15 May 2006

How to Learn Quickly / Pass / Do Well

I found this article from Xtina, with steps to learn difficult material quickly. No need to repeat the details here, but it's prompted me to make two of my own lists: how to pass, and how to do well in a class. These are based upon my own teaching style and what I've observed with my own students, so they might not work for ALL classes, but they'll probably work for LOTS of classes.

How to Pass A Class
  1. Show up to every class/lab. Seems like a no-brainer, but it's worth repeating. Nearly every student who's failed my courses missed at least a quarter of the class meetings. Once you're in the classroom, you can't help but hear what the prof has to say - some students can learn from the textbook without coming to class, but most can't. And certainly if there's an attendance policy, showing up helps. It also shows effort and will incline the prof to feel kindly towards you when assigning grades.

  2. Take notes in class. The process of writing down what the teacher says often helps you to retain it. It certainly can't hurt, and if you're in class anyway, might as well. Try and have a binder with folders so you can throw in any handouts the prof gives out, and anything you need to bring to class to turn in (see next items).

  3. Turn in all the HW and labs. The hardest part to HW is just starting it. I'm not saying spend hours and hours working on it, just turn in something. If you're only trying to pass the class, don't bother reading the chapters assigned, just look at the questions the night before it's due, or the morning of, and come up with what you can. Something is better than nothing, and some profs (including myself) will give "pity points" - you'll always get some minimum, like 30%. If your prof allows late work, turn it in late if you must, but it's better to get it in on time. For labs, if nothing else you should have data if you showed up to lab, turn that in, and answer any word questions if you can't do the calculations. And once you get started, who knows, you may end up trying to do a good job, but if you don't, at least you have something to turn in.

  4. Front load your work. That is, work more at the beginning of the semester than the end. It's a lot easier to start off on the right foot and then slack off later, than to start off on the wrong foot and scramble to catch up when you realize you're failing. This also builds in a cushion in case you really DO have three grandmothers after midterms.

  5. Turn in all projects or papers. Again, even if you start the night before, turn in something. BS if you haven't done the work. Even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut.

  6. Cite sources / DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. If you write a paper that takes ANY info from someone else, make SURE you include the name of the author and the title of it. Plagiarizing is WORSE than not doing the work, as some profs will fail you (in the whole course) for a single plagiarized assignment. Schools can even kick you out for a single case of plagiarism. At the least, you'll have to redo the assignment, and that's a pain and invalidates everything you actually did do. Don't risk it. If you were thinking of buying a paper on the internet, don't forget: profs have Google too.

  7. Take all exams. Even if you haven't studied. If you've got no clue on anything, just guess. By random chance you'll get 20-25% on a multiple choice exam. Answer all questions, as profs don't usually have equipment that can take more points off for wrong answers than ones left blank (as the SAT does). 20% is still better than a 0%, which is what you get if you don't show, and some profs will fail you. And who knows, you may know some!

How to Do Well in A Class
  1. Show up to class/lab on time every day, from the first day of class. Try not to add classes late, as a lot of foundation material (and a list of the teacher's expectations) is covered in the first week, and sometimes even the first day. Missing a day from adding late is NOT an acceptable excuse to not do the work.

  2. Sit in the front row. Studies have shown that students in the front row tend to have higher grades. While correlation doesn't prove causation, it can't hurt. And perhaps sitting in the front means you won't be as distracted by people in the back. And maybe that'll get people who ARE good to take note of you.

  3. Start HW/projects/papers/labs the day they're assigned. Work as far as you can on it, then go to the professor with your questions. (You can also try asking your study group - see next item - for help.) For each credit that the course is worth, expect to spend at least three hours a week doing work. For example, if it's a 4 credit lab course, allocate 12 hours a week for the work - roughly two hours a day. When you get things back, check what you did wrong or can improve upon next time.

  4. Form a study group. It's actually kinda irrelevant whether it's with more or less smart students, they just need to be willing to work. If they're better in the subject than you, they'll explain difficult things to you. If you're better than them, you'll reinforce what you already know and figure out new things BY TEACHING THEM. At a minimum, meet once a week for an hour to work on HW, projects, papers, labs, and study for tests.

  5. Study for all exams, and review them after. Now that you've been working your butt off all semester long, you might not even have to study all that much extra for tests. Put in at least an hour just in case, reviewing topics that the prof has hinted will be on the exam (and they DO, pay attention in class and watch for it), or topics that you've had difficulty with. When you get the exam back, check where you made mistakes. If there's a cumulative final, rest assured some of the same topics will be on it, and you can fix the ones you screwed up before. You'll also get a better idea of what the prof is looking for and how to meet their demands.

  6. "How well do I need to do on this exam for a ... ?" Don't worry about what you need on a specific assignment. Simply do your best on each and every one of them, and you will exceed what you think you "need" in the class. If you think you've worked pretty hard on a paper, see if you can edit it one more time. If you think your lab is ready to be turned in, double check your calculations. If you've already studied three hours for the final, study another hour. Unless you can't think straight anymore, then sleep instead.

I'm thinking about handing out a couple lists like these, with just the boldface items, to my (non-physics) students in the Fall. Physics students usually know these things already, they're a self-selected group.


DecemberFlower said...

That's some nice, sound advice.

Eric said...

Oddly enough, the "Sit in the front row" is dead on for me. I've always sat in the front row and 95% of the time gotten an A in the class. This semester, I sat in the back of all my classes and my grades did indeed fall (still passing, but not to *my* standards). :)

zandperl said...

Exactly why it's in the "do well" category, not the "barely pass". ;)

Galbinus_Caeli said...

Gotta disagree with you on a couple points.

1) Take notes. Personally I found that my grades DROPPED when I tryed to take notes. In my case it was a learning disability that makes it difficult for me to hand write. It requires full concentration for me to do so, and when I tried to take notes, I would stop paying attention.

2) Join a study group. Again, there are exceptions. I never worked well with others. (Still don't, I work better individually.) I would sometimes make sure that my project group was me and some people I was sure would drop the class soon. I had other peoples crap work do too much damage to my grades.

3) Sit in front. Again, not for everyone. If you have paranoid tendencies and are uncomfortable with people behind you, the front row is not for you.

The recommendations you give are GENERALLY the right ones. They have been taught approximatly forever. (I know I was taught them in the late seventies) But some people have to find their own way.

Following those recommendations is probably why I failed outrageously the year I tried to become an engineer. Other than that year. (My second year of college) I was a 4.0 student and that was the year I decided to "buckle down" and follow the rules. I changed majors and study practices and went back to being an A student.