Even though the sun sinks low in the sky earlier these days, no one I know is ready to surrender summer and return to the school year grind. But from all the commercials on TV it’s clear that the back-to-school shopping season is upon us and before we know it, students and teachers will once again embark upon the great project of learning. At the college level, students are moving back to campus or taking exams in their summer courses and gearing up for the new semester at the same time. This hectic time can make it hard for students to focus on classes. However, the start of the semester is also incredibly crucial to college success. I’ve witnessed many students make big mistakes at the start of the semester, such as spending too much time socializing or joining clubs, or not regularly attending their classes. These students then have major obstacles to overcome in order to do well in their courses, because they have set themselves back.
To provide students with some suggestions for getting off to a good start this semester, I polled a number of my colleagues around the country, who teach at many different levels. My crochety husband, a professor of science and law, advised students to “do the reading, show up, eyes up front, ears open and mouth shut,” suddenly morphing into a version of stern and intimidating Professor Kingsbury from The Paper Chase, the film that launched a million law school nightmares. Fortunately, most educators responded a little less like drill sergeants, and sent along wise words that all students should heed:
Sharon Kehl Califano, Ph.D. is the Co-Chair of Liberal Studies and Assistant Professor of English at Kaplan Higher Education’s Hesser College in New Hampshire. She provided these helpful suggestions:
- During the first week of classes, try to understand that this is a period when your professors are going over the expectations for courses, curriculum, and conduct. Even though you most likely will be intimidated, try to think about it as a time when your professors are really trying to help prepare you for the term by very clearly outlining boundaries. Take a deep breath, rise to the challenge, and know that every college student has been just as terrified during that first week.
- One of the best things to do during the first week of classes is to meet your professors. Wait at the end of class and then approach your professor, introduce yourself, and try to make a connection. If you take the time to let your professor know who you are and that you are invested in your education, this will go a long way towards helping you in the future—as you will most likely feel more comfortable to stop by during office hours for help or to discuss material.
- Where you sit in a classroom can determine how well you do in a course. Most motivated, successful students sit in the front of the room, where they can see the board easily and hear their professors clearly. Try to make a good first impression by positioning yourself in a place that shows that you are alert and eager to learn.
- Never be afraid to ask questions. Chances are, another student is sitting in the room, feeling just as confused and lost as you. By raising your hand and asking the question, you will not only be helping yourself to do better (by understanding the assignment or material more completely) but you will be doing a service for your classmates, who might be too scared or embarrassed to speak up.
For Peter Metsopoulos, an English teacher at The Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore MD, students can help themselves succeed by taking the following steps at the start of the semester:
- Read through the course descriptions and other materials each teacher gives you–and mark them up. Underline the items that seem most important, or that you wouldn’t have realized on your own.
- Make notes about questions the material prompts. If you don’t have any questions, you haven’t read carefully enough. Your teacher is striving to make himself understood, but it’s rare that everyone in the class understands their new teacher’s words through and through.
- Ask the teacher those questions and note the answers.
- Then *save* the materials and notes. Refer to them, in particular, when your first assignment is due–your teacher has likely given you the guidelines to successfully tackle that assignment.
- Right from the start, try to see your teacher as an ally in your work, not an adversary.
As Academic Skills Coordinator at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, Neil O’Donnell has extensive experience guiding students, especially those who struggle with learning challenges. In addition to the helpful advice he provides on Neil’s Corner, his academic support website, he also made the following suggestions:
- Make sure to get a syllabus for each course that fully details course expectations and grading policies. Also, make certain you thoroughly read every syllabus and ask professors to clarify any part of the syllabus/class requirements you do not understand. Keep each syllabus in a safe/easy to reach place.
- If the book store is out of a required textbook, inform the professor immediately as the bookstore will likely NOT inform the professor.
- Do not miss any of the classes the first week. For some professors, missing one of the first two days will lead to your being dropped from the class.
You may have noticed some recurring themes here: the syllabus is important, your professor is there to help you, and you have to act as your own advocate, taking initiative and asking questions to make sure you have all the information you need. As a professor, I can attest to the value of these suggestions. Students who follow them are much more likely to not only do better, but also avoid stress meltdowns and enjoy their college experience a little more!