Finding success in college classes

Dominique Lyons

Many teachers enter the classroom with a similar goal: move students through the class and achieve the best grade possible. It seems simple enough, but too often students and teachers disagree on the best way to reach that goal, sometimes at the expense of the student.

“There’s a severe disconnect between what students think teachers want and what teachers think goes on in students’ heads,” said Autumn Mamrak, graduate student and instructor for the department of Mathematical Sciences.

The first thing successful students learn is what their teachers expect; and then they do it.

“The way you should approach it is: ‘I want to get as good a grade in here as I can in the minimum amount of time,’” said Eric Johnson, an assistant professor in the College of Business. “So use the time as efficiently as possible.”

Johnson said he isn’t advising students to keep their heads buried in books, but to be concise and timely.

“Something that is seriously lacking in terms of skills evolved in high school is how to study, how you get better at something, how you learn as an individual,” said Mamrak. “All students know about making note cards, but note cards never really worked for me.”

Mamrak said don’t assume that because one study technique worked for someone else, it’ll work for you. One student may rely on note cards to pass a class, but another student may learn better by reading straight from the textbook.  

The second student is also in a delicate position, she said, because devotion to the textbook may imply that doing the reading is the same as attending class, costing them valuable information that is only available in class.

“[Students have] won more than half the battle if they’re here in the first place — that is the biggest problem,” Johnson said. “It’s going to take you two to three times longer to get the same stuff doing it on your own as it would be sitting there watching me do it for you.”

Reading the textbook too much is hardly ever the problem. Often students either don’t get the class materials or when they do they don’t bring them to class.

“I think the number one hindrance for students is that they haven’t done the reading so that they can’t really track what’s going on in the class,” said Sarah Rilling, associate professor and undergraduate studies coordinator for the department of English.

Students tend to stunt their own learning by treating class as its own experience, separate from what goes on in the rest of the world.

“You can accomplish so much in five minutes of office hours compared to you struggling to do it on your own,” said Lockwood Reynolds, assistant professor for the department of economics. “It’s just not a good use of your time. You get stuck, ask.”

Even those students who go to class prepared, do all of their work and study regularly might not be getting the most out of their class time. If they aren’t mulling over what they learn, it becomes useless information stuck in their head until the test is over and they can flush it out of their minds over the weekend.

“As you’re sitting there, every once in a while ask yourself, ‘why?’” Reynolds said. “Don’t just write stuff down or tune out. Every once in a while say: ‘Wait a second, why is that true?’”

For students who recognize some of these “don’t-do’s” in their own life, don’t panic.

“Cut yourself some slack,” Johnson said. “You’re not going to pay attention and follow everything the [professor] does. Just try and do it for the majority of it. Don’t just mechanically write down everything he says — that’s not much help.”

John Barrick, emeritus professor for the department of physics, believes that the responsibility is not all on the student’s shoulders.

“It’s a challenge to the professor to make courses as interesting as possible,” Barrick said. “You’re not always going to be able to get everything to be totally interesting but that’s part of the teachers’ job to monitor that type of thing.”

Polycarp Ikuenobe, professor for the department of philosophy, suggests, above all, students should remember that teachers want to help you. Both want the same thing: success.

“I take joy when my students succeed,” Ikuenobe said. “When they do well, I am happy.”

Contact Dominique Lyons at [email protected].