Seven Hacks for a College Student (from a Professor)
Regardless of how much time you’ve been in college, there is always more you can do to ensure your success in a course. A portion of your classroom experience—or, probably more important to you, your grade—stems from the professor’s personality, but a large amount of what happens in a course is under the individual student’s control. So here, in no particular order, are seven practices to employ as you seek to make the most out of a college course.
Many professors consider class participation when calculating your final grade. Reasons for doing so vary, but most of the time it’s to counter the weight of the large assignments (AKA bring up your grade). Some professors may explain participation policies in detail, but even then the participation component may be downright scary to a shy and/or underprepared student. While it is important to engage with the professor and with 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 is 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. Something as simple as having the required text/materials to reference and taking occasional notes goes a long way. Be aware of your body language, as well. How you sit speaks volumes about how you feel: if you look like you are participating, chances are you actually are.
The best way to lose all your participation points (and probably go into participation debt) is to be seen—not just 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 and tablets allow you to type faster, take pictures of the board, and access Wikipedia for some quick (see also: shallow) knowledge, science shows that writing your notes by hand improves conceptual knowledge, which is the type you want.
Besides, let’s be honest: anything with a screen is just an expensive temptation to lose focus. 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 present in class. Put it away and prove that 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. Spend a few dollars on a notebook and some pens—they may very well amount to the biggest ROI of the semester.
One of your best resources in a class is your classmates. Use them. Even in courses where 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. Taking a class together gives you common ground to start from, and if you play your cards right you’ll end up with at least one ally. You can help each other brainstorm project ideas, take notes for each other when someone can’t make it to class, or trade notes when the material gets complicated. The possibilities are endless.
Depending on the course, a/ study group may be a huge help. Chances are your classmates are willing to join forces as papers, projects, midterms, and finals approach, so be the one who gets the ball rolling. Study groups work on a variety of levels, so get creative. My personal favorite approach 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 quote attribution.)
You wouldn’t think using a tutor would be included on a list of college hacks, but the fact of the matter is that 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 being too proud to ask for help, but there is always help to be found. Most universities and colleges (and even departments, sometimes) organize tutoring resources for students. Knowing what they are and how to use them will make your life much easier.
The most common of these resources are writing centers, where you can take a rough draft of a paper and receive feedback; TA sessions, where an upperclassman or graduate student working for the professor (who knows how to get a good grade from that professor) runs a review or lab session; and librarians, those people who sit at the front desk in the building full of books whose favorite thing to do is help you find more sources of information than you even knew existed and help you use it to blow your professor’s mind. There are many, many types of student resources (learning centers, language centers, the Office of Disabilities, etc.), so keep your eyes peeled.
If you have an extenuating circumstance—a real one, not “my mom bought my plane ticket home for Christmas on December 1st so I can’t take the final”—or a disability of any kind, your professor will certainly accommodate you as well as possible. Your professor is interested in you as a person and knows that life can be a mess, so just give as much notice as you can. If you honestly need help, reach out; however, if you’re asking for a deadline extension because you didn’t make time to complete your work, don’t bother. Telling your professor you’re “busy” is an insult to them (a hilarious, hilarious insult). Busy is not five midterms, two papers, and a presentation this week. Busy is hundreds of students, multiple classes to teach all over campus, a publication deadline you’ll be fired if you don’t meet, departmental assignments, hours upon hours of grading to do after dinner seven nights a week, a spouse, literature from your field to keep up on to maintain relevance, and children to pick up/feed/bathe/parent/read to/send to bed three times. If you still need that extension, at least be gracious about the lower grade you’re bound to encounter for the privilege.
Grades are a motivation for most students, but not always in a beneficial way. When it comes to grades, 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 toward increased success. If you want to discuss a graded assignment, particularly one whose grade is lower than you wanted, do so face-to-face 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 why/how you received the grade you did, as well as how you can improve in the future, but most will not change your grade unless they made an error.
There is nothing wrong with disputing a grade, but too many students show up angry and/or sad 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 nothing change. You’re in college to learn, not to get grades. If you start to lose sight of that truth, you’re in the wrong place.