignments. You will refer back to it many times throughout the semester. It contains many pieces of important information such as the instructor’s contact information, the course information, the course goals and learning outcomes, the required texts, major assignments, grading structure, course calendar, and any pertinent disciplinary policies. Since every professor is unique, these sections will differ from class to class and from college to college.

Unwritten Expectation Alert: Not all professors will explain the whole syllabus to the class during the first week of class. However, this does not mean you’re off the hook for the rules, policies, and materials they choose not to discuss or emphasize. Some instructors will walk you through every minute detail (sometimes excruciating detail!) in their syllabus. Others will just say, “Read this outside of class. It’s important, and I expect you to know the policies and abide by its rules.” You might be tempted to think that instructors who don’t spend a lot of time covering the syllabus don’t think it’s important. However, they’re just as likely to hold you to the rules as other instructors.

Instructor and Course Information

This is often the first information on the syllabus, along with the course title and number. It’s also where you will find your instructor’s email address and office address, which will come in handy later in the semester if/when you need to get in contact with them. The professor might also indicate which way they prefer to be contacted.

This beginning section might also include meeting time, meeting location, and additional meeting times such as lectures occurring outside of regular class time, lab sessions, or online modules.

The course number sometimes starts with letters that relate to a school in the university or a certain area of study. For example, EN might refer to English. BS might refer to Biostatistics. The numbers following the letters will be unique to the individual course you’ve signed up for. Typically, the lower the number, the more introductory the class level is. For example, EN101 might be the most basic English class offered at a college.

The course number is typically followed by restating the description of the course that you may have read online or in the course catalog before signing up. Now is a good time to check that this is the class you intended to register for!  Another thing to check in this area is the prerequisites, which are the courses you should have already taken to enroll in this course. If you see something that you have not completed, you might not yet be eligible to attend this class. In that case, speak with a counselor.

Course Goals or Learning Outcomes

The “Course Goals” are often listed towards the beginning of the syllabus. These might come back as major themes for papers, projects, and finals. The Course Goals or Learning Outcomes are what the professor has highlighted to be the most important concepts for students to learn. In other words, the professor will use assignments to check for understanding in these areas.

Tip: look back at course goals and learning outcomes when working on any large assignment or studying for a big test. They can help you focus on the most important information the teacher will be looking for in a project, paper, or test. If you can prove that you have a mastery of the learning outcomes by the final, you have been studying the right information!

Course Texts

These are the books and written documents that the professor will expect students to have, read, and refer to during the semester. The professor will give certain pages or sections as assignments to read for homework. Other times, course texts are given as reference materials and can be checked out of a library or bought for a later assignment. Your professor might indicate whether these materials can be accessed or bought electronically as well. Either way, it is helpful to procure these books as soon as possible. Sometimes shipping takes longer than expected, there is a wait list to order, or there are difficulties with downloading or opening the text on your computer or tablet.  On the first day of class, a professor may specify which texts are the most important to own versus rent, which can save money. Your professor may also differentiate between required texts and those which are supplemental.

Unwritten Expectation Alert: If your professor says you should buy or rent certain books and bring them to class, do it! Following directions and being prepared to use resources matter to your success. You may see some of your peers who don’t do this, but not having your books communicates to the teacher that you’re unprepared, unable to do activities in class, and less committed to learning the material than some of your peers—whether or not that’s true!

We will continue reviewing additional syllabi sections such as the course calendar, and common idioms and phrases used in course syllabi, here.

Do you have any other Unwritten Expectation Alerts for a general college syllabus? Let us know in the comments.

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Katie Newton

Katie is a part time speech and language pathologist and part time professional runner. Katie received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Boston University in Speech, Hearing, and Language Sciences and Speech-Language Pathology, respectively. She also trains on the Boston Athletic Association High Performance Team. Katie has experience in public and private schools as well as private clinic settings. She works with children and young adults with a variety of disabilities, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Katie loves to share executive functioning and planning tips along with the more traditional social language strategies to help students succeed.

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