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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Aack!! So Many Assignments, So Little Time!!

We are going to return once again to assignments. As we have discussed in previous posts, doing all of the assignments for the course (including doing all the components of each assignment) is an easy way to maximize your final grade in any given course. In fact, it is so easy that professors are baffled when they have students that do not take advantage of these opportunities to do well in a class. But based on my casual conversations with students and comments on course evaluations, it seems that the most common reason for students to miss out on turning in these assignments is fairly simple – the time factor.

Most students who do not turn in an assignment or turn it in late usually use the same excuse – I didn’t have the time I needed to work on it. And while to some extent that may be the case, that doesn’t absolve the student from his responsibility to meet the requirements of the course (i.e. turning in all assigned work). What this usually means is that the student needs to do a better job at managing the time she has. This includes figuring out how many hours she is in class each week, how many hours she has to work, how much time goes to other, non-negotiable commitments (e.g. daily commute, religious-based activities, etc.), and how much time is left over.

Getting a good education requires time, and not just the time you actually spend sitting in a desk in a classroom. It requires time to read the textbook, to study for exams, and to complete assignments. The general rule of thumb is that you should expect to spend 2-3 hours outside of class doing those things for every 1 hour you are in class. If you are taking a psychology course that meets 3 hours a week, then you should expect to spend 6-9 hours outside of class doing the work required to get a good grade for that course. Based on this guideline, taking a 15-credit hour load (a traditional full-time course load of 5 3-credit hour courses), then you will spend 15 hours a week in the classroom and 25-30 hours reading textbooks, studying, and working on assignments. (By the way, professors who teach hybrid or on-line courses expect you to spend that much time on their courses, too, so if you think you can take a hybrid or on-line course and get away with devoting only 4-5 hours a week to it, you might want to think again. The amount of time you would spend in class gets added to the on-line work you do on your own time.)

Now, you may be thinking – holy crap! That’s a full-time job! Yes, it is. Being a full-time college student is a full-time job. Many students also have to at least work part-time (sometimes 2 part-time jobs) to help pay for college or other expenses, like to sleep and get some exercise, and hang out with their friends. So devoting that much time to studying, reading, and writing may seem daunting.

Guess what – most professors recognize that time is getting harder to come by, and greater numbers of students each year have to work and take care of their families while going to school. And, in fact, professors try to design assignments so that you can multi-task while completing an assignment. For example, my Adolescent Development students have to write 3 reflection papers over the course of a quarter as part of their overall course grade. They must select 3 terms to define in their own words and use personal examples from when they were teenagers to illustrate those concepts. For this simple 3-page writing assignment, students have the opportunity to hit all three outside-of-class work at the same time: reading the textbook to decide what concepts to define, study the material by thinking of personal examples for the concepts, and writing it down as an assignment to get points for their course grade. This type of assignment should take about 1 hour above the amount of time it takes to read a few chapters in the book, which would be well below the 9 hours that would be expected if a student took a week to work on the assignment.

So what does that mean for the student who perpetually misses turning in assignments because of the time factor? This means that either a) the student is trying to do too much in taking too many classes while working too many hours and having too many other commitments, or b) the student has not done a time management plan to figure out how to work everything into his busy life. Professors cannot do anything about the first problem. If you are trying to work 40 hours a week while taking 5 classes (with 2 of those classes having labs) and taking care of your 3 children, then there really isn’t much the professor can do in terms of advice – in fact, her primary recommendation may be to either take a part-time class schedule or go to working part-time at your job. Professors require the number and variety of assignments for any given course for a reason – actually, for multiple reasons – but that will be a topic for a later post.

What a professor can do is help you figure out a time management plan that might give you a clear picture of how you can take care of your coursework while also taking care of your other responsibilities (within reason, of course). I suggest to students that they print off 2 types of calendars – a basic week sheet, and a set of sheets that cover the number of weeks in a given term (whether it is a semester or quarter). On the basic week sheet, put in when you are in class, when you typically have to work, and anything else you do that takes time. Then look to see where you have blank space – that is time you can devote to coursework. For the set of sheets that cover the term, you will use the syllabi for your courses to jot down due dates of various assignments (if they are already on the syllabus – good professors will do this), when final exams are, when holidays occur, and your basic work schedule. Now you’ll be able to get a sense of whether you are going to have multiple assignments for different classes due around the same time and when you’ll have stretches in which you can work on assignments early or at least get caught up or read ahead in your textbook.

Planning ahead at the beginning of the term will allow you to discover time that you may not have thought you had. Time has a nasty way of getting past us faster than we expect – how many times have you gone on Facebook to check something out really quickly, only to find that 2 hours have gone by and the only thing you gained was learning that your best friend was enjoying spaghetti for dinner?

Which brings me to the next sticking point – you may have to give up some of your favorite activities to be able to get your coursework completed. There are only 24 hours in a day, and only 7 days in a week. If you have a big paper due, then you have to subtract time allotted to other activities to get it done. If it means taking a break from World of Warcraft for a few days, so be it. Does that suck? Yep. But if you are serious about your education and want to maximize your course grade, you will do it. Which is more important – your education, or your on-line video game record? If you answered your education, then taking the steps I outlined above will help you find ways to do both while putting your education first. If you answered your video game record, then you might want to rethink why you are in college in the first place. If you don’t want to make your education a priority, then you can save your parents, yourself, or taxpayers (for those who get grants) quite a bit of money by waiting to go to college until you are ready to make it a priority. The assignments that are the basis of your education take time, and they are well worth the time you put into them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Talking to Your Professor about Your Grades

Sometimes I hear professors talk about students who hold the professor responsible for their grade.  The reality is that students earn grades.  If a professor was going to "give" a grade to students, I don't think they would devote the time and energy into creating and grading course assignments.  They would merely look at a student and say, I like that student therefore I am going to give her an A or I'm going to give everyone an A.  So when you talk to your Professors about your grade, it is better to ask the Professor to explain how your grade was calculated.  Not, why did you give me that grade?

Professors also frequently hear, I need an A in this class.  If you need a particular grade, it is your responsibility to understand how the final grade will be calculated.  You should be monitoring your own progress toward your goal grade.  If you are unclear on how to calculate your grade, the professor would be more than happy to assist you. 

Professors are also informed by students that the student is the professor's customer.  This is an incorrect orientation toward a professor and it surely will not get a student very far.  If you really need to apply a business model to higher education (which really isn't applicable), you should look at professors as your boss!  Would you be late for work?  Would you ask for an extension on a special project?  Would you not complete the work that you were assigned to complete?  If you approached your work as you do your education, how long would you be employed?

At all times, you should approach a professor with respect.  If you are asking about your grade, be sure you understand the syllabus and assignment details.  When students approach me about a grade dispute, the first question I ask is what did it say on the syllabus.