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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Best Question to Ask a Professor – What Can I Do to Succeed in This Class? Part One

In the last blog, we discussed the worst question you can ask a professor – the dreaded “Did I miss anything important?” What we are going to focus on now is the best question you can ask – “What can I do to succeed in this class?”
This question is actually a complicated one. You might think that there is a simple answer; many students assume the answer is just to “study a lot”. While studying the material for tests is a good idea, there are usually many activities you should engage in to do well in a course. We will review some of these activities with you across a series of blog entries so that we can give you as much information as we can in digestible bits.
Let’s focus on one of the easiest ways to succeed in a course – doing all the work that is assigned to you. For many of you, you may be thinking, “Well, duh.” But you would be surprised how many students end up with poor course grades simply because they did not do all the assigned work for the course! In fact, in many of my courses, students who are not very good at taking in-class tests (because of test anxiety, being slow readers, etc.) can still manage a good grade (C or better) by turning in other assigned work fully completed and on time. What we have found is that when a student does not do all the assigned work, it is usually because of one of two reasons: a) he didn’t pay attention to the syllabus outlining all the assigned work, or b) she didn’t realize that those assignments would add up to a crucial proportion of her course grade.
Most professors list in the syllabus what the assignments will be for a given course. They may not give explicit directions there about how to complete them, but they usually list how many of each type (e.g. 3 exams vs. 2 papers, 9 homework assignments vs. 5 in-class group activities) and how much each of them are worth. Professors also often list when the due dates are for those assignments. Thus, your first step at succeeding in a course is to review the syllabus to find the types of grading opportunities there are, how many there are of each, and when they are due. If the professor has not provided in-depth explanations of the assignments and their due dates, feel free to ask her! That kind of initiative, showing that you care about your performance in the class, will be appreciated, and you will be more likely to get even more detail than what she would have initially provided.
Some students review the information about assignments, but assume that course work that does not include the term “test” or “exam” must not be important, particularly if they are worth less than the regular exams. In fact, other assigned work, even if worth less than tests, can have a great impact on your final course grade. When you have multiple homework assignments worth a handful of points each, those can make a difference between doing well and failing a course! For example, I teach a behavioral statistics course in which the final course grade is out of 1000 points. There are 10 homework assignments, each worth 30 points. A test is worth 150 points. A student may think, “Hey, if I miss a couple of homework assignments, it’s no big deal – they are just 30 points each. I just need to focus on the exams.” What he may forget is that missing just two homework assignments can take a “B” (830 points) and turn it into a “C+” (770 points). If a student is passing the exams with high “B’s” but not turning in homework, then that student might have to retake the course; for that statistics course, a student must have a “C” (minimum of 730 points), so if she managed to earn 390 points (getting 87% for three exams) and did perfectly on the final project for 250 points, she would only earn 640 points (a “D” for the course) because she did not turn in her homework. Guess who gets to retake the course, even though it appears she understood the material on the exams and final project?
Thus, doing all the assigned work is an easy first step in succeeding in just about any class you take. It may not guarantee you an “A”, but it will offer you the best opportunity to maximize your final course grade. In the next few blog entries, we discuss completing assignments in more detail, including why it is important to read directions carefully, managing due dates and what to do about late assignments, and understanding how your assignments are graded. But just making sure you turn in your assignments is half the battle – if you can handle that, you are on your way to being a successful college student!