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How to Prevent Homework From Screwing Up Real Life


Class Life: What to Do About Class
Besides Taking Notes

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There are plenty of things to do in connection with class besides (or in addition to) taking notes. Some of them contribute to your education.

Here are a few tips derived from a success guide for transfer students developed by the Council of Deans (I think). (I am not sure whether I am revealing any secrets by making these tips available to freshmen. After all, upperclassmen are supposed to have some secrets!)

A little reflection (perhaps lightly spiced with hope) should suggest that if you actually follow this list, the resultant increase in academic efficiency will result in your actually saving time as well as learning more and enjoying college better. (Just a thought.)

Students who spend their time worrying about grades instead of education miss out on both (or anyway I think they do).

  1. Read the whole (!!!) syllabus the day it is handed out. Circle or highlight any due dates or exam dates on it. These dates should be transferred to your calendar or date book.
  2. Keep a written calendar. College students are too busy to keep all their appointments in their heads. You may get away with this for a while, but sooner or later you will realize the wisdom of the Chinese proverb: "A good memory is not as good as a rotten writing brush." (Hǎo jìxìng bù rú làn bǐtóu. 好记性不如烂笔头。)
  3. If the syllabus is also available on the web, make sure to note which version is considered by the professor to take precedence. (If the TA scanned the syllabus and put it up without the instructor knowing how to use the web, chances are that the paper version is official and the web version is there only so the professor can claim to be "cutting edge" while remaining behind the times. If the professor put the syllabus on the web directly, chances are that there will be changes over the term and that the web version will be considered definitive.)
  4. Attend all classes (and all TA sections). For one thing, you are responsible for what happens there. For another, this is what you are paying your money for. (Don't stop to figure out how much you are paying per class session. It will just depress you.)
  5. Don't expect entertainment, and don't evaluate a class based on whether it is funny. University is not improv, and the professor has no obligation to be entertaining, only informative, so it is up to you to keep interested on your own. "You yourself must set flame to the faggots which you have brought," as playwright Kenneth Sawyer Goodman wisely advised his audiences.
  6. Prepare in advance. That means (1) reading stuff by the time the syllabus says it is to be read. Or before that. You will understand class sessions much better that way. But it also means (2) thinking about the issues that the material raises, and deciding whether it leaves important questions unanswered. Reading is not enough; thinking about what you have read is what makes the difference.
  7. Begin studying from the first day of the term. This is particularly important advice if you were near the top of your class in high school. Remember that in college everybody was near the top of the class in high school. The amount (and quality) of study you did to be brilliant in high school is likely in college to be a minimum to pass, not the norm needed to master the material, or to get a basis you can build on in later courses (or later life), or to get a decent grade!
  8. Sit as close to the front as possible. In a class of 400 with a front row that accommodates 20, you can be in a class of 20 if you sit in the front row. This keeps you awake, makes you more recognizable to the instructor, allows you to see and hear everything clearly, and gives instant access at the end of class if you want to ask any quick one-on-one questions. Furthermore, most professors suspect (correctly) that people who sit in the back do so because they have not done the reading, don't understand much, or (in exams) are planning to cheat and vainly hope to avoid being noticed. In contrast, most professors believe that people in the front row are brilliant go-getters who should always get the benefit of the doubt. (This revelation could transform your academic life. Don't say nobody ever told you. But don't tell anybody you heard it here.)
  9. Feel free to ask (intelligent) questions in class. There really are some questions that are irrelevant, but more often if something seems puzzling to you, it puzzles others as well. Most instructors like questions in class and will answer enthusiastically as well as considering you "promising" as a student. The smaller the class, the more welcome questions are. (Exception: Interrupting the class to ask why you got five points instead of six points on a quiz will always make you look like the biggest jerk in six counties. Leave that alone. Or if you can't stand it, leave it for office hours.)
  10. Don't plug in earphones or fire up your smart phone as soon as the class is over. Research in 2012 very strongly suggested that students remembered a lecture better if they did not immediately distract themselves with something else as soon as it was over. As you walk out of class to your next destination, listen to the birds, look at the landscaping, and give your mind time to organize what you just learned. You don't have to think consciously about it. Just don't abruptly pile on a bunch of additional stuff that will wipe it out before your brain has figured out where to file it.
  11. Visit office hours. They exist so that you can drop in and ask questions, offer ideas, or just say hello. Students who actually do take advantage of office hours report as alumni that it was one of the most rewarding things they did in college. It will not surprise you that there is a whole page of this study guide devoted to office hours. (Click here.) It also will not surprise you that I have a some crochety caveats on the subject. (Click here.)
  12. If you are a commuter student, you will make your life happier if you spend as much time on campus as possible, attending anything you can. (Start with activities linked to your courses and activities that have refreshments.) Be sure always to carry your student ID so you are ready if it will get you a discount or access to something. Face-to-face social relationships with other students are one of the most important facets of university education, possibly the most important. Don't hide.

Face-to-face social relationships with other students are one of the most important facets of university education, possibly the most important.

  1. Make it your goal to complete written assignments ahead of time. If you can do this, you will be able to reread them at the very end and make a few last-minute adjustments. (I have never read anything I have ever written —including this page— without making changes in it. As far as I can tell, that is true of all professors, maybe all humans.) Another advantage of completing stuff early is that you will get more sleep.
  2. Figure out as early as possible how to find stuff in the library (including the "arcane" stuff involved with using the university's own resources and its paid electronic subscriptions) rather than depending on Google. The ability to locate information efficiently, and not just on the open Internet, is the key to success in an institution where knowledge and thought are the highest virtues.
    Valuable hint #1: Universities spend an ungodly amount of money to subscribe to all sorts of proprietary internet stuff you never knew about before. Your university librarians know how to get at it, and are more than happy —actually it's sometimes kind of scary how happy they are— to show you how to get at it. The earlier you learn to use this stuff and the more you use it, the closer you will get to world domination. Go for it.

    Valuable hint #2: Given the rapidity with which electronic information technology is changing and the tendency of many professors not to keep up with it, it is not too hard to figure out how to run circles around them in your ability to find sources. Go for that too. Your professor will be shocked and awed, which can only work to your advantage. Besides, why should YOU be the dinosaur?

If you can't explain something, you don't really understand it.

  1. Explain class material to somebody … anybody. Your little sister, your foolish roommate, your imaginary cell-phone playmate, the rubber ducky in the shower, ANYBODY. There is nothing like trying to explain something to fix it in your mind, at least till the end of the term. That is why group study is helpful. And why tutoring is helpful (especially if you can tutor somebody who's a bit thick). And it is why the teacher appears to know more than is probably really the case. (It may also be why people who take on-line classes apparently don't learn as much as people who take regular classes, although the jury is still out on that.) 
    The reason why explaining helps appears to be that it requires enough mastery of the subject to organize the material and answer questions about it, which is more than listening to it or reading about it requires. If you can't explain something, you don't really understand it. (Read that about twenty times. Or click here.) So try explaining it! It really helps in identifying what already makes sense to you and what still doesn't.
    (Passing thought: Stuff that doesn't make sense gives you something to ask about in office hours, allowing you to impress the instructor as both brilliant and assiduous.)

Many college exams have lots of questions that ask you to write definitions.

  1. Define terms. Dictionaries are not handed down by God. They are written by regular old people, people like you. If you understand a term, you ought to be able to write your own dictionary entry, possibly a better one than what you find in your nerdy roommate's graduation-present dictionary or the 1903 public-domain one you find on the Internet. If you don't understand it, and if it is a term that matters, then you ought to review it until you can define it as well as a dictionary can. By the way, professors find it seductively quick and easy to create exams made up of terms to define, so many college exams have lots of questions that ask you to write definitions. (Ahem.)

    (Shameless Product Endorsement: Most on-line dictionaries are reprints of very old ones that have passed into the public domain with the passage of decades and that are now provided free mostly so they can host pop-up ads for other stuff. A useful jump-site to that world is OneLook, but don't get your hopes up. If you want a real dictionary, save your pennies and buy The American Heritage Dictionary (available as a pricey but slick smart-phone app if you don't want to deal with the large book). It is now in its fifth edition. The 4th edition has been stripped of its illustrations and printed as a cheap paperback, but remains excellent. Poverty is no excuse for not using this best of all dictionaries! If you don't do that, then at least use your on-campus web access or proxy server access to go through the reference page of your university library web site to something current and responsible.)
  2. Try to cultivate curiosity. Curiosity is the basis of most human knowledge acquisition. It is curiosity that inspires scientists and social scientists, and that forms the basis for the creativity underlying both the sciences and the arts. People who claim to be bored are basically boring people. If something doesn't leave you with unanswered questions, you're probably not paying attention.

    If it helps, one very ancient and very distinguished old man told me many decades ago, "there is almost nothing you can learn that is not useful sooner or later in this business." (I don't remember what business he was in. The advice probably applies to all of life.)

If something doesn't leave you with unanswered questions, you're probably not paying attention.

  1. Don't even think about cheating. If we catch you, we do our best to make it ruin your life. (For details, click here.)
  2. Don't be obsessive about grades.
    1. Grades follow competence, insofar as professors can manage to make that happen, so if you develop competence in the material of a course, the grade should take care of itself. And if for some reason that doesn't happen in one class, it will still happen in the long pull.
    2. Furthermore, there is more to life than grades.
    3. And still beyond that, after you graduate people will be interested in what university you graduated from, not in what grades you got.
    4. And in addition even to that, if you use your grades in an application to graduate school, an occasional really rotten grade (an F, say) can be explained away in an application essay if the over-all record is good. (It even adds character; like an eye patch or a dueling scar.)
    5. On the whole, students who spend their time worrying about grades instead of education miss out on both (or anyway I think they do).
    6. If it helps to think of grades as an act of God, go ahead. (But don't confuse the prefessoriate with God. That's not how it works.)
    7. HOWEVER, not being obsessive about grades does not mean ignoring classes. For that matter, it doesn't mean ignoring grades either. Weak grades if you are a lazy slob just means the universe is good and just, you are reaping what you have sown and need to shape up, and so on. But if you are working hard and/or think you are learning a lot, then weak grades are a different matter. They mean that something is not working right, and they should send you to office hours, TAs, student tutoring services, academic advisers, psychological services, and the like to figure out what needs fixing. Like gas leaks or cancer, weak grades when you are not goofing off are one of those things you want to catch as early as possible.


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