Class in the classroom
A Professor Tells Students How To Beat System
by Josha Halberstam
A. SHOWING UP
“The most important thing in life is showing up”, says Woody Allen. That’s true, too, with regard to your classes. On any given day, you could probably think of 7000 more fun things to do than to go to class. One compelling alternative is to stay in bed. In fact, staying in bed will loom as one of the greatest temptations of college life.
I take it for granted that if you aren’t thoroughly dull or irrecoverably compulsive, you will miss class on occasion. What does it take for you to decide, “Forget it, I’ll skip class”? A blah, rainy day? A gorgeous sunny day? The question is not whether you will miss a class, but how often. If you want to ace your classes, cut out cutting. I can assure you of what all my colleagues and I see, “A” students show up to class regularly, and “F” students don’t. Here’s why.
You’ll learn more. Nothing beats being there. When you study without having been to class, you’re learning the material for the first time. When you study after you’ve been to class, you’re reviewing. What a difference!
You learn what the professor considers essential. Professors test you on what they consider important. What did the professor put on the blackboard? What did he emphasize? What did he repeat? You can’t get this information from another student’s notes, or even a tape recording. You need to observe firsthand your professor’s delivery: you need to know not only what was said, but how it was said.
In the subjective realm of grading, attendance always counts. Professors respond positively toward students who come to class regularly. Repeated absences will lose you the benefit of doubt when it comes to grading – and you might very well need that benefit.
College teachers are as sensitive as anyone else. Most people like to believe they’re good at what they do, and college professors like to think of themselves as good teachers. Your consistent cutting tells your teacher that you consider him a failure: he isn’t sufficiently interesting to get you to come to class. And your teacher – at least at some level – will take it personally. He might take it out on you personally.
Attendance is especially important in seminars, language, math, and science classes. If you are facile with words and know the tricks of extemporaneous writing, you might get by with absences on some of your humanities and social science classes. Math, science, and language classes are different: here learning is cumulative, with each class building on the previous class. If you fall behind, it becomes increasingly difficult to catch up.
c) If You Do Cut
Don’t make a big deal about it. Professors who require attendance might require a doctor’s note or some other justification for your absence. Professors who do not take attendance, don’t care why you were out (it’s another matter if you miss an exam). I also don’t understand why students bother to tell me they will miss the next class. Why call attention to an absence?
B. DO THE READINGS
Prepare for class. I know this sounds more like obvious professor talk but believe me, preparation is far from common. All students are “rah rah” the first week of class. They do the assigned readings and come to class rearing to go. Then the slack off begins. By the end of the first month, a sizable contingent have stopped coming to class prepared. By the end of the second month, you can count on one hand those who read the material before coming to class. By the middle of the third month, forget it; the student who still prepares is now a rarity.
Read the assignments all through the semester and consider yourself an extraordinary phenomenon. College homework is a long-term affair. In high school you did only when it was assigned and when you expected it to be checked. In college you have to rely on your own schedule and discipline. Figure it this way: you have to read the material eventually, so you may as well read it before class. It’s much more effective that way: even boring classes are improved, and you can contribute to the class.
a) But If You Don’t Prepare
You won’t always come to class prepared. Perhaps you have a test in another class. Or a heavy date the night before. What then? Try not to walk into class totally obvious of the assignment. Cultivate the art of intelligent skimming; when you get good at it – and like everything else, it’s a matter of practice – you can pick up lots of information very quickly.
Okay, it was a very heavy date. Not only weren’t you able to scan the assigned material, you can now barely keep your eyes open. In this situation, it isn’t your eyes that matter, it is your mouth. Keep it shut. Few displays of student behavior are as annoying to teachers as students spouting about subjects they know nothing about – but should, had they done the assigned reading. Don’t fool yourself and make a fool of yourself in the process. If you haven’t read the article, you don’t know it. And if you don’t know the assignment, don’t advertise that you don’t.
C. WHERE TO SIT
If you have a choice, sit where the action is. You can get an “A” or an “F” from the front or back of the room, but in general, front or toward the front is better. Sitting up front has two main advantages:
The professor notices you. Bad enough if you are a nameless name in the crowd? Also, teacher tend to think – justifiably or not – that students who sit up front are more conscientious.
You ensure your participation. Sitting in the professor’s eye-line forces you to behave. Your absence is noticed, so you’ll make sure to show up in class. You are also less likely to read, talk or sleep during even the most boring class.
The worst seat? It’s the back corner seat near the door. You seem uninvolved. If you’re stuck in the back, make sure you speak up in class.
D. A FEW NOTES ON TAKING NOTES
Unless you have a photographic memory, you need to take notes. You certainly can’t expect to remember during final exam week in May what your professor said back in March. But don’t confuse taking notes with stenography. A good lecture gets you to reflect during class. You can’t listen, think and respond if you’re busy playing secretary. Write down key phrases and ideas that will get you to remember what was discussed (in some classes that will mean a lot of writing, in others very little writing).
a) The Old Blackboard Reflex
Students often think, if it’s written on the blackboard, it must be important. Agreed, instructors do use the blackboard to highlight important points. But not everything on the blackboard merits special attention. Professors will use the blackboard gratuitously, as the whim strikes them. Sometimes they use it just to show the correct spelling of some obscure word. Remember, too, that much that isn’t on the board appears on the test. Use your judgment, not your reflexes.
b) Other People’s Notes
In you missed class, it’s a good idea to borrow someone’s notes, especially in cumulative classes, the kind where each class builds on the previous one. Make sure, though, to borrow the notes immediately after the missed class. If you wait until exam time, two things will happen. First, the notes lose their context, and you’ll have an awful time trying to make sense of them. Second, getting the notes will be a battle. Your new friends won’t eagerly part with them the night before the final.
E. CLASS PARTICIPATION
Want to get an “A”? Participate! As I’ve said, showing up to class is essential, and not showing up will hurt your grade. But coming to class isn’t enough. According to a recent survey, only 2o percent of the average class asks questions, and you should join this minority if you want to secure an “A”.
Professors seek, need, and appreciate student involvement in their class. We need applause, and the applause of the classroom is animated discussion. Students who make their professors feel successful are rewarded with better grades.
a) Too Shy?
Are you uncomfortable speaking up in a group? Perhaps you are reluctant to speak up because you don’t want to sound like those annoying classmates who blabber inanities in class. You fear that you don’t have anything of substance to add to the proceedings. I know that it’s difficult, but try not to worry what your classmates think of you. They won’t judge you: they’re too busy thinking about their own brilliant comments.
A tingle of nervousness before speaking in a group is perfectly normal. Just bear in mind that making a comment in the class is no major undertaking – your contribution counts as much as any of your classmate’s. And rest assured, it gets easier with practice. You will need to speak in public when you’re out in the world. The college classroom affords a wonderful opportunity to become good at it.
b) Questions Are Better Than Comments
Teachers like comments that move the discussion along. They like questions even better, and among the best questions are requests for clarification. “Could you explain that again?” is not an appropriate question if you didn’t understand the discussion because you were busy doing the Sunday crossword puzzle. It is an excellent question if you paid attention and need to have a point repeated. This sort of question does your classmates a service. If you didn’t follow what we said, the chances are that many of your classmates didn’t either.
Requests for elucidation also help your grade. It shows you care about the material and want to understand the class discussion. But don’t overdo it. You don’t want to seem obstructive or slow.
F. THOU SHALT NOW
Here’s a review of behavior that you must avoid. Etiquette is not the concern here (though that counts too). The concern is how to avoid a lower grade than you deserve.
Never badmouth the subject matter. A quick and sure way to get a lousy grade in class: ridicule the subject you’re studying. You, a twenty year old undergraduate, have decided that economics is “bull” or that psychology is all smoke, or that Henry James can’t write for beans. Your professor has devoted her life to the subject and will judge you to be an ignorant impudent brat. She will also welcome the opportunity to grade your work as severely as she can.
Never study for an exam in another class. This suggests to the professor that you worry more about the other class than her own. It’s insulting.
Avoid coming late or leaving early. In college, you are largely anonymous. To get “A’s” you need to stand out. But that doesn’t include standing out like a sore thumb – arriving late and leaving early are wrong ways to call attention to yourself.
Don’t stare at your watch, pack your books or put on your coat five minutes before the end of the class. These maneuvers disrupt the class and offend your professor. If you have to leave the class early, tell your professor before the class starts and sit near the exit.
Never read in class. Textbooks from other classes are bad enough, but magazines and newspapers are particularly offensive.
Don’t sit at your desk without a notebook. Bring paper and pen even if all you do is doodle. Pretend you are a serious student.
Don’t yack in class. It’s rude and makes you seem adolescent.
Joshua Halberstam teaches ethics at New York University and is the author of “ACING COLLEGE”, in which he gives students a professor’s-eye view of how to succeed in college. The above article is an extract from his book.
I. Recommended vocabulary list
extemporaneous, attendance, compelling, to loom, contingent, slack-off, blabber, obstructive.
to ace classes, to observe firsthand, to show up, to cut out, to hurt one’s grade, to elucidate, to call attention to, to be cumulative, to be facile with, to be in the teacher’s eye-line.
II. Give definitions of the words and expressions:
to beat the system
to ace classes
to observe firsthand
to be facile with words
to be cumulative
to take attendance
to sit in the teacher’s eye-line
to hurt one’s grade
to move the discussion along
to get by with absences
III. Study the text and give synonyms:
spellbinding, gripping, hypnotic…
increasing, snowballing, collective…
unaware, unconscious, blind…
diligent, painstaking, assiduous…
lively, spirited, vigorous…
unwilling, hesitant, disinclined…
IV. Think of antonyms to the words given above.
V. Insert prepositions and adverbs where necessary:
- to miss class ____ occasion
- to cut ____ cutting
- professors test students ____ what they consider important
- to take it ____ on somebody
- to make a big deal ____ something
- to be oblivious ____
- to pick ____ lots of information
- to spout ____ a subject
- each class builds ____ the previous one
- to part ____ notes
- to move discussion ____
- requests ____ elucidation
- to study ____ an exam
VI. Points to discuss:
- Compelling motives for you not to show up.
- It’s advisable that you cut out cutting.
- Objective and subjective aspects of showing up.
- Preparation is far from common.
- Stimulus (stimuli) for you to do the assignment.
- Your preferences as far as seats in the classroom.
- Note taking.
- Class participation.
- Requests for elucidation.
- Notes lending/ borrowing.
VII. Give freshers instructions on how to beat the system and ace college.
VIII. Role play.
Participating in it are:
- a student who hates to borrow people’s notes
- a student who always takes notes
- a shy-to-speak-up-in-public student
- a student who knows all the best seats in the classroom
- a habitually ill-prepared student
- a diligent student
- an active classroom performer
- a student who knows well the psychology of profs
- a student who never cuts classes
- a truant