Passing a Class in College

No one ever really asks me how to succeed in a college class. They usually want to know how to “get an A,” as opposed how to learn something. Well, I decided to answer the question I wish students asked me: How do I learn as much as possible in college? Here is my answer (at least my answer at the moment.) Part of getting the “A” is doing well with the minutia of class. The following tips will help you succeed in a class. My college defines success as a “C” or better. More importantly, these tips will help you get the most out of your college class. You will learn more and retain more after you leave.

I always tell students they should question the qualifications of the article they are reading. So, here are mine: I’m a college professor, and I’m grading students. I see what students are successful in my class, and I see which ones are not successful. Some students get a C or better with out doing all of these. Students who earn the As and Bs seem to do all of these.

So here they are, my top ten tips for succeeding in college:

1) Go to class! You are in college, no one is making you go. Sure every class has attendance policies, and you should pay attention to them. But going to class is more important than just those policies! Even if teachers just seem like they are reiterating what is in the text book, the lecture is more focused (and more likely to be on the test.) Unlike a text book, if you are confused you can ask the teacher a question – and they will answer. Also regular attendance can make the difference if you are borderline on a grade. Teachers who see the effort are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt about weather to round up to the “A” or down to the “B”

2) Be on time! Most classrooms are not set up to allow students to sneak into class late. Yes, it happens on occasion: Bad weather, traffic, late bus, etc. But it if happens to you regularly, you need to make some adjustments in your schedule. Professors know who is coming in late. They don’t like it. It will hurt your grade.

3) Participate! Sitting in class like a lump on a log doesn’t help your learning or your grade. Answer questions when the instructor asks. Ask questions when you don’t understand. It isn’t a bad idea to try to force yourself to speak in class at least once each session.

4) Read the syllabus! Most teachers take a lot of time putting important information in the syllabus. Details of assignments, grading systems, lecture topics etc. can usually be found in the syllabus. Take the time to read and understand it. If you don’t understand something, ask! Also, before you ask the teacher a question that might be on the syllabus, check the syllabus. Instructors are annoyed  if you ask a question that could have been found by reading the syllabus.  Oh and if you lost your syllabus, check the class’s web page or blackboard site, it is probably there.   In fact, check to see if your class has a web page, or facebook page or whatever.  There is probably good stuff there.  Take advantage of it!

5) Be prepared! Before you can participate in class, you need to know what is going to be going on. Complete the reading and homework assignments before you come to class. That means more than skimming the chapters five minutes before class. It means reading the material closely, taking notes, and especially discovering what you don’t understand. Write down what confuses you. Things that confuse you make great questions to ask in class (which helps you have something to say when you participate!) On a full length semester class, you are generally expected to put in three hours of work for each unit the class is worth per week! Therefore if you have a three unit class, that meets for three hours a week, you will need to do 6 hours of homework to put in enough time (3 hours in class + 6 hours of homework = 9hours). The school and the teachers expect you are doing that much work. That is what it takes to be prepared. (If the class is offered in a compressed schedule you may be expected to spend even more time out of class)

6) Get a calendar! I love Google calendar because my phone can access it, I can get it on line, and I can print it out if I need a hard copy. You don’t have to use Google. A calendar in your phone, or a free web application, or even an old fashioned paper calendar will help. Write on your calendar every class session you have to attend. Schedule when you are going to do your homework, when study groups are meeting, when you have to work, etc. Write down everything, including (and not unimportantly) when you are going to sleep. You only get a social life around those scheduled events.

7) Find a friend in each class. If you miss class (even for a very good reason), the instructor doesn’t want to repeat everything they said in class in an email to you. Find a good friend who will agree to take notes for you if you aren’t there, and of course you will do the same for them! This is also a great person to study with, and even work on assignments with, and partner up with for that group project every instructor seems to assign.

8) Take advantage of office hours. Most instructors hold 3 to 5 office hours a week. This is when the instructor is sitting in their office waiting for a student to come by and see them. You can get personalized one on one tutoring here. Don’t understand something? Go to the office hour! Want extra help with a concept? Go to the office hour. Showing up to office hours also makes it look like you care, which can give you that extra boost if you are on the cusp. If your class schedule doesn’t work with a professor’s office hours, ask if they can make time for you. They probably will. A quick note: if the professor’s syllabus asks you to make an appointment for the office hour instead of just dropping by, follow the syllabus’ suggestion. Also, check and see if your professor has virtual/on-line office hours, then you don’t have to get yourself to campus.

9) Read the books (even the extra stuff). Instructor’s rarely assign reading that they don’t think you should read. Read it. If you can’t afford the text book, see if it is available used, or as an E-Book, or in the library (many professors put their books on reserve in the library). If all of those fail, talk to the instructor, he or she might let you borrow their copy of the book during office hours. If the instructors list additional, optional, or supplementary texts try to read those as well. While you won’t be tested on it specifically, this material will make the other material easier to understand.

10) Know your instructors. Spend some time trying to find out about your instructor in advance. Ask others who have taken a class with the instructor. What does the instructor expect? How do they run their classroom? Also, do a quick google search. Has the instructor written books or articles about topics that will be covered in class? If so, get your hands on them and read them! Even if the instructor didn’t assign his or her own texts, they will be a valuable resource for the class.

The End of the Semester

Tonight, I’m sitting on my back patio, listening to Christmas music on my phone, my dog laying at my feet, lit by the shimmer of LED stars hanging in my window. What an idyllic view!! I’m contemplating something that I spend time thinking about at the end of every semester: Retention and Success rates — and other measures of educational success.

For those of you not working in higher ed, let me start by defining a bunch of terms.

Capacity: The number of students signed up for the class at census (1/6 of the way into the class) divided by the number of seats allocated to the class.

Retention rates: The percentage of students who were registered for the class when it finished divided by the students at census date (1/6 of the way through the course).

Success Rates: The number of students who earned a C or better in the class divided by the number of students who completed the class

Efficiency: A new (to me) metric involving how many hours students have face to face time with us (for my classes it means 28-35 students for the semester depending on the class)

This semester, my classes were not very efficient. Our department has an issue: the classrooms originally built and assigned to us are not large enough to efficient (my main classroom has 22 seats). The semester still has about a week an half to go, so grades may still change a bit. But my most successful class (by the above metrics) is in the 22 seat room. At census I had 20 students, which was 90% capacity for the class (I had 22 students up until 2 days before census, when 2 students dropped). At the end of the semester I have 17 students on the roll sheet, or 85% retention. Prognosticating, I suspect I will have 13 successful students, or 76% success. Excepting for the efficiency, these are not bad numbers. And honestly is better than the class has done in the past. Some of my other classes are not as good. (one is 68% capacity 66% retention, 80% success).

I consider all of this as I put my syllabi together for the following year. Why was one class more successful than another? Something I had not noticed before until two other instructors pointed it out to me: Tues/Thurs morning classes have better capacity, retention and success. I spent some time looking back through older records, and the pattern does seem to exist. I don’t know why.

My Tuesday Thursday afternoon class has worse stats than it has had in the past (although the class has been dramatically retooled, and the new version is on its first time through).

One of the things I’m frustrated by is the new metrics we are being judged on. I’m not an expert on when to schedule classes so they will be well attended. I’m perfectly willing to teach on whatever schedule the dean wants me to teach on (as long as I’m not booked to teach classes in two different rooms at the same time). I’m willing to attempt to teach “efficient” numbers of students — give me the room and give me some tools to help get students registered.

The big thing I think I can effect is retention. In my 8 years of teaching I have seen a change in the students. The students we have today are less prepared to analyze material then those from 8 years ago. Although I have heard people say that the batch of students we have now are “dumb,” I don’t think they are. They are unprepared. Not only are their analysis skills lacking, they aren’t prepared for college. They don’t know how to budget their time. They also don’t know how to do in depth reading. I think these lack of skills has harmed my retention in my design classes. I have slowly been revising the class each time I teach it, and am making some big changes next semester. Instead of each student doing two different projects, we (as a class) will do one project step by step…. the students’ homework will be to do that same step of the design project on their semester project. I hope this will allow me to do two things: 1) show them how to do more in depth analysis as we look at the group project, 2) force them to budget their time better. I will have much much more homework to grade next semester, but each assignment contributes to their final project which means that it should all be done at the end of the semester when they need to hand in the design project. I will miss the simple and the advanced project that I was able to do when I started teaching, but if I can communicate the analysis and process skills needed, the students should be able to apply them to any design project that gets thrown at them.

I do feel that each semester the syllabus I prepare would be perfect for last group of students. Just when I think I have a course down I have a particularly unsuccessful class and work to adjust to whatever the new reality is.