Everyone knows how to succeed in college: Show up to class, master the material, earn good grades, and graduate.
Simple, right? Of course, it’s more complicated than that. While most students know the broad outlines of what a successful higher-ed experience looks like, few discover until they’re fairly advanced in their college careers (if ever) the day-to-day tips and tricks that will help them achieve their goals.
To help you advance along your learning curve, here are seven practices you can do right now to make the most of any college course.
1. Prove your participation. Many professors, especially those leading discussion-based classes, consider students’ participation when calculating final grades. Their reasons for doing so vary, but most of the time it’s to counter the weight of the large assignments (in other words, participating generally ups your grade). Some professors may explain their participation policies in detail, but even then the participation component may be downright scary to a shy or underprepared student.
While it is important to engage with the professor and the material while you’re in class, don’t assume the only way to gain participation points is to raise your hand every day. No professor wants you to chime in about everything, so striking a balance is important.
When you’re not answering or asking questions, it’s a good idea to let your professor see you participating. On most days, it may be enough to provide physical proof that you are engaged. Sometimes simple acts like having the required texts and materials out to reference and taking occasional notes go a long way. Be aware of your body language, too. How you sit speaks volumes about how you feel: If you look like you are participating and actively listening, it’s likely that you actually are.
2. Go old school. The best way to lose all your participation points (and probably fall into participation debt) is to be seen — and not even caught — staring at a screen as your professor takes mental notes during class. There’s an easy fix for this: Lay off the technology.
Although laptops, tablets, and smartphones allow you to type more quickly, take pictures of the board, and access Wikipedia for some quick (and probably shallow) knowledge, science shows that writing your notes by hand improves conceptual knowledge, which is the type you want to work on.
Besides, let’s be honest: Anything with a screen is just an expensive temptation. Only a handful of people on earth will fault you for finding Angry Birds more intriguing than ancient Mesopotamian agricultural practices, but that game keeps you from being mentally present in class. Put it away, and prove your participation.
And get over the idea that you can be sneaky about it. Your professor knows when you’re texting, and, among other tells, your classmates take sporadic glances at your laptop when you’re on social media (they tend not to when you’re typing notes). Spend a few dollars on a notebook and some pens — they may very well amount to the biggest ROI of the semester.
3. Get to know your classmates. Your classmates are one of the best resources you’ve got. Use them. Even in courses in which all the work is individual, having someone on your team is always a good idea.
Get to class five minutes early, and make a few acquaintances. The fact that you’re all taking a class together gives you common ground right away, and if you play your cards right, you’ll end up with at least one ally. Once you get to know your classmates, you can help one another brainstorm project ideas, share notes when someone can’t make it to class, or talk things out when the material gets complicated.
4. Form a study group. Depending on the course, a study group may be a huge help. As papers, projects, midterms, and finals approach, your classmates may be keen to join forces — though perhaps slow to organize — so be the one who gets the ball rolling.
Study groups also invite a creative approach. My personal favorite is dividing up large chunks of reading, so each group member can read a part of the assigned text closely and provide others with a detailed summary and notes. This is a particularly useful strategy you can use to prepare for class, since you’ll arrive with a broad view of the material and specific knowledge about at least one aspect of it. (Just imagine the participation points you’d get by correcting the professor on a quotation.)
5. Get a tutor. You wouldn’t think using a tutor would be included on a list of college hacks, but the fact of the matter is that most students simply do not take advantage of the help available to them. The list of reasons for this academic neglect ranges from ignorance about available resources to pride in tackling a project alone, but there is always assistance to be found if you seek it out.
Most universities and colleges (and even some departments) organize tutoring resources for students. Knowing what these are and how to use them will make your life much easier.
The most common of these resources is a writing center, where you can take rough drafts of papers and receive feedback. Another option is a TA session, where an upperclassman or graduate student working for the professor (and who probably knows how to get a good grade from that professor) runs a review or lab tutorial. Then there are librarians — people who are uniquely qualified to help you navigate your college library and find more sources of information than you even knew existed and help you use it to blow your professor’s (and your own) mind.
There are many, many types of student resources (learning centers, language centers, and offices of disability services, to name just a few), so keep your eyes peeled.
6. Ask for help, not a handout. If you have an extenuating circumstance — a real one, not “my plane ticket home for Christmas is for December 1, so I can’t take the final" — or a disability of any kind, your professor will certainly accommodate you as much as possible. Your professor is interested in you as a person and knows that life can be messy, so just give as much notice as you can. If you need additional help, reach out; however, if you’re asking for a deadline extension because you didn’t make time to complete your work, don’t — and instead accept the consequences of your own poor planning.
Telling your professor you’re “busy" is an insult. Five midterms, two papers, and a presentation in one week do not qualify a student as busy — especially not when she’s received detailed syllabi at the beginning of a semester explaining what to expect and when to expect it. Professors have hundreds of students, multiple classes to teach (sometimes at different schools), office hours to hold, publication deadlines they could be fired for missing, departmental assignments, and many more obligations.
If you still need an extension, then be gracious about the lower grade you’ll probably earn in exchange.
7. Be proactive about your grades. Grades are a motivation for most students, but not always in a beneficial way. The key is to keep yourself informed. Read the syllabus thoroughly so you know your professor’s grading policy, and use graded assignments as tools to increase your success in class. If you want to discuss a graded assignment, particularly one whose score is lower than what you wanted, do so in person with your professor or TA.
Regardless of how you feel about your grade, seek to understand before you seek to be understood. Most professors will tell you how and why you earned a given grade, and provide you with advice about how you can improve in the future. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that most professors won’t change your grade unless they’ve made an error. (Some reserve the right to change it in either direction, so be mindful of that, too.)
There is nothing wrong with disputing a grade, but there is a wrong way to go about it. Too many students show up angry or otherwise upset and demand a change rather than arriving ready to present a logical argument and receive instruction for the future.
Chances are, you won’t change your professor’s mind, but be prepared to make your case, and don’t get discouraged if your grade remains the same. You’re in college to learn, and part of that process can involve getting a bad grade here and there.
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