Saturday, January 02, 2010

A Rough Start at College

I got one of those emails today, from a student who had a rough start last semester and failed my class. The student wants to know how to do better next time around. I don't remember the particulars of this student's difficulties, but there are a couple basic problems a lot of first year students encounter. The good news is that a lot of these problems can be changed for the better.

The other good news is that most professors don't think a student who messes up the first term is a loser or stupid, or whatever. Most of us messed up at some point, and the rest of us have friends who messed up at times.

Here's my short list for doing better in college.

Go to class. I know it's hard to get up early, but being there is one key to doing well. Go prepared, take notes, review your notes after.

Do the homework. Even if it's not required or turned in, do the readings, work problem sets, whatever. This is especially important for language, math, and other classes where you build skills as you go. If there's language lab or a math lab, do your homework there, especially if you can get help easily.

Get help early and often. Your college or university almost certainly has tutoring available. Use it. Talk to your professors about your questions early. Most professors don't bite and aren't evil. Some of us are better explainers than others, but most of us will try.

Study in groups. Get connected with your classmates. Study with them, get to know them. Exchange phone and email information so that you can get notes if you miss class (or give your classmates help if they miss, too). One of the best tests of your knowledge is explaining things to someone else. Studying in groups helps you learn to explain, and so helps you learn.

Do the work. Read your assignments carefully and do them with attention and care. Small assignments add up to a lot over a semester, so take them seriously. Give yourself time to do your assignments well.

Those are my top five; what are yours?


  1. Excellent list. I really think that attendance is key. I would add that being on time is a must in my class. Not only do all the announcements and/or important changes come up at the beginning of class, but there is also an opportunity at the beginning to ask questions about where we left off and/or where we are going. People who come in late and then ask me if they missed anything important (or who don't come at all and ask the same question) make me want to scream.

    I'd also add that it's a good idea to attend your professors' office hours at least once during a semester. Most students never come to hours unless they're required to do so, but coming to hours and discussing anything that's pertinent to class is a great way for the professor to think the student is invested in the course. Visiting during office hours might also help a student who has a hard time participating in class to feel more comfortable with the professor and the course work.

  2. Very nice. And the importance of talking to the professors should not be understated--those private visits in the office can turn into something like custom-made tutorials, and they allow for the development of much more interesting and sophisticated ideas....

  3. I'd add "Start the papers early, and write more than one draft" to your list, as well as "Make backups of all your files."

  4. Go to class. Go to class. Go to class. Go to class. This method brought my college GPA up -one full point-.

    Also, if your professor offers any kind of extra credit, do it, no matter what your grade is or what you expect it to be. A lot of professors give extra credit if you go to lectures or movie screenings or such. This gives you something to do in the afternoon besides sleep, and makes you look invested in the class, and occasionally you learn things. (It also gives your professor an excuse to bump up your grade after finals.)

  5. Anonymous4:52 AM

    Treat every single itty bitty point like it will make or break your GPA. "I won't bother learning that, because really he could only ask one question on it" almost guarantees it will end up as a long answer 10 point question on a final exam.

  6. I agree with these. Here are some more, applicable mostly to my field:

    1) make the courses part of your internal monologue--in other words, think about them, about what you want to write in papers and how to write it, about connections among courses and correspondences with your daily life. Debate class topics with friends. Keep a notebook in which you scribble down ideas.
    2) use some independence in thinking about your coursework; come at it from different perspective. Don't just flatly respond to the surface of an essay question, but think it through.
    3) Do some combination of brainstorming, mind mapping, and outlining for any and all essays--including essay exams. Scary to do when others are furiously writing, but well worth it. And re-red and revise. Use all time available during exams. If you leave early, you're not doing the best job you can. And you're giving your competition--other students--a leg up.
    4) Engage in class; in discussion sections, participate. In lectures, create some meaningful questions about the substance that you can pose during the obligatory "are there any questions" phase or after class or at office hours.
    5) Read the comments on papers carefully and make sure you understand them. Worry about big picture issues first, such as structure. Then make sure you can correct grammar errors. Consult a handbook, websites, and/or your writing lab. Ask the professor to help you improve after you have read and digested the comments. If the professor will read drafts, by all means take advantage. Otherwise, go to the Writing Lab, being sure to bring your written directions as well as the draft. And take care of simple mechanics--for example, staple your own %^#$# paper and NEVER ask a professor is s/he has a stapler mysteriously concealed in some orifice. These are shared college classrooms, not homerooms where we keep items like that; more, it's your minimum responsibility.

  7. Control the computer.
    Control the cellphone.
    Control the drinking.
    Control the dating (hooking up).

    Equals get enough sleep, PLUS enough time to do all the other great stuff everyone is suggesting.

  8. Oh god... the staples... Why can't students staple their f***ing papers?

  9. Fie: YES! Buy a flippin' $2 stapler!

    Also, have a good attitude. It may seem that the class is pointless, but it's probably not. There are specifics that you may never use again, but the experience of learning is always useful if you let it be. If nothing else, you can learn how to push through something difficult and come out on the other side. More practically, a stinking attitude counts in whatever leeway the professor has (i.e. class participation, etc.) and if you treat the class like it's not worth your time, you won't be worth the professor's time at the end of the term.

  10. All of these are valuable, but after the "go to class PREPARED" one, I'd really really emphasize visiting your professor in office hours. Most of us don't eat students for lunch; we like to be visited; and if you've become a human being to us, (a) we may be able to help you and (b) we might be able to write better letters for you and
    (c) if you have a problem, we'll be more sympathetic.

  11. (not the same Susan as the previous commenter, just to be clear, even though mostly I'm going to repeat what she said): visit professors' office hours, and use the Writing Center.

  12. If you do let something fall by the wayside -- miss class for two weeks, don't get in an assignment or two, whatever! -- go see the professor ASAP, admit that you've dropped the ball but say that you want to get back on track. Most profs will be thrilled to help a student out at this point (and not at the end of term).

  13. Great list. I'd add - don't be afraid to ask questions, even if you think they're 'dumb', or that everyone else already knows the answer. (To be clear, I mean questions on content, not 'Do you have a stapler?'!)

  14. Anonymous9:09 AM

    Fabulous list. And I second the asking questions thing. It makes me crazy when I student says I Wasn't Sure About X but they never bothered to ask for clarification. I cannot read minds, people! (And I do not have a stapler hidden away, either.)

  15. Anonymous9:10 AM

    Er, "a student" not "I student." Stupid fast typing.

  16. Anonymous6:16 PM

    go. to. class. I'm begging you.