PREPARING LATINO STUDENTS TO EFFECTIVELY USE A SYLLABUS IS CRITICAL TO THEIR ACADEMIC SUCCESS

You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.
– Albert Einstein 

Albert Einstein’s advice is good for Latinos. The rules of the classroom are detailed in the course syllabus (and if they aren’t, the student should inquire to clarify expectations). Students taking online classes rely more heavily on a class syllabus for guidance since the face-to-face interaction with the teacher is limited. The more that students understand how the course runs, the more they can participate and excel in it.

Latino students must first know that the syllabus is an agreement between teacher and student, spelling out each party’s responsibilities and the consequences if the terms are not met. Middle and high schools increasingly use syllabi, but teachers should review the document sufficiently so that students understand it. While the course logistics (title, time, location, textbook and schedule) are evident, the course goals and objectives, attendance policy, grading criteria, rubrics, late/makeup policies for assignments and exams, code of student conduct and additional course resources need detailed explanation. While it might seem like a waste of valuable time on nonsubject matter, it will facilitate learning and minimize later attempts by students to negotiate if they fail to follow the rules.

Students also need to know how grades are determined, not only in terms of the items required, but how the percentages figure into the overall grade. Too often, Latino students do not understand the weight certain activities or assignments carry. They either give everything the same emphasis (when, in fact, they should be focusing more on other elements) or they minimize the requirements they should emphasize. Teaching students specifically how grades and grade point averages are calculated is also crucial since they can then strategically plan to invest their time and energy.

Office hours are typically listed in a class syllabus, too, but Latino students do not always realize that office hours are a resource specifically intended for them. While many students might not fear talking to a coach or boss on the job, it does not occur to them to talk with the instructor of a class. Since student engagement is a strong predictor of academic retention and success, professors and Latino students alike should use office hours to build a relationship, ask and answer questions or offer and receive additional help. It might also be advantageous for Latino students to consider supplemental readings listed on the syllabus as personal, self-imposed fixed requirements since those readings will provide more information and a broader context in which to understand lectures, group projects, class discussions, lab sessions and assignments.

Besides learning to follow the syllabus, Latino students should be taught to use the course textbook and supplemental materials. Skimming the book to understand its format and organization, emphasis, concurrence with the syllabus, and learning aids it offers helps the student use the text more effectively. Latino students with limited funds often try to save money by not buying the textbook. For many, this is a major mistake, especially if the professor relies upon the student to read for conceptual or theoretical background information before attending class.

The responsibility for obtaining the textbook remains with the student, and options that include renting, sharing, borrowing or using texts on reserve can be exercised. The student who chooses to go without a textbook is left to deduce theory from what is discussed in class – usually not a good option for many Latino students who are contextual learners.

Latinos skilled in using a syllabus and the textbook can attest that knowing where to look for information about assignments, resources and evaluation criteria beats guessing, hoping for the best and begging for consideration and mercy when it’s too late for salvation in the class.