- Coping with the physical situation of college:
College classes meet in widely separated buildings, students don’t have lockers just down the hall, and bells don’t ring to indicate the beginning and end of classes. As a result, many students establish a pattern of coming late to class and forgetting crucial materials (notebook, assignments and the like). A surprising number of students don’t appear to own a watch (or don’t bother to wear one).
TO DO: Every student should get and use a watch. She should set it (call 844-1212 for time) and use it to get to class on time.
Students should own backpacks and use them to carry the following:
- A separate spiral-bound notebook for every class – clearly labeled. These should be the kind with pockets built into the cover or bound in with the paper, or if only plain notebooks are available, a pocket can be cut from file folder material and taped inside the cover for assignments. For courses with a lot of handouts a 2 ring binder may be preferable; do not use such a binder for more than one course, however.
- The pack should also contain two pens and a calendar (such as the one the Alumnae Association hands out every year).
- Using college syllabi:
It seems that many students are unaware of what a syllabus is. Often syllabi get stuffed somewhere with the other “junk mail” distributed early in the semester and seem to vanish when needed, resulting in conversations like this:
STUDENT: ” I heard a rumor that we’re having a test in here on Thursday.”
PROFESSOR: “Yes, we are.”
STUDENT: “What does it cover?”
Now – what is going through the professor’s mind is something like this: “What do I say now? The honest answer would be ‘Exactly what it says in the syllabus,’ but that would be too curt. The way I think of it is in terms of the topics we’ve covered, which I could list, but it would take a while. What the student is probably thinking about is the chapter numbers, and while I can recall them approximately I’m not sure about getting them all without some help… ” whereupon the professor opens up her notebook to her copy of the syllabus and checks. Very often the student is obviously interested in this mysterious document in the professor’s notebook, clearly unaware that she was given her own copy of it on the very first day!
TO DO: Every student should realize that College policy requires every faculty member to hand out a syllabus on the first day of class, and that this is a formal listing of the assignments and requirements for the course, the due dates and grading policies, type and timing of tests, and any other pertinent information – that the syllabus is virtually a contract, and that most faculty do not make changes to syllabi without good reason and very formal (generally written) announcement. Thus, if a student hears a “rumor” about assignments, grading, tests or the like that doesn’t agree what is in the syllabus, she’d better check it out with the professor before she believes it.
- Dealing with college professors’ expectations in class:
A college – unlike a public school – is at least presumed to be a community of adults who are interested in learning. College professors have never had to deal with breaking up fights in the hall or other discipline problems. They expect the classroom to function on the level of a civilized social gathering. In addition, most of them really do consider students to be adults, their equals in a real sense. That means that if students come to class late, file their nails or have private conversations in class, or get up to take a bathroom break, they will probably not be scolded or reprimanded by the teacher – but this does not mean there is no problem! These and similar behaviors mean that while the professor (and the rest of the class) think of the class meeting as a shared activity, the disruptive student is refusing to participate in this, coming and going and acting as she pleases as if the class were a TV show going on in the background. Most professors are so unused to this kind of thing and so unaccustomed to dealing with discipline problems that they just try to ignore it; but they (and the rest of the class) are thinking “Why doesn’t she just skip class if she’s that tuned out? She’s going to fail anyway, but if she weren’t here the rest of us would have a better time.” This is the real reason that so many college faculty are reluctant to impose any attendance policy – naturally, they know students need to come to class to learn, but they also know that just physically being there isn’t enough and may be bad for the rest of the class!
TO DO: Students need to be fully aware of the unwritten “rule” of the college classroom. Even when their minds are tending to wander, they need to respect the process that is going on with the other students and the professor and not disrupt it. If a repeating pattern of lateness, inattention or bathroom breaks develops, the student needs to deal with it herself, like an adult, either by changing the behaviors or dropping the class. Assuming that “Everything’s OK because the professor hasn’t yelled at me” is not realistic.
- Dealing with college professors and texts:
Too often students have in the past had only teachers who were barely able to teach with a copy of the text clamped firmly in their hands. (This seems to be especially true in the sciences.) Because college faculty hold doctorates in the specific areas in which they teach, and may have written textbooks of their own, it is hard to find any who teach from the textbook; many teach alongside it and a good number teach against it. In practice, many seem to ignore it. This frequently confuses students: how are they to use the text in a college situation? Although this depends on the professor and the subject, and the syllabus is the real source for this information, in general, faculty make some assumptions about texts:
- The text will present more detail and more examples than there will be time for in class; thus it provides more depth.
- The text will introduce topics and concepts there isn’t time for at all in class – the extent to which these are included in the course should be clear from the syllabus but it’s best to assume they are included.
- The text usually provides study questions and other ways to test the student’s understanding of the material.
Thus, the text and the class should be two different parts of the experience, each providing different things. Texts should usually be used as follows (unless the professor specifically says otherwise):
First the part of the text assigned for the class period should be read ahead of time more or less straight through. The student should read for the big ideas this time, and try to make brief notes of what those ideas are in the class notebook. (In general this means about two or three man ideas in a chapter.) This is the time to identify any topics that seem confusing – or interesting – bring up in class.
Second, soon after the class meetings dealing with the section of the text, reread with more attention to detail, and make more detailed notes based on this rereading.
TO DO: First, make sure the student has the required texts for all her classes on hand from the very beginning. “Oh, that’s OK, I’ll just borrow Mary’s book” usually translates to “I don’t think I need a book anyway; the teacher doesn’t seem to use one.” Second, make sure the book isn’t getting moldy from disuse or – worse – getting yellow from highlighters. Painting the textbook glaring yellow or other colors doesn’t substitute for taking notes, and it does make it more difficult to reread.
- Dealing with college professors and class notes:
Taking good class notes is a fine art. It is made harder for students when they don’t understand what is supposed to be going on in the classroom. Ideally, every professor would like each class to become a lively and intelligent discussion of the topic with a great deal of give-and-take. This, however, doesn’t always happen so most professors fall back on the more one-sided “lecture” format (though they try to draw the class in by asking questions). Whatever the class format, most professors notice, with a sinking feeling, that some students simply fail to take notes and others obviously are going about it all wrong. Some common things to avoid:
- “But you didn’t put it on the board (or overhead)!” Most faculty have encountered students who faithfully put everything the faculty member wrote on overhead or board in their notebooks – and not a word besides! The result is a jumble of graphs, terms and diagrams with no connecting logic at all. Naturally, it’s not very understandable.
- “But you go too fast!” This is the opposite extreme – the student actually tries to take dictation. Students have been observed writing down the professor’s (bad) jokes. This is the mode of note taking which gave the rise to the old remark that lectures were an instructional method in which “information passes from the notebook of the professor to the notebooks of the students without passing through the brains of either.” Obviously, what is desired is a thought process above all, in which it becomes clear what is important and what is not. This is often more difficult if the reading assignment has not been done so the student is completely unfamiliar with the topic.
- ” I lost track!” Sometimes students start out taking good notes and then stop. This may be caused by the student’s being “thrown” by a hard concept or even a word and failing to get back on track. However, it often happens when the professor succeeds in getting the class to begin some real give-and-take discussion of the topic. It’s very difficult to take notes on a discussion, especially when one is participating in it. The only real solution is to try to make some notes on it as soon as possible afterwards.
- “My notes don’t make any sense!” Class notes often suffer from this problem. In spite of your best efforts, important connections (which may have been obvious at the time) get left out. The only cure is to make time less than 24 hours after class to review the notes and put those connections in where they belong while the class is still fresh in the student’s mind.
In general, a few basic practical suggestions can be made:
Do come to class with more than one reliable writing instrument. Pens can be counted on to fail at crucial moments.
Do come to class with the right notebook. Misplaced notes are almost as bad as no notes.
Don’t attempt to take notes in complete sentences. Make rough outlines, and use abbreviations for long words. Use logical connectors and symbols such as arrows for cause and effect and backwards “E” for “there exists”.
Do look for verbal cues from the professor – new topics or important points may be introduced with pauses or changes of tone and suggest skipping lines of starting a new page for well-organized notes.
Do break formal outlining rules. Notes should resemble outlines but only in general arrangement. Just use indentations to indicate relationships of things. Leave space in the outlines too, for corrections and additions.
Don’t let the sun go down before reviewing notes to see that no connections or ideas have been left out.
- Dealing with college professors and help:
Professors – at least at small colleges like Mary Baldwin – are quite willing to help students outside of class but there are certain expectations and courtesies involved here. One typical problem involves a conversation like this: STUDENT: “I’m having trouble with this material; could I come in and ask you some questions?” PROFESSOR: “Sure; could you come during my office hours tomorrow?” STUDENT: “Oh, no, I’m meeting some friends then.” PROFESSOR: “How about some time Tuesday?” STUDENT (walking away): “OK, I’ll see you Tuesday afternoon.” This is really a double problem. Faculty schedule regular office hours but almost all of them find that whenever they are, they are “inconvenient” for many students. On the other hand, students often announce (or leave notes saying) that they will come by at some vague time, often not realizing that faculty teach other classes, have meetings to attend, and make appointments with other students. Very few faculty can really make “anytime this afternoon” available to students.
TO DO: Students should get a college calendar with big enough spaces for dates (perhaps a daily schedule book) to write down appointments. Students should carry their class schedules with them at all times. Students should also know that faculty post the same type of schedule cards on their office doors, and checking these first can make it easier to find a time that’s mutually agreeable. Finally, students who discover that social plans or extracurricular activities get in the way of scheduling academic help very often may need to reconsider priorities.
A second class of problems comes when students make appointments with faculty and then fail to keep them. Sometimes the same student will schedule two or three appointments in a row, fail to keep them, and expect the professor as a matter of course to schedule yet another appointment.
TO DO: Students need to break appointments only for serious reasons, and need to notify the professor as soon as possible if they are not going to come. (Many syllabi include the faculty secretary’s number as well as the professor’s so messages can be left.) Broken appointments always call for an apology and explanation as a preface to any rescheduling. Repeatedly broken appointments probably indicate a problem the professor can’t help with anyway.
- Dealing with college expectations of written work:
Written assignments of all types are commonly encountered in college courses. There are more or less standard formats for term papers, essays, lab reports and the like, and these are normally distributed as handouts or as part of the syllabus. Just as for the syllabus, however, these format sheets are of little use if they are lost or ignored. Beyond what is specified in any such sheet, however, there are some standards that are expected of any college-level work in general. They fall under four headings, which may not be weighted equally by all faculty but which are all significant.
Physical appearance: While the Gettysburg Address was written on the back of an envelope, college work needs to be in a form that implies some care. The standard is high-quality (not draft), double-spaced, word-processed text on numbered pages, stapled together with a cover sheet giving the student’s name, the date, and the class for which the paper was written. (Draft output especially on older printers may be very hard to read; double-spacing leaves room for corrections and notes, and numbering and stapling imply that the student had a definite sequence of thoughts when she wrote the document.) On the other hand, it is unnecessary to spend time or money getting cute plastic covers or other commercial decorations to add to the work; clean, legible text is the goal here.
Basic writing: College work is assumed to be free of spelling or grammatical errors. Occasional lapses, of course, will happen, but many of them will (in some classes) lead to lost points and (in all classes) cause the reader to take a dimmer view of the work. Students should know how to use spell-checkers on their word processors, but should also be aware that many common mistakes (such as “it’s” or “its” or “there” or “their”) will not be caught by spell-checkers. Writing style, as distinct from spelling and grammar, is expected to develop during the college years, but even beginners are expected to be able to identify and use appropriate styles for the material. Conversational English is not used for term papers, and descriptive accounts of the author’s emotional state are not appropriate in lab reports. Most faculty will be happy to provide examples of appropriate writing styles for the assignments in their courses.
Scholarly writing: Very little college-level writing can be done entirely out of your own head. Sources may range from your textbook to advanced scholarly research papers, but they all must be given due credit in a formal way or else the student has committed plagiarism. Different disciplines have different styles of citing sources which they will provide in handouts or in the syllabus. They all have in common the fact that they are intended to allow the reader to identify (and even get a copy of) the source of a fact or idea the student uses in her paper.
It’s a common misunderstanding that only direct quotations need to be cited; in fact, any factual material or any idea which is not the student’s own should be cited. Direct quotations, in fact, should be kept to a bare minimum – one way of producing a poor term paper is simply stringing together quotations from various sources.
Critical thought: Too many student papers read like book reviews or rehashes of encyclopedia articles. It’s important for students to find good sources for a paper, but it’s equally important for students to work with those sources and think critically and originally about them. Good papers identify conflicting ideas, analyze the evidence and logic on both sides, and reach conclusions. The professor is looking for the thought process involved, not for a collection of factoids neatly pasted into the paper like stamps in a collection. The student who takes sides in a conflict of ideas – as long as she accurately represents both sides and reaches conclusions based on logic and evidence – will show more of that thought process. It’s important also for the student to try to make use of the specific kinds of reasoning and evidence appropriate to the subject matter of the course.
To do: Students need to write drafts of papers early enough to look them over critically – at least a few days after writing them – and check not only for spelling and style errors but also ask the hard questions: “What are my references here? Are they all from People magazine or the textbook? Do I need to dig for better material?” And above all, “What am I saying here? Do I have a point to make? Do I have enough evidence and logic to convince anybody? And have I written this the way somebody in this subject area would approach it, using their kinds of reasoning and applying some of what I have learned in the course?” If these questions are asked ahead of time by the student, and drafts rewritten until the student’s answers are favorable, then most of the time the professor’s reactions will be favorable, too.