“Read the syllabus”: Getting the information you need without annoying your instructors

If you’re in university/college in the United States, many/most instructors will expect you to be able to get certain kinds of information from the syllabus. If you send them an email/message asking for that information they think you should be able to find yourself, it may annoy them — they may feel that you are expecting them to do work for you that you should be doing yourself.

A non-exhaustive list of things that many instructors expect you to check the syllabus for:

  • What the reading is for a particular class session.
  • Whether there’s an assignment, and when it is due.
  • When an exam is, and what range of material is likely to be on the exam.
  • Whether participation is required.
  • How many points something is worth.
  • (Depending on the instructor and the subject, there may be other things).
  • Where and when to turn in homework and assignments.

Most syllabi are formatted along these lines:

  • At the top, there will be the course title, the course number, and the name(s), and (usually) contact information) of the instructor(s),
  • The next thing is usually an introduction with some basic information about the class. This will usually include:
    • A description.
    • A list of course objectives (the kinds of things that you’re supposed to learn in the class.)
    • Information about office hours/how to get in touch with instructor(s).
  • Some information that may be at the beginning of the syllabus or may be at the end:
    • If applicable, information about where to go for help, eg:
      • If you’re an undergraduate taking a class that involves writing, there is likely a writing center you can go to for help.
      • If you’re an undergraduate student taking classes that involve math, there’s likely a math help center you can go to.
      • In some schools and subjects, there will be formal study groups or tutoring sessions available if you need additional help. This is particularly common in very large classes in subjects that are prerequisites for various career paths (eg: a chemistry class that’s required for premed students.)
      • In many/most universities, there are subject-specific librarians who you can go to for help with things like finding sources on a topic you’re researching or how to use the databases your school subscribes to.
    • Policies about things like grading, excused absences, late assignments, makeup work, accommodations for students with disabilities, etc.
  • There will probably, but not always, be a list of general course requirements and an outline of due dates and exam dates. Sometimes that information is in a summary at the top, and sometimes it’s only in the next part.
  • There will almost always be a week-by week or session-by-session list of class meetings and associated assignments. This will usually list:
    • Which reading is required and/or recommended for each session.
    • Due dates for papers, reading reflections, or other assignments.
    • Exam dates. (Eg: If there’s a midterm and a final, the week-by-week part of the syllabus will say when they are. The syllabus may also have explicit information about what material they will cover; it may also assume that it’s clear from what’s listed on the syllabus as being taught before the exam.)

Sometimes it’s harder than instructors think it is to find information on a syllabus. 

  • Even after checking the syllabus, you still may sometimes be confused. 
  • Once you’ve checked, it’s ok to ask clarifying questions.

For instance, sometimes the information is out of date:

  • Sometimes instructors move more slowly through the material than they expected to.
  • This might result in some assignments or readings being dropped or pushed back to a later date.
  • Looking at a syllabus, you may be unsure whether the assignment is what’s listed or whether it’s been changed to something else.

Sometimes there’s more ambiguity that instructors realize, eg:

  • “Read Smith pp 1-15” might be ambiguous about *which* reading that is if there are multiple files listed as “Smith”.
  • “Read the first chapter” could be unclear about whether it’s the introduction or Chapter 1.
  • “Do the problems on pages 45-47” could be unclear if a book has both a main list of problems and extra problems in a sidebar.
  • “Read Chapter 3 and answer the chapter questions” could be confusing if there are both questions in sidebars on some of the pages within the reading *and* questions at the end of the chapter.
  • Sometimes there’s a syllabus given as a .doc file and also formatted differently on Blackboard/Moodle/etc, and sometimes someone makes a mistake and they contradict each other.

Sometimes the stated policies on the syllabus don’t match an instructor’s actual approach to teaching:

  • Eg: Some instructors have very strict grading policies on the syllabus but are lenient in practice when students ask for exceptions.
    • Since there’s such a wide variety of approaches to this, it’s generally impossible to tell from the syllabus whether or not instructors who list strict policies mean them. 
    • The best source of information is usually, but not always, other students who have taken a class with that instructor before.
    • Sometimes there’s no good way to know in advance.
  • Eg: Instructors are often required to include standard language reflecting school wide policies. 
    • Some instructors copy and paste the required language without paying attention to it or having any actual intention of following it.
      • Eg: instructors may be required to paste in language that says something like “students with disabilities should contact the disability center for accommodations. No accommodations can be considered until documentation is provided.” 
      • In practice, many instructors who are required to say that on the syllabus are actually entirely willing to arrange for informal modifications if you talk to them directly. (eg: an instructor who usually gives written exams may have no objection to you using a computer instead.) 

If you check the syllabus and you’re still confused and need to ask the instructor a question, here are some things that will make it less likely that your question will annoy them:

First, make sure you’re asking the right person:

  • If you’re in a small class or a seminar, your instructor is probably the right person to ask.
  • If you’re in a large class that has discussion sections led by a TA, you should probably ask the TA rather than the main instructor. If you’re supposed to ask the TA, their contact information should be on the syllabus.
  • If you’re in a very large class and there’s a relevant help center (eg: a math homework help there), you should probably go to the help center rather the main instructor for questions about content that you’re struggling with.
  • If you’re having trouble writing a paper, it’s probably ok to ask either the instructor, a TA, or a writing center for help figuring out what to do. 
    • If you’re having trouble finding sources, it’s also generally ok to ask a librarian for help.

If it makes sense to send an email or message, format it in a formal-ish way: 

  • Your message should be more like a letter than a text message.
  • (For whatever reason, some instructors take it as a personal insult when students structure emails informally. I think that this is unreasonable, but it’s very common and it’s worth erring on the side of formally in order to avoid irritating people who have power over your grades.)
  • Use complete sentences. 
  • Use capital letters and punctuation. 
  • Don’t use texting-style abbreviations or emoji.

Address them formally:

  • Include a greeting in an email. (For whatever reason, some instructors are extremely offended by emails without greetings.)
  • Use their academic title if they have one, unless they’ve explicitly told you to address them a different way.
  • Their title will likely be at the top of the syllabus. If you’re not sure, start the email “Dear Dr. [Lastname].
  • Many instructors with titles are offended if students call them by their first name, even if they use a title. 
    • This is especially likely to be the case with marginalized instructors, because they’ve likely had experience with people using last names for privileged colleagues and first names for them. 
    • Even if your intentions are respectful, they can’t read your mind, and may perceive it as a similar kind of disrespect. 
    • Err on the side of formality and use their last name.
  • If you’re emailing a TA, they probably don’t have a title and you’re probably supposed to call them by their first name. It’s a good idea to double check this – look on the syllabus. If they have a title there, use it when you email them.
  • Spell their name correctly. If it’s hard for you to spell their name, copy and paste it from the syllabus. 

If at all possible, keep the message short. Long messages are more likely to annoy instructors because they take longer to read.

Tell them that you’ve checked the syllabus, briefly explain what you’re confused about, and ask the question in as specific terms as possible. (Some unusually unreasonable instructors may still be offended that you need to ask, but no *reasonable* instructors will be upset if you make it clear that you did try to look up the information yourself. When people are so unreasonable that they get angry that students can’t read their mind, there’s not a lot you can do about that – that’s on them.)

Some instructors may also be annoyed that you asked them rather than another student. (I think that’s unreasonable, but if you have an instructor who feels that way, it’s in your interests to try to get information from other students if at all possible.)

Send the message as soon as possible: 

  • The closer to class, the more likely it is to annoy the instructor. 
  • (In part this is because everyone needs good work-life balance – instructors need down time when they’re not constantly on call to answer questions from students.)
  • If an assignment you’re struggling with is overdue, it’s still best to email and ask for help sooner rather than later. 
    • If you’ve had trouble with an assignment in a way that stopped you from meeting the deadline, you probably need help.
    • It’s better to ask for help as soon as possible.
    • Shame-hiding and trying to solve the problem on your own through sheer force of will tends to backfire.
    • It’s embarrassing to be struggling with a late assignment, but it’s best to face the embarrassment and ask for help.
    • It’s ok to need help, and you’re more likely to get it if you ask for it.

Here’s an example of a message that many instructors will find annoying or outright offensive:

“hey, what’s the reading for monday?”

Here’s an example of a message that no one reasonable is likely to be offended by:

Dear Dr. [Lastname],

I’m confused about the reading for next Monday. It says on the syllabus to read pages 1-25 in the wombats book, but I thought we were still on unicorns next week. Should I read the wombats reading or the unicorns reading?

Thank you,

[Your name]

Another example:

A message likely to annoy or offend instructors:

“what should i write the paper about”

A message that’s much less likely to be seen as offensive and much more likely to be welcome:

Dear Dr. [Lastname],

I’m having trouble with the paper on llamas. I wanted to write it on the history of purple-dyed llama yarn, but it’s not coming together, and I’m wondering if I need to change the topic. Could we talk about it during office hours?

Thank you,

[Your name]

tl;dr: Undergraduates often annoy instructors by asking for information that the instructors think they should be getting from the syllabus. Scroll up for some advice about how to ask for information/help without annoying instructors.