SIP 11.5 The Unwritten Academic Rules of College

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Students sitting together at a picnic table.Have you ever thought that the longer you teach, the more you expect students to know certain things – such as that coming to office hours is useful or to reach out before an assignment or problem set is due to ask for help or for an extension? What do we assume college students know without knowing for sure which students know what?  Being able to make explicit the implicit rules of succeeding in college is a great gift we can share with our students regardless of discipline.

Take a SIP of this: The unwritten academic rules of college

Students who are new to college, the first in their families to go to college, and transfer students are all trying to figure out how to do what their professors want and how to get their needs met in college classrooms. It is hard for those of us on the other side of the academic fence to know what is obvious and what we could share with them that would be helpful to their success in college.

Here is a non exhaustive list of helpful tips to share with students in your classes – some that you might already do and some you might want to try. You might want to take this list and then sit with colleagues from your department to make it even more specific to students who take classes in your subject area.

At the start of a semester:

  • Check that students know that the syllabus is a contract of expectations for the semester for you and for them. Have them read through it with you or as a scavenger-hunt activity that highlights the most important aspects of the document. Have them note one thing they think everyone should know and one question they have.
  • Have them double-check the workload, type of work and weight of each type of assignment. Explain what your weighting system means for how much work the assignments should take them. You can use the above strategies for this as well. Talk through where students usually struggle, such as the typical structure for science writing. Explain where this will be taught in class or where they can find added resources if the skill is already expected to have been learned.
  • Tell them to double-check that they need the course they are enrolled in with you (we have many students who take courses they think will help them in the college journey, only to find out later they were wrong). Students often don’t understand their degree plan, so telling them to double-check without telling them how is really underscoring the unwritten rule – so have them go see an academic advisor (or faculty advisor for major/minor) and, if possible, offer this as an assignment or for extra points. This same way of incentivizing can work on the bullet points below, too).
  • Let them know that if they read anything in the syllabus that they worry they will struggle with, early in the semester is a good time to come and talk to you about their concerns and ask for advice.
  • Remind them that you often have good advice about how to do well in your class as you are the instructor and have worked with many students.
  • Be clear about whether they need the textbook and how it will be used in class. Put a copy or two on reserve at the library for students who cannot buy the book. Tell the students how to access the book on reserve. MSU Denver provides workshops every semester to encourage faculty to use open-access resources.


Getting through a class:

  • Give students advice about how to read your texts. Each new subject is a new language with its own jargon, so helping them understand how to best read your content is a lifesaver.
  • Remind students what notes are important to take in class and to review their notes after class. Read these SIPs for advice on note-takers (SIP 1.1 and SIP 7.6) and note-taking (SIP 5.3).
  • Ask them to write down questions they may have for the next class or for office hours. Pedagogical techniques such as “Just in Time Teaching” can be used to make this a structural part of the class (SIP 2.10). Remind them to review their notes before class meets again so they can make connections between class periods. Better yet, explicitly remind students of the content from the previous class and tell them how it connects to the next class.
  • Explain to them how best to study for your class. Describe what active studying (rewriting notes or problem sets, making a table or chart of information, writing flash cards or note cards, speaking notes out loud, etc.) means in your content area. You could give them a minute at the beginning of class to revisit their notes or problem sets. This could also be a great class discussion, sharing ideas and suggestions for how to best study for your particular class.
  • Let them know that responding in class or asking questions is good. It helps them learn the content more. You can even model this by saying, “Sometimes students ask me…” so they know what information is OK to ask about.
  • Create time for students to exchange numbers during class.
  • Encourage them to come to office hours. Explain the purpose of office hours. Let them know they can even come as pairs or in a group.
  • Encourage students to take advantage of supplemental instruction and tutoring. Tell them the grade differences between people who do and do not take advantage of these services.

At the end of a semester:

  • Remind them to sign up for classes and to ask other students about their impressions of different classes and professors. You can check Degree Progress Reports on students to see who has already registered and whom you can help with supports to be able to register.
  • Let them know they often have choices in lower-division classes and should find classes that meet their needs.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of this: The unwritten academic rules of college

The Unwritten Rules of College – Chronicle of Higher Education

When unwritten rules change – Inside Higher Education

Creating Transparent Assignments

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