Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Starting Smart

Student Guide to Starting Smart

The challenge
Orienting Yourself to the Class Conversation: Using the Syllabus
Course Description
List of core course textsBreakdown of course assignments & due dates
Percentage of final grade based on assignments/Rubric for grading
Week by week guide to course
Office Hour Days/Times
Assignments: Understanding Expectations
Reading Responses
Informal reading response
Formal reading response
Discussion Questions
STEM Problem Sets
Midterms and Final Exams

The challenge

Attending your first week of college classes can be an intense experience. Going to class often feels like walking in halfway through a party where everyone already knows each other and all of the conversations revolve around their in-jokes and shared past experiences. How do you insert yourself into the conversation and begin to get to know this new community when you don’t know the history, context, and social rules?

First, it’s important to know that you are not alone. Most first-year and sophomore students feel this way about at least one of their classes, and upper level students encounter this situation again as they enter into the key courses for their majors. But most students think they are the only ones feeling this and don’t talk about it for fear of embarrassment. In recent years, however, Yale students, faculty, and staff have tried to create a culture where talking about challenge and struggle is accepted as a normal and healthy part of academic and social life. Academic Strategies is part of that effort to acknowledge the challenges and provide practical strategies and a community of support for students.

Orienting Yourself to the Class Conversation: Using the Syllabus

Most students see the syllabus as just a list of readings, assignments, and due dates. If a faculty member hands out a syllabus on the first day of class, students often simply glance at it and stuff it into a folder. Later, they may occasionally check the online version in Canvas (Yale’s course management system) to find out when a reading or assignment is due.

In fact, the syllabus is often the key document in a college-level course that helps you understand the course’s purpose, focus, and expectations. You may be surprised to learn that many faculty spend significant time writing and rewriting their syllabus. In creating the syllabus, the faculty member is making careful choices about the concepts, information and methodologies they think are essential for learning about the topic. Most syllabi are designed to introduce fundamental ideas near the beginning of the course, and then build on those ideas to address even more complex questions in the field.

The course is also designed to invite your critical thinking and contributions in learning about the course topic. As a result, college faculty in the US tend not to tell students directly what they should be learning with each reading and assignment. Instead, they expect you to immerse yourself in the topic and figure out what you think is important. However, the syllabus often gives students clues as to the topics the faculty member will most likely want you to engage with.

Below is a guide to the key parts of the syllabus and how reading each part carefully can help orient you to the class. Not all syllabi will include all of these sections; consult the course’s Canvas site as well. Plan to set aside an hour to do this syllabus review for each course. By reading and understanding the syllabus thoroughly, you’ll be creating a good foundation for your work in the course.

Course Description

What it is:

The course description can give you a guide to the main topics, concepts, and questions the course will engage with during the semester.

How to use it:

The key terms and questions identified in the class’s course description can help give you purpose and direction in the reading and other work you do for the course. They also can help you prepare for lecture and seminar discussion.

  • Before starting your first reading, re-read the course description and write down any terms or questions that might seem to be related to the reading’s title.
  • As you read, highlight and make notes of any passages that seem related to these concepts/ideas
  • Review your notes before lecture or class discussion. Write questions about the material and identify passages you might want to talk about with your fellow students and faculty.
  • Also, see our Academic Strategies workshops on Reading Analytically, Managing a Heavy Reading Load, Succeeding in Seminars, and Succeeding in Lectures for more advice on how to work with purpose. You can also meet 1-1 with an Academic Strategies Peer Mentor for more advice.

List of core course texts

What it is:

A list of the main readings for the course. These texts will give you a sense of the content and trajectory of the class. They will also give you a sense of the most important topics covered in the course and how much reading will be required overall.

How to use it:

As with the course description, looking at these texts can give you some sense of the key topics of discussion in the class and give purpose to your reading and class preparation.

  • Google the text titles and read the abstracts and the author bios. This will help you understand not only the content of the books, but the perspective from which they are written.
  • As you read through the abstracts of the different texts, think about how the books complement or differ from each other. This activity can help you understand the ideas at stake in the course.
  • Check Orbis, Borrow Direct, Amazon and other online sources to see if you can find the books you will need at a lower cost or free (see Managing Your Finances at Yale: Limiting Routine Expenses: Books and course materials)

Breakdown of course assignments & due dates

What it is:

The list of major assignments and due dates helps you to plan out your work for the course and anticipate when you need to begin thinking about and working on important assignments. The titles of the assignments help to alert you to the kind of work you will be doing (see the section on “Assignments” below for more information about common types of college-level assignments). Many faculty may give you a more detailed assignment prompt in the weeks leading up to the assignment due date.

How to use it:

  • As soon as you get your syllabus, record all of the assignment due dates for the semester.
  • Plan to set aside additional time to work on the assignment in the weeks leading up to the due date. (Attend a Time Management workshop for more suggestions.)
  • Make an appointment with your faculty member or TF during office hours to discuss the assignment 1-2 weeks before it is due.

Percentage of final grade based on assignments/Rubric for grading

What it is:

This section lets you know how much each assignment or activity is worth in the calculation of your final grade. The different amount or percentages can give you some idea of how much work is expected for each assignment. The more points an assignment is worth, the more time you will likely spend working on it.

Some faculty also include a rubric in their syllabus: a description of the quality of work that earns different kinds of letter grades. Students can use rubrics to help understand the expectations faculty have for assignments, and then work hard to meet those expectations.

How to use it:

  • For planning: As suggested above, how much an assignment is worth for your final grade can give you some indication of how much time you are expected to devote to a given assignment. Plan more time for bigger assignments.
  • As a guide to the different kinds of work that is expected: For example, if 10% of the grade is class participation, you need to put effort towards preparing for class discussion. Don’t discount the impact of “smaller” assignments—they can quickly add up to a significant part of your overall grade.

Week by week guide to course

What it is:

This section provides a guide to the readings required for each week as well as the topics and/or themes of a given segment of the course. You may also find optional readings and a reminder for when assignments are due if any assignments are due on this week.

How to use it:

  • Read the topics before beginning the week’s reading. These general topics will help you figure out what content of the reading will be most important for you to focus on, which in turn can help you develop ideas for class discussion and reading responses.
  • For STEM syllabi, these sections will usually let you know what topics you will need to comprehend by the end of the week.
  • When you have all your syllabi, use these sections to compare weeks, due dates, assignments, deadlines, and/or exam dates for effective academic planning. It is not uncommon for you to have several significant assignment deadlines in the same week, especially during midterms and the last week of classes.

Office Hour Days/Times:

What it is:

These are times that faculty members set aside each week for individual consultations with students. These consultations can range from students asking questions about the readings, discussing ideas for an upcoming assignment, or asking for broader advice about the major, research opportunities, and career possibilities.

How to use it:

Make a goal of going to office hours for each of your classes within the first six weeks of the semester. Don’t be intimidated: most faculty enjoy office hours because it gives them opportunities to better get to know their students, and to talk about a topic they love so much that they’ve devoted their lives to studying it. (In fact, faculty often lament to each other that students don’t come often enough to their office hours!) Here are some of the things you can get out of meeting a professor for office hours:

  • Clarification on confusing parts of the readings and other course material, on the expectations found on the syllabus, or on comments they’ve provided on past, graded assignments
  • Advice on how to succeed in their course; you can ask questions about how to do readings, how to pick paper topics, and how to best approach for problem sets and exams
  • Suggestions for exploring a topic mentioned in class and developing an idea for a future paper or research project
  • Insight on field as a possible major and suggestions for the kinds of study abroad, research, and internships students in the major often pursue

For more information about working with faculty, attend an Academic Strategies Cultivating Faculty Mentors/Recommendations workshop or set up an appointment with an Academic Strategies Peer Mentor.

Assignments: Understanding Expectations

While some college-level assignments have the same name as high-school assignments you may have encountered, these assignments frequently have different expectations. Learning the expectations of college-level assignments requires paying close attention to how topics are presented, analyzed, and discussed in your classes and enacting that more complex approach in completing your assignments. Whenever you are confused about what an assignment is asking you to do, consult with your faculty member or teaching fellow; it’s better to ask before you spend time and effort in the wrong direction.

This section describes in general terms some of the assignments typically found on college syllabi by explaining the purpose of these assignments and approaches for completing them. Keep in mind that each faculty member may have their own unique expectations for the assignment; consult them and their assignment prompt for further details.

Reading Responses

In college, there are generally two types of reading responses assigned: informal and formal. Both have unique expectations; if it’s not clear from the assignment whether the response is formal or informal, you should consult with your faculty member or teaching fellow to see how you should approach it before you begin.

But first, a note about what reading responses are not:

  • Reading responses are not a summary of the reading. As indicated by the term “response,” they are intended to include your commentary and questions about the reading. Faculty want to know what you think about the text.
  • Reading responses are not a solely emotional response to the reading. While your emotional reaction to a text can inform and be acknowledged in an informal reading response, it should not be the basis of your critique. Instead, discuss the reasons why the argument produced that response and what it means for different ways of approaching the topic.
  • Reading responses are not a wholesale rejection of the writer’s argument based on evidence the writer does not address. The goal of a reading response is to critically engage with a writer’s argument, logic, and evidence. If you think the writer is wrong, you need to explain where the writer makes mistakes in their own thinking and analysis.

Informal reading response:

Informal reading responses are often assigned to help students organize their thoughts and prepare for the lecture or seminar discussion on a reading. They tend to be relatively short, and often come in the form of a blog or discussion forum post. Instructors often make reading responses due the day before class and read through the responses to find out how students have interpreted the text on their own. This helps instructors shape their discussion or lecture for the following day to help clear up any common misinterpretations and emphasize topics that students find compelling. Some faculty also use reading responses to encourage your class participation; a faculty member may ask you to begin class discussion by summarizing an argument from your response.

Most informal reading responses ask you identify a key idea or event in a reading and analyze how the writer constructs the idea or event (for example, a plot twist in a novel or an account of a historical event). Then you offer your own analysis of what that construction means for your understanding of a key idea in the course. For example, you might focus on how an author defines and explains a particular term, and then discuss the benefits and limits of that term for accounting for the causes and effects of a particular phenomenon. The writing for an informal reading response tends to be more speculative—it is an opportunity to try out different thoughts and analyses of a given reading.

Formal reading response:

Formal reading responses are often longer (2-3 pages) and assigned less frequently during the semester than informal reading responses. Faculty often require students to turn in formal reading responses the same way they would turn in any other formal writing assignment and would expect formal citations for any quoted material included in the response.

A formal reading response offers a critical analysis of the text. It analyzes the writer’s main argument, making a formal claim about the benefits and limits of the writer’s approach to the topic. It looks more like a formal academic essay with a brief introduction and a thesis/claim, body paragraphs that make sub-claims and include cited evidence from the text, and a brief conclusion. These kinds of formal reading responses take longer to write; many students even bring drafts of formal reading responses to the Writing Center for feedback or discuss a draft with their instructor during office hours.

Discussion Questions

Discussion questions serve the purpose of shaping a dialogue based off the readings. They will help you, your professor, and your classmates come up with points of discussion for class that will break down the main arguments of the readings, their strong and weak points, and any questions that are raised as a consequence of reading the text.

To prepare for writing discussion questions as you are reading, make sure you mark points in the text that seem interesting or that seem to be in tension with or question other ideas or approaches in the field. These are usually points where the author is making a claim and can help you form discussion questions. Try thinking of what it is the author is challenging and why they would want to do that. Is their new claim altering the basis of their current field? Is it suggesting a new methodology? Is it criticizing a common practice and why? These can be helpful guiding questions when formulating your own questions. If there is ever a point that confuses you in a text, make note of it. Asking for clarification on something and explaining why you don’t understand something can make for a valid discussion question as well. Chances are that other people are also confused about the same thing you are.

STEM Problem Sets

Many math and science courses assign weekly problem sets. Many first-year student assume that “problem sets” are just a fancy way of saying “homework.” However, college-level problem sets differ from high school homework in significant ways.

In high school, most math and science homework was assigned and completed on a daily basis. Homework problems consisted of variation on the kinds of math problems presented by teachers in class.

College problem sets, however, are much more complicated and cannot simply be finished the night before the problem set is due. Here are some key characteristics of college-level problem sets:

  • They develop your conceptual understanding of the problem. In other words, they are designed to prompt you to think about not only how to solve the problem, but why you are making your choices.
  • They require careful, step by step presentation of your logic and thinking as you work toward the solution.
  • They synthesize multiple concepts or procedures in a single problem.
  • They apply what you’ve learned in class to new problems.
  • They reinforce and extend knowledge learned in lecture.

Problems sets tend to be longer, more complex, and take more time than high school homework. Rather than trying to do the work in one sitting, you should spread your work over the week. Early in the week, try the problems yourself. At mid-week, work with peers in a study group or in TF/faculty office hours to find approaches to difficulty problems. At the end of the week, work again with peers or a tutor to help address your remaining questions. For more suggestions on how to approach problem sets, consider attending one of our Tackling Problem Sets workshops for physics, math, or economics.


As with problem sets, there are significant differences in the expectations for high school vs. college-level essays. While many high school writing assignments focused on writing to show understanding about a text or an argument on an issue, writing in college is focused on engaging in the conversation in the field about a topic and offering your own ideas and research to further that conversation. Toward that end, college essays frequently require:

  • Acknowledging and understanding how the conversation has been framed by other writers so far
  • Identifying a question generated by the interplay of differing perspectives or a gap in our current knowledge
  • Developing an argument that responds to that question
  • Supporting that argument with evidence

As you can see, to write a complex and original essay, you need to spend a considerable amount of time reading, thinking, researching, and writing about the issue to develop your own argument. Faculty are interested in learning how you are thinking about and approaching these complex problems.

How you approach writing an essay differs between different academic disciplines (a literature paper looks different from a philosophy paper) and between different genres of writing (a lab report looks different than a public policy memo). As a result, it is important to use the academic resources available to help you approach each assignment:

  • The assignment prompt: It’s important to read your assignment prompts closely to identify the kinds of arguments you’re being asked to make and the tasks you’ll need to accomplish in order to write the essay. Do you need to close read a source? Provide historical context? Synthesize arguments from multiple readings? Do research?
  • Your faculty member/TF: Go to office hours at least a week before the paper is due to discuss your ideas for your essay and make sure that you are framing it appropriately.
  • Your writing process: Plan out a drafting process that includes time for sketching out your argument, gathering evidence, writing a first draft, getting feedback, and revising. See the Writing Center’s handout on the writing process and other helpful writing guides here: https://ctl.yale.edu/writing/undergraduate-writing/writing-handouts
  • Residential College Writing Tutors and Drop-In Writing Partners: Showing your drafts to others and getting feedback is part of being a strong writer. At Yale, the Writing Center regularly hosts over 8,000 appointments per year—more than one per each of Yale College’s students. Faculty also expect students to take advantage of this service. Find out more information about Writing Tutoring and Writing Study Halls here: https://ctl.yale.edu/tutoring/undergraduate-writing-tutoring
  • Manage your time: Find time to develop your paper in small chunks over many days rather than trying to write it all at once. Most students find that their thinking changes and improves as they write; give yourself time to rewrite and revise your essay. For more help with time management, attend an Academic Strategies Time Management workshop or consult 1-1 with one of our Academic Strategies Mentors.

Midterms and Final Exams

At the college level, midterms and final exams don’t just test what you have learned so far, but also ask you to use what you have learned address new questions and problems. Because college exams test not what you know but how you think, the best way to prepare for exams is to do the work of the class. If you keep up with your coursework, studying for exams becomes about reviewing concepts and methods instead of desperately cramming facts into your brain. In the weeks before an exam, spend time reviewing what you have learned in the course and talking about it with peers during review sessions or study groups. Finally, attend an Academic Strategies Exam Study Strategies workshop early in the semester to learn more techniques for preparing for exams.


The key to starting off your class on the right foot is to pay close attention to the key concepts and methods introduced in the syllabus, readings, lectures, and class discussions. Approach your course work with this conversation foremost in your mind. And when you feel confused or worried that you are falling behind in your work, talk to someone: a faculty member, a Froco, a dean, or an Academic Strategies Mentor. They will be able to offer advice that can help. All students struggle at some point in their academic careers—but all students can succeed with help and support from the Yale community!