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As my fall semester begins in three days, I thought I’d focus this back-to-school post specifically on advice I give to my students or that I would give to my students if I was their advisor. Unlike the other posts in this series, this list of tips is all about the college experience, especially for any of you who are just starting out or who have come back after many years away from the classroom.
The tips aren’t in any particular order and in some ways they might seem a bit repetitive. If you begin to wonder why they are so similar, keep in mind that when a teacher/professor says something multiple times, it’s usually because it’s really important information to remember.
Actually read the full syllabus. It can answer a lot of your questions.
On the first day of class, your professor will (almost always) go over the syllabus, verbally pointing out the most important areas of information on the document. The amount of time spent on this activity depends on the professor, of course, but one way or another, important information about the class will be emphasized during this time. Some topics that are usually gone over: The major class assignments and how much of the course grade they each make up. The required materials for the class. If there is an absence policy. Perhaps, what the overall semester schedule looks like (with certain assignment deadlines). Usually, professors do not take the time to go over the syllabus line by line, detail by detail. We expect our students to take the time to read the whole document, since it provides information we felt had to be told to students from the very first day of class.
When you receive your syllabus for each class, I suggest reading through it and highlighting the information you feel is most important to remember. How many absences can you have without your grade being penalized? Can you make up work you missed in class and/or turn in late work for partial credit? Where is your professor’s office and when are their office hours? If after reading the syllabus you have any questions about what was said, ask your professor ASAP. Do not wait until your uncertainty becomes a future issue. For example, if the syllabus doesn’t mention a late work policy, ask your professor about it BEFORE you miss a deadline. If you know you’re going to be absent at some point in the semester but don’t know what the make-up policy is, ask your professor about the policy so you know if you need to do additional work BEFORE that week arrives.
A basic rule of thumb you should follow: Before you email your professor to ask a question, make sure the answer can’t already be found in the syllabus (or an assignment instructions sheet).
If you’re confused about something, go to your professor’s office hours.
For students who feel extremely uncomfortable with the thought of speaking to their professors one-on-one, face-to-face, email is a great route to take in order to ask for clarification or feedback. However, for any student who doesn’t have this issue, I HIGHLY suggest meeting with your professor in-person during their office hours or an appointment. A small question of clarification might be easily resolved with an email, but if you’re generally confused about an assignment or just don’t know how to get started or are struggling with the structure, etc., then using email to ask for help will likely end up in a long chain of emails back-and-forth that leave each of you unsure if the matter has actually been fully resolved.
A meeting, on other other hand, will allow your professor to see if you still look unsure after a question is answered instead of needing to believe you fully understand when you just email back “I get it. Thanks.” In a meeting, your conversation can grow naturally to include new on-the-spot ideas and questions, and you can ask for immediate clarification of a specific point if you don’t understand the wording or meaning of your professor’s response. You can also often show your professor assignment drafts during in-person meetings, which is not always the case via email. I, for example, am happy to look at drafts of assignments before they are turned in, but only if the student brings them to me in person and we go over the drafts together. If I’m giving a student more individualized time and feedback, then I want to make sure they are actually hearing it. With email, I can’t be sure the student will take the time to closely read and consider my feedback before turning in the assignment. I always hope that students are reading the feedback I give them on assignments, but for non-required work (like drafts), I require in-person meetings to make sure the additional time is balanced between my student and myself.
Ask your professor if they are willing to go over assignment drafts.
My example in the last section is about providing feedback on drafts before an assignment is due. Not all professors are willing to look at drafts, however; some professors want to see what students create based solely on class and homework activities and assignments. Unless the professor states their draft policy outright on their syllabus or early on in the semester, it’s up to you to ask your professor about this possibility at least a couple weeks before the assignment is due. If they won’t look at a draft, this gives you enough time to ask someone else to look it over for you. If your professor will look at it, you can know with time to spare if there is a certain deadline for draft submissions or meetings. This advance knowledge will also give you enough time to revise your assignment based on your professor’s (or someone else’s) feedback.
If an exam review is optional, attend it.
I’ve been in classes where reviews are given before an exam but attendance is not a requirement. If this is the case for any of your classes, I really recommend attending the review. Reviews often help give a sense of what information from class is most important to remember for the exam. There is also often some time put aside to answering students’ questions. If this is the case, you have an opportunity to ask questions like:
- Can you give an example of the types of questions that will be on the exam? [So, if the exam consists of multiple choice and short answer questions, ask for an example of each.]
- How many questions are on the exam?
- If there are different types of questions, are some types worth more points than others?
- Do you have the whole class period for the exam? Can you get extra time if you don’t finish by the end of the class period?
I’ve only given exams when teaching ENG 170. The questions I’ve listed are ones I answer without being asked, but that won’t be the case in all classes. I think the first question in particular is important because it can reveal specific information about the exam. For example, my multiple choice questions that relate to a class keyterm are not structured as “Here’s a definition. What is the word that corresponds with this definition?” Instead, the question is “Here’s this element of a book we’ve read for class. What keyterm is portrayed in this element?” Knowing that memorizing the definitions aren’t enough to do well on my multiple choice sections is information my students will want to know before exam day arrives. If they are not at the review, however, they might not learn this information in time to be helpful.
Side note: I’ve been in classes where professors ask questions during the review that actually appear in exactly the same way on the exam. So, don’t just go to exam reviews. Pay close attention and take notes during them, as well.
If you have group project issues, speak to your professor before the point-of-no-return.
I know that many students do not enjoy group work. Having to depend on classmates you might not know for your grade on an assignment can be rough. Group projects are pretty common, though. I’ve used them in both ENG 101 and ENG 170 because being able to work with others on projects is an integral part of most careers. What job exists that never requires someone to work with someone else? If you’re part of a group project and can choose your group members, pick carefully. If you end up in a group and there are issues, however, make sure to let your professor know something is wrong as soon as you realize that the problem(s) can’t be resolved without outside assistance. If you speak to your professor about the issue(s) only after you’ve turned in the project or received your grade, it’s highly likely that nothing can be done to change the outcome of that assignment. If your professor is notified in advance, however, possible solutions can be brainstormed and decided on before the deadline arrives.
Speaking to your professor about the issue as a group would be beneficial, as it shows your professor you’re all in agreement that something is wrong. However, if you can’t convince your groupmates to ask for help, meeting with your professor one-on-one is a better answer than suffering in silence.
If you can’t meet a deadline, let your professor know ASAP.
Emailing your professor the night before an assignment is due (or even worse, the same day) to ask for an extension is not the best way to present this type of request. Some professors make clear that extensions will not be given and late work not accepted. In my experience, though, this hard line is pretty rare, especially when you have a reason besides procrastination for needing the additional time (and even this reason can sometimes be enough for a professor). If you know you won’t be able to complete an assignment on time, or if you feel your work would be much stronger with just a day or two of additional time, speak to your professor about the possibility of an extension. I suggest going to them in person to ask and explain, but a well-worded email can work, too. In some cases, you won’t know if an extension is possible without taking the time to ask. If your professor does not accept late work, asking for an extension with time to spare is especially important, as they might be willing to make a late work exception even if they won’t give you an extension.
If extra credit is offered, DO IT.
Not all professors offer extra credit opportunities. If you do have the chance to earn extra credit, and the requirement for getting it is easily manageable, do it. Even if it’s early on in the semester and you are doing well in the class so far, you never know what the later assignments might bring. Asking for extra credit at the end of the semester rarely works. If you do poorly on an early assignment, immediately asking about potential extra credit opportunities would be the better way to go. Even if the professor says no, you might at least have gotten them thinking about offering extra credit later on in the semester.
In a similar vein, some professors offer optional assignments. If this is the case in your classes, take advantage of this opportunity even if you are doing well in the class. For example, when teaching ENG 125 last spring, I designed an eight-part major assignment. Students only had to complete four parts, but they had the option of completing more than the number required. The four highest grades for that assignment would be the only ones that counted towards their overall grade. In this way, they could improve their grades without any extra credit options (though I give those, too).
Don’t wait for the end of the semester to ask for help.
While the rest of the advice in this post probably makes this tip really obvious, I thought it important enough to get its own space. In my experience, students often wait until the end of the semester before emailing me asking for advice on how they can improve their course grade the few points they need to higher their grade by a letter (for example, from a B to an A). In my class, the answer to this question is not another extra credit activity. The answer is having slightly higher grades or much higher grades on a few specific assignments. Of course, by the end of the semester, it’s not possible to go back and work harder on these assignments.
If, however, you don’t do as well as you want on the first of three papers, for example, asking for help on the second paper is likely to result in a higher grade the second time around. And, if you still feel there’s room for improvement, asking for help on the third is an option, as well. I doubt I’m the only teacher who wishes my students came to me more often to ask for feedback or clarification. And even if I were (but I promise I’m not), the whole point of requiring office hours is so that students have a certain amount of time to receive one-on-one attention from their professors. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Get some help before a small issue becomes a big one.
Make a friend in the class with whom you can share notes, questions, study groups, etc.
Situation: You miss a class due to being sick and you don’t know what information or assignments you missed during that class period. What do you do? Answer: Do NOT email your professor and ask if “you missed anything important.” To a professor, everything done in class is important or it wouldn’t be included. So, what do you do instead? Email a classmate and ask 1) for any notes they took, 2) for the homework assignment, 3) for a description of the in-class activities, 4) for any other information shared in class that might not be directly related to the first three topics. If you have a “buddy system” in place for all your classes, then you should be set to never miss an important announcement or assignment. If both of you are absent on the same day, ask another student for the information or meet with your professor in person to ask about what you missed. Having someone who knows what you are working on and who has a reason to pay attention to the same exact stuff you’re learning gives you the chance to always have a sounding board when studying and working for that class.
Let your professor know in small ways that you have been paying attention to their lectures and assignment feedback.
An easy way to follow this final piece of advice is making sure to check other resources for answers to questions before asking your professor. Have a question about an assignment? Make sure the assignment instruction sheet doesn’t already have the answer before asking your professor. For example, I’m asked all the time about an assignment’s length requirement and/or deadline, and yet I’ve never seen or created an assignment sheet that doesn’t have that integral information on it (usually in bold font).
Another way to follow this advice involves bringing up something your professor has said when making a comment or asking a question. Don’t do this in a random discussion that has little to nothing to do with what was said, of course. But, for example, during a class discussion on a reading, you might say something along the lines of “I found X interesting about this scene. It reminded me of Z from the lecture last week. I could see the connection between…” Another example: You’re working on your second lab report and aren’t sure about a certain section in it. Instead of just asking for feedback about this section (though this route is totally fine as well), look at the feedback you received on the last lab report. If there’s a comment about that section but it’s not enough to help this time around, then start the conversation with your professor by saying something like, “I have a question about X section in the lab report. I know you said Z about it on my last report, but I’m still not sure about…” If that section wasn’t mentioned in the feedback, then you can say something like, “I have a question about X section. You didn’t mention any issues with it in my last report, but I’m still not sure about…” Making clear to your professor that you’re paying attention to what they are saying to you can go a long way. For me, it shows me that the student is dedicated to learning from the class and doing well on the assignments, which in turn inspires me to create even stronger class materials and assignment feedback.
Keep in mind, I don’t believe students have to always agree with what their professor has said. As long as my students are respectful about it, I’m always interested in hearing perspectives on the material that differ from my own. I think a lot of professors feel this way, as it shows a level of critical thinking that is not always there when completely agreeing with something that has already been said.
Like I mentioned in the intro, some of this advice is a bit repetitive. I really wanted to focus, though, on the small things you can do as a student that can have major effects on your class experience and grade. Pay attention to the details; they are there for a reason. Ask for help when you need it; your professor wants to know that you are putting in effort. Connect with your classmates; study groups and note partners can make a big difference. If you’d like a couple more tips, check out this post.