Michael S. Ofsowitz
Associate Professor, Psychology

 

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Strategies to succeed as a student (from the point of view of a teacher).

1) Play by the rules. Read the syllabus. Study the syllabus. Know the syllabus.

The syllabus is like a set of ground rules that your teacher creates to help run the class in a way the teacher thinks is appropriate or perhaps even ideal for learning the material that you have to learn. Some syllabi are little more than shells containing some minimally required information, but others are more detailed. At a minimum, your course syllabus will show what you need to do during the course to earn a grade. (You might have to write papers, complete tests, engage in class discussions, group work, keep a journal, attend daily, or whatever rules the teacher has decided on.) The syllabus should also show a schedule of topics so that you'll know - perhaps with some room for error based on progression of the class - what topic you'll be studying at which point in time. Sometimes a syllabus also contains detailed policies (rules) about activities that are associated with the class, like cheating policies, attendance policies, due date policies, and so on. Some syllabi detail all the assignments that you're required to complete, explain the course, describe the teacher, offer helpful related information, or whatever the teacher has seen fit to put on the syllabus.

In addition to the ground rules provided by the syllabus, you'll confront other rules, like the due dates for assignments (if not on the syllabus), and various instructions for papers, tests, projects, and so on. (I address "following instructions" separately, below.) Follow these rules, too. Yes, this means you.

Different teachers have different rules, but if you just accept that as a fact of educational life, learn them all, and conform to them, you'll be better off. Most rules help the teacher maintain fairness, so even if they seem odd, realize that the rules are the same for every student in the class. If there were no rules, teachers would be prone to persuasion, and the most persuasive students would have the advantages, which would be unfair for the others.

Of course, rules can be violated, but it's in your best interest not to do so. If you turn in a paper late, you might have real problems. Some teachers don't tolerate that at all, and it is their right not to. Other teachers permit deviations from due dates, but only if you inform them and make requests before the fact. Some might not even care much about conformity to due dates. (Hopefully you'll be able to figure out what approach your teacher has from the syllabus, but if not, you can always ask.)

In addition to the teacher's rules, there are rules that apply to the whole school. Some of those rules establish standards for policies (such as a maximum time-limit on incompletes), explain what teachers may and may not do (such as apply shorter limits for incompletes), and some provide you with rights so that you aren't a helpless victim of unfair or arrogant teaching. It is to your benefit to know the rules of the college, but in the day to day events of your schooling, they will play a subordinate role to the rules established in each of your specific classes.

What's the purpose of all these rules? Most of us (teachers) try to set up the rules for a class that are most conducive to our own styles as teachers, and to learning. We write rules to help establish the structures of a class so that formal education (within a bureaucratic system that is the school) can take place. These rules maintain order in the class, and align expectations of its members to the procedures that are used to assess progress. We teachers also write rules to protect us from accusations from dissatisfied students. If a teacher can say, "but it was in the syllabus," or "but it was in the instructions," then complaints are often seen as unfounded.

2) Don't cheat. It's wrong, it's illegal, it's harmful. If you ever get caught cheating (and teachers do look for it when they suspect it), you can be in a lot of trouble. Failing the assignment you cheated on is the tip of the iceberg, yet most cases of cheating end with that result (depending on the teacher). But you can get into more trouble than that. If you cheat and your teacher catches you and the evidence is clear, just admit it and apologize and promise never to do it again (and don't do it again). If you fight it, especially when the evidence is clear (against you), your teacher might push the envelope and get you into big trouble.

What counts as cheating? If you're taking a test - even if it's a take-home - and you get help from someone else, unless the teacher explicitly allowed this, it's cheating. If you're writing a paper and you copy someone else's paper and pretend it's yours, it's cheating. If you give the help to someone else on a test, or give someone else a paper to submit in their own name, it's cheating. If you turn in a paper that you wrote for a different class, without asking the teacher if you may do this, it's cheating. If you get your hands on test questions prior to the test (where the questions are supposed to be secret), it's cheating. (That's neither an exhaustive nor a legal list - they're just examples.) For the most part, you know when you're cheating, and you'd better just avoid doing it. (Besides, if you came to school to get an education, and not just to slip through the system to get the paperwork, it only backfires.)

One common way that students cheat without necessarily realizing they're doing it, is when they copy parts of other people's works into their own papers without showing it properly. This is the most frequent source of plagiarism, which is cheating. The most evil form of plagiarism is when you copy a paper from some source and pretend it's yours, or you copy portions of a few papers, paste them together, and pretend you wrote it. That's really bad. But sometimes you copy parts of a book or a paper you read and you forget to use quotation marks. That's a bad thing to forget. It's sort of like grabbing a six-pack in a store and walking out the front door, forgetting to pay. You meant to, but you forgot. Guess what? You're in trouble. If you copy ideas or information from some source, but describe it in your own style, with your own choice of words, then you need only provide a citation to say where the ideas or information came from (and you need to say where). But if you describe it in any way like the original (or exactly like the original), your citation alone won't suffice. If you copy wording (the source's choice of words), then copy it exactly, put it in quotation marks, and cite your source. Anything else is plagiarism; and that's cheating.

Once you cheat, give up all expectations you might have about your teacher treating you in a gentle and warm-hearted manner.

3) Follow instructions. Well, how often have you heard this one? You know that it's important to follow instructions. Don't forget. Your teacher will base the grading on the instructions you were supposed to follow. If the test instructions tell you to do something, but not the other, then do it, and not the other. Your grade will be based on what you were instructed to do! Little words can alter the instructions in a big way, so pay close attention to the instructions. Read questions (on tests) carefully. Know what you are supposed to be doing, responding to, or whatever. There simply is no excuse for not following instructions. (There are excuses if there were no instructions or if they weren't written clearly, but if you are confused, ask your teacher.)

4) Don't gripe about your grade. On occasion your teacher will make a mistake while grading and will have misread something you wrote, penned in the wrong grade, or made some other honest mistake. If you think that happened, ask your teacher to double-check. If you want to appeal for a higher grade on a test or assignment, though, you need good reason. Most of the time students don't have good reason - they only have dissatisfaction (often accompanied by anger). You need to accept that some teachers are tougher than others, but a lenient teacher's grading system is not a good basis to request a higher grade with a tough teacher. Within a classroom, the key to grade appeals is fairness. As long as the teacher isn't unfair in grading certain students, then complaining about a grade is likely to be fruitless. And keep in mind that fairness means fair from the teacher's point of view - not from yours. You might think it's fair to get an extension, get a second chance, etc., but to the teacher, it's fair to follow the rules that were in place before you wanted a break.

If you think you were graded unfairly, you should ask your teacher why you got the grade that you got. Some teachers already show you why - they return tests and assignments with comments or corrections that show you what produced the grade that you received. Some say nice things along with showing your errors and others just show you the errors. But some teachers just return tests and assignments with a grade and no explanation - in those instances you can safely ask for an explanation, but it's best if you word it in a non-threatening way (i.e., not a forceful "Why'd I get a C!?" but instead a "would you show me why I got a C please?").

5) Learn from your mistakes. You'll make mistakes. You're not perfect. But teachers expect you to look at the mistakes you made on early works and avoid making those same mistakes on later works. In part, that's why teachers give you feedback detailing your mistakes and errors. If you want to learn, then pay attention to what you did wrong and try not to do it again. You don't make a good impression on a teacher if you keep repeating the same mistakes; of course, it might be outside your voluntary control - you might have reached the limit of your abilities, and if that's the case, so be it. But some of the time you just have to work harder and it's up to you to do that. If you can learn from your mistakes you might be able to improve your grades.

6) Ask your teacher. If you don't know what's going on, ask. By now you've probably heard the saying, "there's no such thing as a stupid question" a hundred times. Is it true? Of course not. There are stupid questions. If the syllabus clearly states that a term paper is worth 50% of your class grade, and you ask the teacher,"how much is our term paper worth?" you stand out as having ignored the syllabus, and what did I say in point number one, above? But if you are ever confused about anything at all, ask your teacher about it. Your teachers don't expect you to understand everything in the books or lectures - they want you to ask questions about it. And your teachers should know that sometimes what they say themselves isn't clear, so whenever you're confused, ask. If you don't ask, you'll lose out.

7) Help yourself. If you get hints or direct advice that you need extra help in some area - usually writing - then you really need to find outside help. Most teachers don't have the time to tutor you or to provide rudimentary training, and in college you're expected to already have mastered a certain level of proficiency. If you haven't, then you really need to take the time to help yourself master whatever it is that needs work. In the short run having someone hold your hand is nice, but in the long run you have to survive on your own in school and on the job. You just have to learn to admit to yourself that you need help and you have to make the effort to seek it. Your teacher might be very understanding, but like I said, in the long run... it's your responsibility and your life. Find tutors, look for refresher courses, use the college's writing learning center to its fullest extent, and so on.

8) Some tangential pieces of advice. This list comes from a piece that the president of Harvard University put together, which was eventually summarized for the New York Times. (I've lost the exact source; the material indented below is a direct quote.) Some 1600 Harvard students were surveyed, along with a variety of college teachers and deans. Here's what they advised.

a) Get to know some of your teachers. Develop a close student-teacher relationship with at least one faculty member every semester. Get the teacher to know you well, too.

b) Take a variety of courses, each semester. Don't chase after prerequisites all at once. Get something enjoyable into your schedule every semester.

c) Study in groups. Get together with other students and study the course material with them, not just on your own. [Actually, the evidence on this is not supportive. - MSO]

d) Write, write, write, and write. If you can, choose courses that emphasize more frequent, but shorter writing assignments than courses with just one or two term papers (which adds up to more writing overall, but also more practice which leads, in the long run, to better grades). The study pretty clearly showed that the more writing you have to do, the better your grades get.

e) Learn a second language. This speaks for itself (no pun), but also, language courses can be fun and good practice for other habits (e.g., writing).

f) Understand time. Time is limited. You won't change it by filling your schedule. You have to understand how much time each course and each project requires, and you have to make time for them. Good students know how time limits their work. You can't succeed by "squeezing in" a college class.

g) Get involved. Be a part of your college. Do something on some club, no matter how trivial it might be. Extracurricular activities (except for sports) are good for your school experience and your grades. Be involved in some type of school activity.

 

I'll add one more piece of advice to that list: read. Read for fun, read novels or essays or short stories, magazines and newspapers, or whatever turns you on (other than the blather of text messages and peer blogs), but read.

Michael Ofsowitz, 2002/2005