Tips for students: How to read a syllabus strategically

One important goal for a student in a class is to learn a lot of valuable information. Another, separate goal is to get a good grade. This is advice on how to do the second thing. My key idea is: think of the syllabus as a game your professor has designed, and learn to play that specific game. That means two things: 1, figure out what you get points for; and, 2, figure out what doesn’t give you points but is still important. At the end, I’ll put those two ideas together for the especially important task of strategizing in the face of late penalties.

What do you get points for?

It can be helpful to think for the grade breakdown as individual points you’re earning, rather than percentages. (In other words, if 10% of your overall grade is participation, there are 10 points available for participation.) Presumably you have a target final score you are hoping for: since I am at a Canadian university, that’s likely to be at least 60 points for a C-, or at least 80 points for an A-. Let’s look at my recent syllabus for The Digital Text as an example. Here are where the points actually come from in this class.

  • 25 points: Tutorial participation
  • 20 points: Assignment 1: Creative intervention (in Twine)
  • 20 points: Assignment 2: Game/book review
  • 35 points: Final digital piece (in Twine)

Not all points take equal effort to get. In this case, the minutes-per-points ratio is especially favourable for tutorial participation. Take a look at the explanation I give for the participation grade:

Participating in tutorial conversations is a crucial part of learning the course material. Your goal is to form your own interpretations of these texts and your own answers to the course’s theoretical challenges, to use the course’s theoretical vocabulary comfortable, and to be able to relate your interpretations and answers to others’. Tutorials are your opportunity to pursue your thinking more deeply, and to answer questions. Because the learning that occurs in tutorials is important to the course, it makes up a substantial part of your grade.

However, many forms of grading participation can get in the way of what makes tutorials valuable for learning. Because I want this grade to be clear with minimal disruption to ongoing conversations, your participation grade will be based on completing brief, informal, written survey questions each week. Your TA will administer these surveys with low-stakes questions that are designed to reinforce your learning. There are no wrong answers, and sentence or two is plenty. Complete all of these surveys punctually for a perfect mark in participation.

Ok, so I say a lot of things about what I want you do to: go to tutorials, talk in them, find them intellectually enriching. But what do you get points for? You get points for answering a short survey every week. Those points don’t require you to do the reading, or go to the lecture, or even go to the tutorial. There are 10 tutorials, so each of these surveys gets you 2.5 points. If you type fast, that could be a point a minute. How do you lose these points? By checking out of the course so much that you miss the survey window.

Peek behind the curtain: Why would I evaluate “participation” like this? Well, because we’re in a global pandemic, and I want things to be flexible. I also don’t want students to wait until the end of the semester to try to do the entire course at once. I’m relying on “soft” forms of social pressure to encourage richer engagement, but for this grade I just want regular “signs of life.” Most professors build in some part of a class that they think will be lower effort per point, to make up for the harder parts of the class.

Takeaway #1: Figure out where your professor thinks they are giving you “free points” and prioritize those.

So, 30 to 60 minutes of total work across the semester could get you all 25 “participation” points. Where are the hardest points to get? Those will be the last few points of each assignment that set an A+ apart from an A. At the University of Toronto, an A+ grade starts at 90%, and a grade that high is unusual. It could take many hours to bring an assignment from an 88% to a 90%, and that increase of 2% on the assignment would add only 0.4 points to your final mark if it’s one of the smaller assignments, or 0.7 points if it’s the final project. There’s still a reason to aim for an A+ on the assignments, since it’s the only way to get an A+ in the course as a whole. But as your assignment improves, there are diminishing returns to the points-per-hour that you are earning, and at some point it’s probably worth doing some homework for a different class.

So what are the easier points to get on the individual assignments? Well, in an English class, if you turn in something that is the correct number of words and repeatedly mentions the assigned topic, it’s pretty likely you’ll get at least a 40% on it. Getting a high F or a low D on an assignment gives you a lot more points than skipping the assignment completely. Let’s imagine you got a failing grade of 48% on each assignment, but got full participation marks: 25 + 9.6 + 9.6 + 16.8 = 61. That is a C-! Of course, if you missed all the participation points, it’s 36, a clear F, so you can only get away with the “high fail” on assignments if you have built a good foundation of your “free points” first, but in most cases you’re (hopefully) not failing every assignment. The important thing to remember is that 9.6 points is a lot more than 0.

Takeaway #2: Always get at least a high F.

What doesn’t give points but is still important?

It might be strange, when you look at a syllabus this way, to see what you don’t get points for. In this case, you don’t get points for coming to lectures or tutorials or doing the readings? Aren’t all of those things the class?? The idea here is that the assignments give points indirectly for class engagement, since it will be hard to even get a high F unless you do some of the class material, and impossible to get a high A without doing a substantial amount of it.

Something teachers think about a lot is Bloom’s taxonomy of learning:

The idea here is that harder tasks — like writing an analytical essay — have to rest on a foundation of simpler forms of learning. In The Digital Text, all three of the assignments sit at the very top of this pyramid. This is the real reason I think students will come to lectures and tutorials: that’s where there is a chance to understand, apply, and analyze the information that forms the foundation of the assignments. Similarly, there are no points just for doing the readings in the class, because the assignments require you to read.

Takeaway #3: Once you know what you have to do to get points, look at how you’re supposed to learn to do that.

There is strategy here, too. In The Digital Text, there are three major assignments, each focused on one text, and they’re expected to be on different texts. So, you have to do at least three of the readings. Doing the other readings gives you a bigger pool of options when you’re brainstorming your assignments, and helps you have more sophisticated ideas — the kinds of things that get you from a B to an A. But to go from a D to a C, you’re probably better off working your way up the pyramid for just one text: reading or re-reading the text you’re writing about, watching the lecture, and talking to your TA about the core questions.

Peek behind the curtain: Why would I have a small number of high-stakes assignments like this? It’s another way to build in flexibility and agency for students. There’s a lot less to keep track of than if there were a lot of small assignments all the time. It also lets students focus on engaging more deeply and creatively with each assignment, supporting my goal of building up independent critical analysis.

You may find that not all professors are equally good game designers. But if things seem really strange, breaking the activities down according to Bloom’s taxonomy can help you figure out what’s going on with the course design.

Late policies are where the game gets real

Ok, let’s say things are getting a little tough and you have a late assignment. It often feels emotionally terrible to have overdue assignments. You might feel like you have to make your assignment incredible, or turn it in as fast as possible, or both, to make up for being late. But your professor’s late policy has set up a minigame that can tell you what strategy to apply. The question for a late assignment is “when should I submit whatever I have?” The answer is: submit whenever taking extra days wouldn’t get you more points than the late penalty would take away. Even if the assignment is still terrible, remember the “high F” principle.

Let’s take a look at two different kinds of late policies.

Policy 1: Late work gets a deduction of 5% per day. After one week, no late work accepted.

I call this a “cut your losses” late policy: professors often use this kind of late policy when they want to avoid having students fall behind in the course as a whole. In a lot of technical courses, for example, class material builds on itself so that a student who is three weeks behind can no longer learn from the lectures and tutorials, so momentum is very important.

Your true deadline here is the end of the week: even 10% is better than 0%, so you have to turn something in on the seventh day. But because each percentage point of improvement on an assignment is harder than the previous, the best time to turn in what you have is probably somewhere earlier on. Turning something in on the last possible day is a 35% deduction, so if you turned in high-A work your 88% would become 53% on the seventh day. That’s the same number of points as submitting work worth 83% on the sixth day, or 78% on the fifth day, or 73% on the fourth day, or 68% on the third day, or 63% on the second day, or 58% on the first day.

Since the final impact on your course grade is identical, you are much better off turning in D+ work on the first late day instead of high-A work on the seventh day, because then you can spend the next six days getting points on the other assignments in the class. That is the point: your professor wants you to move on, and focus on keeping up with where the course is now.

Takeaway #4: Don’t forget to compare the points you get for improving late work to the points you could get from other parts of the class.

Policy 2: Late work gets a flat deduction of 5%. Late work does not receive feedback, but is accepted until the end of term.

I call this a “do your best” late policy. If you’ve made some headway on the assignment, there’s an incentive to turn it in on time: you don’t have to figure out how to go above-and-beyond by 5%, and you’ll get your grade and feedback back to improve your work on the future assignments too. But once you’ve entered the struggle zone of late work, it makes no sense to submit D+ work right away. Whether it takes 7 days or 30, if you can get to 88% on the assignment, after the deduction that will be 83% — so your incentive is to produce your best possible work, rather than your fastest acceptable work. It might even make sense to choose to submit work late.

Students sometimes express thanks for this being a “generous” late policy but it has its cruel side: you can end up working on all the class assignments at the end of term, without feedback from your TAs to guide what you’re doing, which can become a miserable crunch. I prefer this policy when there are a small number of assignments, each fairly intellectually independent, and each asking for advanced thinking: in that situation, following the assignment through to the end has a lot more pedagogical value than cutting your losses.

Takeaway #5: Figure out on a class-by-class basis whether you should cut your losses or do your best with late work.

Good luck!

Remember, all of this advice is about how to think about the tasks your professors have set you, and how to prioritize getting points as a student. Grades can feel very high-stakes, and they can feel like a judgment of you rather than an evaluation of your work, as if they were a numerical summation of your intelligence or your worth as a person. But really, they’re just points you can decide to get in a game you can decide to play. It’s up to you to decide how you want to approach the game. If you’re a student of mine and you’d like me to try to formulate some advice for the very different task of learning a lot, feel free to let me know.

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