Week One of SSC Academics

Syllabus 101

Good morning Marauder!

Don’t click away! I know syllabi look boring, but they are actually super useful. This post will guide you through the different parts and will also include a word bank of some commonly-used phrases that might be new to you as a first year. I want you to think of a syllabus as your roadmap. It tells you who your professor is, what they will cover, how they will cover it, required texts, and how you will be evaluated. Let’s start with a breakdown of the sections you will find in your syllabi, with reference to faculty-specific differences.

Photo of a syllabus.


Right at the top of every syllabus is your professor’s email, office location, and office hours. This is extremely useful whether you want to ask a question in person or via email.

Course Description:

This section varies from faculty to faculty. In the Humanities and Social Sciences, this is likely to be a descriptive overview of what the course covers. In Sciences, Engineering, and Business, this is more likely to be a one or two sentence summary of the course. In all cases, course descriptions get right to the heart of what will actually be covered in class. This is not something to skip over.

Learning Objectives: Sometimes called course objectives, these are often placed under the course description. Your class performance relies on your ability to understand what the professor wants you to know, so think of these objectives as insight into their perspective.


Depending on your program, you might find that you are given more information (rubrics, dates, guidelines) or less information (evaluation weight) about each graded element. It is a good idea to record due dates in your calendar so that you can stay aware of them.

Materials & Fees:

Here, Professors will indicate all required materials for a course (textbooks, novels, iClickers, lab kits, etc.). This information is also available through the campus store, both in person and online at https://campusstore.mcmaster.ca/.


Yay, policies! Don’t be fooled by the supposed monotony of policy information. As a first year student, these policies are new to you and are important for you to know. I’ll keep it brief in this section if you promise to actually read them on your syllabi, which will include some (if not all) of the following topics:

  • Accessibility and accommodations
  • Academic dishonesty and plagiarism
  • Avenue to learn and other online software
  • Attendance and participation expectations
  • Late submissions & the McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)
  • Email correspondence

When and Where You Have to Be:

Weekly topics and readings: This structure is more common in Humanities and the Social Sciences but it might show up elsewhere too! It is very useful to reference this when you are planning your schedule, because you will know which weeks are the heaviest in terms of reading. Stay tuned for scheduling tips next week!

Schedule of labs: Knowing which lab you are in, when you need to be there, and when your pre-lab tests are can save you from the hassle of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Just like how a syllabus will guide you through your classes, the following is a mini glossary of terms to help you feel even more confident when you step on campus:

Lecture vs. Tutorial:

Lectures are when your instructor delivers material to you, though they can also include some group work or discussion. Depending on the discipline, tutorials are sometimes smaller scale lessons, discussions, or question periods facilitated by your Teaching Assistant (TA).

12 Point Grade Scale vs. Letter Grades:

McMaster uses a 12 point grading scale which corresponds with grades on the alphabet and percentage scales. For example, an A+ grade (in the range of 90-100) is a perfect 12. An A grade (85-89) is an 11, and so on.

Course codes:

eg. 1A03

1: The level of the course. In this case, it is a first year course.

A0: Alphanumeric code that you don’t need to worry too much about.

3: The number of units you will receive for the course. In most cases, 3 unit courses are half-year and 6 unit courses are full-year.

I hope this has been helpful! Remember: you will save yourself and your professors a headache if you check the syllabus before emailing them. I promise that the answer to your question exists on the syllabus more often than you might think! If you still have operational questions about your classes, I strongly encourage you to visit your faculty’s advising office. They are extremely knowledgeable about how the university operates and can also help clarify what you are required to take.

Tomorrow, we’ll think through the challenging process of entering academic and social independence. Whether or not you think independence is something to be feared or excited about, it is undoubtedly a huge step. Thanks for reading, Marauder!



Join the conversation: Do you have any questions about how your classes will operate?

Is everything I heard about university true? Will it be unimaginably different from high school? Will I really just be a number in the system or will people want to help me? Read Expectations 101 to find answers to these and other questions you might have.

What even is a syllabus? Do I really have to care about it? What is the difference between a lecture and a tutorial? Find answers to these and other questions in Syllabus 101!

What does it mean to be independent at university? Will I be able to relate to my peers and make connections with them? Should I think about different kinds of independence and how prepared I am for them? Think about these (and other) questions in Independence 101!

2 thoughts on “Syllabus 101”

  1. This was really helpful. The only question I have is homework wise. How important is homework in University?

    1. Some of the most common “homework” you will encounter would be in the form of readings or pre-lab materials. “Importance” can be difficult to define, but it is true that you will be more prepared for lectures if you go to them with their context already in mind. I find I always engage more actively with lecture material if I’ve made time to do my readings before class because I already have questions and am interested in the content.

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