St. Olaf is a community of students coming from all sorts of academic and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, this blog post is to help inform you about general student behaviors and expectations when it comes to participating in classes and interacting with professors.




What is a class syllabus, and how do I use it?


A class syllabus is a guide provided by the instructor usually on the first day of class. It outlines what will happen in class throughout the semester and informs you of the instructor’s expectations for succeeding in the course. The syllabus is your contract with the instructor, and you are accountable for understanding and following the information given. It should provide the instructor’s contact information, office hours, project or paper due dates, exam/quiz dates, and other vital information.

    • Read through the syllabus thoroughly, noting if there are any parts of the syllabus that are unclear to you–politely ask the instructor to clarify as soon as possible.
    • Go through the syllabus for each class at the beginning of the semester and record all the assignment due dates in your calendar/planner. It might also be useful to write down in a section of your planner the name of all your professors, each of their office hours, as well as office location–it’s good to have them handy and it will save you time in the future!
    • You can find the syllabus in your subject folder in Moodle. 



Attending Classes


Students are expected to actively participate and be present in class. This means that your grade will be negatively affected if you do not pay attention in class, are late to class, or do not show up without a valid reason. Acceptable reasons usually include illness or an emergency necessitating your absence from class. You are expected to inform the instructor in advance and make arrangements with a classmate to obtain lecture notes.

  • As soon as you are sure that you will not be able to make it to class (the day of or the night before), due to illness or an emergency, send your professor an e-mail briefly explaining your situation and assuring him or her that you will make sure to catch up with any new material by the next class period. Once you have gotten the in-class notes from a classmate, read through them, and completed all of the relative material for the class period you missed, it is perfectly fine for you to attend your professor’s office hours for any questions you might have or explanations that are unclear. They will be happy to help!



FOR FALL 2020: every day students are required to complete a health screening and questionnaire. If you are presenting any symptoms from the said questionnaire you will have to stay in your room and inform your professors. Here is the website with more information regarding new procedures.  


Classroom Participation


At St. Olaf, all students are expected to participate in classroom discussions. Participating in class can be intimidating for everyone sometimes. Whether it be because you are a new student, you are shy when it comes to speaking in front of others, or you feel as though you have not fully mastered the language spoken in class, don’t worry. You are expected to put in the effort and participate to the best of your ability throughout the semester, yet the professor does not expect everyone to make the exact same amount of contribution. Here are some tips for effectively participating in the classroom:

  1. Get to Know Your Classmates – at St. Olaf, most of the class sizes range from 18-25. Most professors will allow a short introduction by every member, such as where they come from, chosen, or possible majors, where they live on campus, and something interesting about them. Listen to what other students say and make connections with them. Once you know your classmates better, it might be easier for you to speak freely as if you were speaking to your friends. As the semester proceeds, you might also be interested in creating or joining study groups for large group projects or exams.
  2. Be Prepared – read the syllabus and understand what is to be discussed in the next class. Make sure to finish the assigned readings BEFORE the class and don’t be afraid to ask a friend, classmate, or instructor if you have difficulty understanding the reading. Try to find out if your classmates are interested in having group study sessions. Working in a group can make the work seem less intimidating.
  3. Check “Moodle” regularly – professors are increasingly using an online platform called “Moodle” to post assignments (pdf or word documents to be read), in-class PowerPoint presentations, quizzes, or online comment-forums through which students can add their thoughts about interesting discussion topics not covered in class. You can log-in with your St. Olaf username and password. Most of the time, the professor will structure his or her course’s Moodle according to the syllabus, clearly noting what is due and expected for each class period. If you no longer have a paper copy of the syllabus or lost it, you can often rely on Moodle to keep up to date with class expectations. At the beginning of class, the professor should communicate whether Moodle will be an essential resource or not for their class. No matter what though, if the professor has set up a course Moodle account, check it before EVERY CLASS PERIOD.
  4. Practice sharing your ideas – If sharing your opinion in front of the class seems scary, try talking with some friends and your roommates about the covered topics beforehand. The more you practice sharing your opinion, the less intimidating it will become. If you have a class presentation coming up, you can ask your classmates if they want to practice their presentations together before class. They might welcome the opportunity to practice! You can also practice and get tips for improvement at the St. Olaf Speaking Space.
  5. Go to Office Hours – Instructors are here to help! All St. Olaf instructors will have a designated time each week when you can drop by their office to ask questions or share any concerns you have about the class. Instructors hold the fate of your grades in their hands, so this can feel a little scary — but just keep in mind that their goal is to help you succeed, not fail. If you feel you are struggling, if you are concerned about your grade, or if you are just not sure how to get started participating in class, try explaining this to your instructor (sooner than later) and see if you can come up with a plan to help you succeed. Furthermore, sometimes you might be doing your best at the assignment and still receive an undesired grade. You should go to your professor’s office hours and see what can be done better/differently to improve for the next time.
  6. Don’t be afraid to try – Everyone is here to learn and will most likely make mistakes along the way. Nobody goes to class already an expert in the class subject. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand what people are saying. It may seem intimidating at first, but the more you speak up and the more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel about speaking in class.


FOR FALL 2020: Be prepared that due to the pandemic, there are new rules and regulations regarding classroom behavior that will be different from what you have read. It is still unclear how the mixture of in-person interactions with online meetings will work but rest assured that everyone will work with you to make sure that the experience you are getting is the best one available given the circumstances. 


Reading Savvy


Course workload is a challenge that all students struggle with. You may find it difficult to keep up with all the reading assignments for your courses. Please remember you are not alone with this challenge! One important tip for facing the reading challenge is to read for content, not words. While it is nice to try to expand your vocabulary through reading, you may not always have time to read every single word. Written English is usually structured in similar, predictable ways, so when you have a long reading for class, here are some tips when you are short on time, but still want to get a substantial overview of the material’s content:

–  Read all the headings and subheadings

–  Skim the introduction paragraph

–  For every paragraph, read the first sentence and the last sentence as that will you give you an idea of what this paragraph was about

–  Look at the pictures and their related captions

–  Read all of the words printed in bold, underlined, or italicized

–  Read the summary at the end of the chapter or the article’s abstract (if present)

When reading a journal article, try reading the introduction and conclusion first, then move to the discussion section to find the main arguments and counter-arguments. You can also try setting time limits for reading and studying. Use rewards and sub-rewards to help motivation.example: if I read 2 chapters of a book for my class, I will take a 15min. Break.

Here are some places on campus for quiet studying:

Read critically, and examine the author’s ideas. Students are encouraged to form their own opinions, not just repeat what authors are saying. If it helps, you can try taking notes while you read to make sure you understand the author’s main points.



Unlike secondary school, you will spend much more time learning outside the classroom through your readings and critical thinking. You will not be graded on every reading you do for class, but rather on how well you understand the material. It is critical that you complete all assigned/recommended work in your courses, regardless of whether or not it will be graded, as your understanding and comprehension of material will be enhanced. Be aware that often content that was assigned in the readings, but may not have been discussed in class, will still be included in a test or be expected to be addressed in written assignments.



Writing is a big part of your assessment as a student. Writing a term paper may seem like a daunting task. A big part of writing successfully is presenting your ideas in a logical and organized way. The Writing Center at St. Olaf has tutors who can help you learn to write successfully and effectively. See their website for more details.




In the U.S. you will often hear the word plagiarism come up in academic discussions. In the U.S. anything you invent, write, or create is called “intellectual property”, and you are its owner. This includes your own ideas, as well as those of published authors. It is important that when you write academic papers that you explicitly acknowledge thoughts that belong to another person. Using another person’s thoughts or ideas without recognition is called “plagiarism” and is unlawful.

Many professors will explain plagiarism and academic integrity in the course syllabus. It is critical that you gain a thorough understanding of these concepts, as you will be held accountable for them. Ask an instructor or librarian how to properly cite information, and to clarify any questions you have about academic integrity or plagiarism.


What is plagiarism?


Plagiarism is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own”

– “Plagiarism.” 2015.

Unless there is some indication to the contrary, the reader assumes that a written work (or an oral presentation) is the author’s own words and ideas. Thus, it is critical that the ideas and phraseology in student papers are either your own or if not, are accompanied with proper acknowledgment of other authors’ cited work.  

It is considered plagiarism whether you intentionally copied an entire paper and presented it as your own work, or if you simply forgot to add a citation when you were paraphrasing. Additionally, re-using a paper you wrote for another class or re-using information from a paper you did for another class, without proper citation, is also considered plagiarism. It is very important to remember to use citations to give appropriate acknowledgment to other works. You can get information on how to paraphrase and how to cite in the appropriate style from the Writing Center.



Many students notice that there are fewer exams in college. It is important to develop a plan of action to ensure you are keeping up with readings and homework, without having the motivation of impending quizzes & exams.


Exam Dates – In the Syllabus!

Well, in exams and major due dates for your course it is important to know them beforehand, so you can prepare for them as they come and not cram everything in your head the night before. Be sure to write down exam/paper/project dates in your planner so you can adequately prepare for them.

First-year students often report that high school exams tested them on their ability to “memorize” information. College-level quizzes and exams require that students execute critical thinking skills to demonstrate a deeper level of comprehension of the material. For example, you may be asked fewer “what” questions, which focus on basic concepts & ideas, and more “why”, “how” and “what if” questions that require you to examine, compare, and investigate concepts more deeply and thoroughly.

What is a Take-Home exam?


Well, as the name suggests, it is an exam that you are allowed to take with you and do it on your own time. “But can I use my notes/books/internet to answer some of the questions?” It depends, at St.Olaf the Honor System believes that all students have integrity and will not cheat on their exams, so the system trusts the students enough to allow them to take home their exams. But there are a variety of take-home exams:

  • Open Book: which you are allowed to use books to answer the questions and this usually includes also notes.
  • Open notes only: Which means that you can use the notes you have taken from class or outside of class
  • Not an open book: This means that you are not allowed to use any of the resources other than your brain.

Always ask your professors for clarification, and they will be more than happy to answer your questions. Better safe than sorry! Penalties for cheating are mentioned in the link below.

Honor System of St. Olaf College:




What do I call my professor?


Most instructors will let you know what to call them or will have their titles and/or names printed on the class syllabus. Many, if not all of your professors have earned doctoral degrees and may ask you to call them “Dr”. Others will ask to be addressed by Mr. or Ms., or simply by their first name. If you’re unsure which title is appropriate, the safest bet is to address them as “Professor” followed by their last name (ex. “Professor Smith”). During the first class meeting, if the vibe of the professor is welcoming and joyful and then they say, “does anyone have any questions?” Feel free to ask, “Would you like us to call you professor …?” And they will be more than happy to answer that question.


Write short and polite emails for effective communication.


Whenever you need to communicate with a professor or staff member (for any reason, such as telling a professor that you will miss an upcoming class or to ask a question about an assignment), you should write them an email or talk to them directly during office hours. This may sound obvious, but it is not appropriate to call them, text them, or message them on any social media site. It is also inappropriate to use emojis or texting abbreviations such as “idk” in your message.

 An email to your professor should be formal and complete. This means that it includes the following:

– a brief subject line describing the email (for example, “Missing class 10/4”)

– a greeting (it’s safest to say “Dear Professor (their name)” or “Hello Professor (their name”)

– your message (be brief or else ask for an appointment to discuss the issue in depth)

– a formal closure (“Sincerely, (your name)” or “Thank you, (your name)”)

These rules generally apply for all communication with St. Olaf employees, whether it be an admissions officer, a Piper Center career coach, or the SI leader from your math class.

Also remember to reply promptly to the emails you receive, and to check your inbox every day to make sure that you don’t miss an important message!


Get to know your professors and be respectful.


It’s a great idea to talk one-on-one with professors, ask them for advice, or ask them about their research and experiences. Just remember that certain topics can be taboo, depending on the professor. In a professional setting like this, it’s best not to talk about “personal” topics such as how much money someone makes, their marital status, alcohol, etc. Use your good judgment; some professors are more open than others. If you’re not sure if something you’re about to say or ask is appropriate, it’s best not to say it.

Connect with your academic advisor.


Every student is assigned a professor who acts as their “academic advisor”. The advisor’s job is to give you advice about which courses to take based on your major and your interests, and about internships and job opportunities. You will meet with this person at least once per semester so that they can approve your course choices for the next semester during registration. If you come into St. Olaf with a major chosen already, you’ll probably get an advisor who teaches your subject. If you come into St. Olaf undecided about your major, they will assign you an advisor from any department.  Your advisor should be able to help you with planning your courses no matter what subject they teach, so if your advisor is not in your major, there is no need to worry.

In either case, if you don’t get along with your advisor or you’d prefer an advisor who teaches the subject you’re studying, you can switch to a new one. For example, when I changed my major I switched my advisor, and there were no hard feelings at all! Also, do not be afraid to ask any of your professors for academic advice, regardless if they are your advisor or not. Most especially if you are a double/triple major, it might be beneficial to establish good relationships with professors in the several academic disciplines that you wish to pursue.

I know that was a very long blog post, and I congratulate you if you read it from beginning to end! Feel free to refer back to this post throughout the school year to refresh yourself with classroom culture and professional college relationships.