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"How do I get a good grade in your course?"

A generic professor type with students.  So, how does a student do well in university and college-level course?

Every semester, there are always one or two students (usually young guys), who come to me on the first day of the term at the end of the first meeting and ask, "How do I get a good grade in your course?"  Mind you, this invariably is after I have bored everyone, myself included, by reading through the entire multi-paged syllabus, which details, among other things, how students can do well.  But ok.  Let's attribute it to freshman or new semester jitters.  I'll play along.  For you average college-aged guys out there, here is how to become better, and maybe even stellar students during your undergraduate career.  Pay attention.  It's not rocket science by any stretch of the imagination.  There are no secrets or magic bullets.  Ready?  Here we go!

1) Buy the required textbook(s) ASAP and bring it/them to every class.  Don't show up without them.  Snap to it!  Don't wait three or four weeks to purchase them online or from the bookstore.  Don't depend on a buddy or roommate to loan you his or her copy.  Get the books and keep up with the reading.  Surprise!  That's why you are in school for the next four to six years, and part of the way we learn about subjects is by steeping ourselves in what scholars have to say about those subjects. 

2) Bring old fashioned writing materials (pencil, pen, and paper) and take notes the old-fashioned way on the more important points your professor covers.  There are plenty of studies out there now that show we tend to remember information much, much better and for longer when we write it down.  The amount and complexity of material in college or university is also much higher than in high school.  So, it is a colossal mistake to assume that you'll be able to remember everything you read or hear, and keep it well-organized within your mind in the three to five courses you take each semester.

3) Do the reading, exercises, and/or papers when they are assigned.  Start sooner rather than later, so that you have ample time to digest and assimilate what your hear and read.  Don't leave longer assignments until the night before they are due.  Once again, there are plenty of studies out there that show, without a doubt, most of us do not work well under pressure.  Quit kidding yourself about that.  And make it a habit to turn in assignments, in whatever form those might take, when they are due.  Do not e-mail assignments to your professors unless instructed to do so.  Unless everything is done electronically via applications like Moodle, or you are enrolled in a distance course, it is not your professors' responsibility to supply you with paper, ink, and staples.

4) Attend your lectures and classes routinely and listen attentively.  Surprise!  That means you put away the school newspapers, I-phones, and laptops, stop doodling in your notebook or on the desk itself, stop trying to see the clock from where you are seated, look at whomever is speaking at the front of the room and LISTEN.  Finally, leave your ego and attitude at the door, Keegan.  It does not matter to your professors that you might have gotten all A's in your high school courses.  College and university are different ballgames altogether.  As mentioned before, the material is harder, there is more of it, and much more is required and expected of you.  Get used to it.

5) Engage with the material and, in smaller seminars or foreign language classes, the planned discussion and/or activities for the day.  Don't sit there like stoned, or hungover bumps on a log, staring into space through red-rimmed eyes, slack-jawed, and drooling.  Ask questions and seek further clarification if you are confused by anything you read and hear, or if you simply flat out do not understand a particular concept.  Oh, and it might help to attend once in a while those office hours that professors are required to have.  Typically, these are posted online and by a professor's office door.  And don't make the excuse that none of a professor's office hours are convenient for you.  If you are having problems in Econ. 101 or Intermediate Statistics, arrange your own schedule, so that you can see your professor during office hours.  E-mail ahead of time that you are coming, and keep the appointment.

6) Seek out tutors if you are still having problems with the course material or writing coherently.  Many smaller colleges and most large universities these days have various kinds of tutoring available free of charge to enrolled students.  Tutors are most often upper division undergrad or graduate students, skilled in their respective subject areas, trained in how to be effective in their work with students, and provide useful constructive critique to those seeking help.  I visited a few writing tutors for feedback as an undergraduate and grad student during the 1990s at the mighty Universty of Wisconsin-Madison.  The comments and suggestions these tutors provided were extremely helpful in polishing my own paper projects and an early book review.  As a professor myself, I have also seen dramatic improvements in my own students' written work when they have finally decided to get serious and seek outside help.

7) Turn in highly polished projects and papers that present your findings and ideas through interesting, well-supported discussion.  Simply listing a bunch of poorly formed ideas and connecting them with a bunch of randomly chosen direct quotes lifted from a few books and websites on your topic is not -- Newsflash!  -- highly polished or well-executed.  At best, that's middle- or high school level work.  Your college and university-level work should be much more complex, informed, and presented thoughtfully.  It should also be free of any glaring spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors as well as things like sentence fragments, comma, splices, and run-on sentences.

8) Don't have your parents e-mail or call your professors.  You are the person registered for and enrolled in your courses during any given academic term.  By the same token, you are (presumably) the one doing the work.  You are also at least 18 years old, able to vote, serve in the military, behave very foolishly in a number of ways now that you are living away from home, and take responsibility for your actions when things head south.  You approach and talk to your professors if and when there are any challenges that arise in your completion of various college and university courses.

9) Don't waste am amazing opportunity.  It's time to grow up and get serious about your future.  You say nothing interests you?  How sad, considering that there are so many things of interest on the average college or university campus.  Forget sports and fraternities though.  These are overdone, and exceedingly narrow in focus.  Sure.  Both might provide a lot of fun, but besides allowing a guy to wallow in the reek of Axe-infused testosterone with his fellow dudebros along with the mere possibility of drunken, meaningless sex for several years, the two social outlets achieve little of consequence in the longer term.  No.  Think about about other things since, ideally, college and university ought to be about broadening your mind and awareness of the world.   Are you up to the challenge?

10) Finally, stop making excuses.  A large part of functioning as an independent adult involves doing what is required of you instead of ignoring and later whining about it after you have received a bad grade due to a lackluster performance in a college or university course.  You need to accept responsibility, realize the gift that post-secondary education is, engage with and absorb the material to the best of your ability, interact with your professors, and do you utmost to produce solid work.  And besides, if all of this is really too much trouble, you could always drop out of school and punch a clock six days and 50+ hours a week to make ends meet.

That, my friends, is how you approach being a college or university student with a bit more style and purpose AND do well (or at least marginally better) in your courses.  It's pretty simple really.  And while these thoughts are the results of working for many years with American undergraduates -- more than enough of whom are coddled in the extreme by their parents and K-12 teachers, immature, and unprepared for adult life, although they have great self-esteem and are overly confident in their actual abilities  -- I'll bet that there is something here of use for every average college-aged guy wherever in the world he might find himself.

-- Heinz-Ulrich


  1. If I may please allow me to add a couple of my own comments regarding "getting good grades:"

    a). Avoid "Academic Arrogance." Just because you made an "A" in high school algebra does not mean you can skip to calculus. Get a good handle on the basics.

    b). Learn to study. It is really not hard. Find a place where no one else is around (and I mean no one), do not have anything near that requires an electrical outlet or battery (cell phone, tv, etc., the only possible exception is a computer or calculator). Discipline yourself to study at a fixed time everyday for a fixed amount of time everyday (maybe more but never less). Eventually you will learn to study.

    Unfortunately I was not the brightest student but I followed Heinz's rules and my additional rules. I outworked everyone and overachieved. Try it for yourself.

    Dr. CSP

  2. Three cheers for outworking others and overachieving as a result!

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich von B.


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All opinions are welcome here. Even those that differ from mine. But let's keep it clean and civil, please.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

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