Bridges Resource Library

Unlock the Power of the Syllabus

Updated as of May 28, 2024.

Let’s get acquainted with what a syllabus is and how we can use it as a tool to prepare for and succeed in our upcoming classes.

What Is a Syllabus Anyway?

A syllabus is a document that sets forth the outline of a course as well as important information about the way the course will progress, the materials needed, and the rights and responsibilities of both the professor and each student. Each student will receive a syllabus for most high school classes and college courses(both undergraduate and graduate school classes). Most syllabi (or syllabuses) contain most of the following information:

Basic information

  • Name of the course and course number
  • Dates of the course (beginning and ending)
  • Name and contact information for each instructor(s)

Materials needed

  • Books required (often including identifying information like an ISBN – International Standard Book Number)
  • Technology required
    • Laptop
    • Software
    • Lab book
  • Tools needed
    • Rulers, Protractors
    • Calculators

Pacing/timing schedule

  • Many syllabi contain outlines of the course
  • Especially in college, instructors often include dates in this outline. For example: Week of [blank] [topics] will be covered
  • Due dates for major assignments
  • Notations of regularly due assignments, such as “Reflection journals are due every Monday.”

Types of assignments and assessments

  • Classwork, homework
  • Discussion boards
  • Quizzes, tests
  • Projects
  • Class participation

Grading policy

  • Percentages related to each type of assignment
  • Penalties for late submissions
  • Bonus point information (if available)

How Is a Syllabus Powerful?

Information is power

As noted above, a syllabus contains a lot of great information. By keeping track of this document, that information is always close at hand.

Communication leads to better accommodations

We can use the instructor’s contact information from the syllabus to reach out to discuss details about how the course runs so that we can request any accommodations we need.

For example, we probably want to talk with the instructor about how information is presented to the class. If the instructor uses PowerPoint or other slide presentations, we can ask (1) that the text be accessible and (2) that any graphics be described (and provided as enlarged desk copies and/or tactile graphics, if needed).

We can anticipate that most instructors won’t understand what we mean by “accessibility,” so we can let them know what kinds of accommodations we need and why. We can also connect the instructor with staff who will assist in providing our accommodations, like our teachers of blind/low vision students (TVIs) in high school and, in college, the school’s Disability Services Office. When we (the student, the instructor, and the accommodations assistance staff) work together, we can provide needed accommodations on time and with less stress for everyone involved!

Roadmap of the course

Using the syllabus, we can determine what tasks will be expected in the class. This information can provide clues to possible areas where we might need accommodations (different tools, different ways of completing an assignment) so that we can fully participate in class activities and expectations. For example:

Time management

Schedules listed in the syllabus can be invaluable in helping us keep up with assignments and ensure that we set aside sufficient time to read, prepare for class, study, etc. Even though the schedules can fluctuate a bit, they still provide us with a window to the future with regard to that course.

Let’s not forget our time management tools like calendars! When a syllabus posts due dates, especially for tests and projects, it’s a great idea to immediately put these due dates in our calendar (whatever system we are using). If we want to take it up a notch, we can also add calendar reminders BEFORE that due date. Yes, it can be hard to accurately assess exactly how much time a project will take, but if we OVERestimate that time, the worst that will happen is that we finish early and have more free time than we expected. Win, win!!

Implicit information (from what isn’t listed)

We also can get important information by using the syllabus to predict class activities that might pose accessibility obstacles. For example:

Proactive Steps

Accommodations are likely needed

As noted above, we know that most high school and college courses are not designed with accessibility in mind. In fact, we might be the only blind/low vision person who has taken the class (with any teacher) in several years. And, even if there is another blind/low vision person in our class, they might need different accommodations than we need.

Ask for a sneak peek

It’s OK to ask a teacher or professor for a copy of the syllabus before they provide it to everyone. If the instructor questions why, we can share that getting that syllabus early gives us more time to make certain that accommodations (including accessible materials, tools, and activities) are in place. After all, it’s a lot easier to implement accommodations BEFORE course deadlines start looming!

We can also add early access to syllabi as accommodations in our official documentation with our school – our IEP (individualized education plan)/Section 504 plan for high school and our Accommodations plan/Section 504/ADA plan for college). Of course, we may still need to remind the accommodations staff that we need the item, but it can be very helpful to have standing orders from the school that we need all syllabi early!

Alternatives to getting an early syllabus

Sometimes, an early syllabus is not an option. In those cases, we can become syllabus detectives!

On the college level, the campus bookstore will usually have information about which textbooks (and sometimes equipment) will be needed for the course. We can access this information (online, by phone, or in person) to get a head start on acquiring at least some of the course materials.

The internet serves as a repository of tons of information.  Many times, we can locate a syllabus for the course and/or the instructor on the internet. If it’s a past syllabus for this course and this instructor at this school, we can likely rely on the information in the syllabus. Even syllabi for the course from any other professor at the school and/or from the instructor for another course can provide insight into the way the course is typically laid out or the kinds of assignments and grading policies the instructor typically uses.

Remember, information is POWER!

Please Reach Out ANYTIME!

We at the Bridges Helpdesk and Technical Assistance Center have decades of experience using syllabi to take control of high school and college courses! We are eager to hear from you and to help with anything you need – finding a syllabus, advocating with instructors and Disability Services Offices, and anything else. Please never hesitate to contact us!

Contact the Bridges Helpdesk for More Information

This unique project is being coordinated through The IMAGE Center of Maryland, a center for independent living in Towson, and it is funded by a grant from the Maryland Department of Education Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.

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