Coping with College

by Dr. Lundy Pentz

College is a new experience and has many unstated expectations.  Here are some suggestions:

Coping with the physical situation of college:

College classes meet in widely separated buildings, students don’t have lockers just down the hall, and bells don’t ring to indicate the beginning and end of classes. As a result, many students establish a pattern of coming late to class and forgetting crucial materials (notebook, assignments and the like).  With only ten minutes allotted between classes and some classrooms on opposite sides of Cannon Hill, students don’t have a lot of extra time getting to class.

  • Get a watch, or if you use your phone as a watch substitute, be sure to keep it conveniently in sight and check it regularly – and be aware that the campus clocks may not always be right.
  • Get a backpack or some other carrying bag and stock it for your day’s classes with:
    • A separate notebook for every class – clearly labeled. These should be the kind with pockets built into the cover or bound in with the paper, or if only plain notebooks are available, a pocket can be cut from file folder material and taped inside the cover for assignments. For courses with a lot of handouts a 2 ring binder may be preferable; do not use such a binder for more than one course, however.
    • The pack should also contain two pens and a calendar (such as the one the Alumnae Association hands out every year) or your personal electronic device if you keep your schedule on that.

Using college syllabi

A syllabus is required to be handed out to you on the first day of each of your classes, and it contains very specific information about what will happen in the class and when (reading assignments, homework, tests, papers, field trips and so on).  This is critical information for you to have, but it often seems that new students don’t realize this and may even lose the syllabus, leading to conversations like this:

STUDENT: ” I heard a rumor that we’re having a test in here on Thursday.”
PROFESSOR: “Yes, we are.”
STUDENT: “What does it cover?”

Now believe it or not, though the professor probably could tell you what topics were going to be on the test, she probably won’t remember the chapter numbers offhand so she will look at her copy of the syllabus to answer the question.  I’ve often noticed students looking with great interest at this important document, clearly unaware that they were given their own copy of it on the very first day!   Of course, most professors who use Blackboard or other electronic teaching systems will have the syllabus posted for you on those sites too.

  • Realize that College policy requires every faculty member to hand out a syllabus on the first day of class, and that this is a formal listing of the assignments and requirements for the course, the due dates and grading policies, type and timing of tests, and any other pertinent information – that the syllabus is virtually a contract, and that most faculty do not make changes to syllabi without good reason and very formal (generally written) announcement. Don’t believe “rumors” you may hear from classmates about changes to the syllabus (unless you have missed class!).

Dealing with college professors’ expectations in class

A college – unlike a public school – is at least presumed to be a community of adults who are interested in learning, and the learning that goes on requires the full engagement of everyone in the class. College professors have never had to deal with breaking up fights in the hall or other discipline problems. They expect the classroom to function on the level of a civilized social gathering. In addition, most of them really do consider students to be adults, their equals in a real sense. That means that if students come to class late, have private conversations in class, or get up to take a bathroom break, they will probably not be scolded or reprimanded by the teacher – but this does not mean there is no problem! These and similar behaviors mean that while the professor (and the rest of the class) think of the class meeting as a shared activity, the disengaged student is refusing to participate in this, coming and going and acting as she pleases as if the class were just a movie going on in the background. Most professors will just try to ignore these behaviors; but they (and the rest of the class) are thinking “Why doesn’t she just skip class if she’s that tuned out? She’s going to fail anyway, but if she weren’t here the rest of us would have a better time.” This is the real reason that so many college faculty are reluctant to impose any attendance policy – naturally, they know students need to come to class to learn, but they also know that just physically being there isn’t enough and may be bad for the rest of the class!

  • Be fully aware of the unwritten “rule” of the college classroom. Even when your mind is tending to wander, respect the process that is going on with the other students and the professor and try not to disrupt it. If a repeating pattern of disengagement develops, the student needs to deal with it herself, like an adult, either by changing the behaviors or dropping the class. Assuming that “Everything’s OK because the professor hasn’t yelled at me” is not realistic.
  • If and when you really have to go to the bathroom during class (and it should not be often) wait for a break in what is going on, not when a classmate is responding to a question or the professor is in the middle of explaining something.
  • If you come into class late (or return from a bathroom break) do not on any account walk into the front of the room; come in from the back as inconspicuously as you can and be quiet.
  • Though this should go without saying, turn off all devices that make noise during class. 
  • Do not send text messages, surf the Internet or do other irrelevant things during class.  This sends a clear message to everyone that you are not willing to be at all engaged in the class – it is simply insulting.  To be engaged with a college-level subject requires more mental focus than driving; multitasking is not possible in the classroom.
  • In the (hopefully rare) case where you are simply unable to stay awake in class, leave quietly and go to sleep elsewhere.  (It would be polite to say something to the professor afterwards about your problem.)  Never show up in class and immediately put your head down on the desk for a nap!

Dealing with college professors and texts

Too often students have in the past had only teachers who were barely able to teach with a copy of the text clamped firmly in their hands. (This seems to be especially true in the sciences.) Because college faculty hold doctorates in the specific areas in which they teach, and may have written textbooks of their own, it is hard to find any who teach from the textbook; many teach alongside it and a good number teach against it. In practice, many seem to ignore it. This frequently confuses students: how are they to use the text in a college situation? Although this depends on the professor and the subject, and the syllabus is the real source for this information, in general, faculty make some assumptions about texts:

    1. The text will present more detail and more examples than there will be time for in class; thus it provides more depth.
    2. The text will introduce topics and concepts there isn’t time for at all in class – the extent to which these are included in the course should be clear from the syllabus but it’s best to assume they are included.
    3. The text usually provides study questions and other ways to test the student’s understanding of the material.

Thus, the text and the class should be two different parts of the experience, each providing different things. Texts should usually be used as follows (unless the professor specifically says otherwise):

First the part of the text assigned for the class period should be read ahead of time more or less straight through, looking for the big ideas, and making brief notes of what those ideas are in the class notebook. (In general this means about two or three man ideas in a chapter.) This is the time to identify any topics that seem confusing – or interesting – to bring up in class.

Second, soon after the class meetings dealing with the section of the text, reread with more attention to detail, and make more detailed notes based on this rereading.

  • First, always and without any exception get the required book(s) for every class from day 1.  Never make the mistake of trying to get by without the book even just for a few days.  Most faculty will happily provide advance information about texts via e-mail if you want to try to get them cheaper, but beware of third-party dealers who may not ship promptly.  Not having the book is a terrible disadvantage.
  • Never use highlighters and do not buy used books that are marked up with them either.  Painting the textbook isn’t a substitute for taking notes, and it does make it more difficult to reread, which is an essential activity.

Dealing with college professors and class notes

Taking good class notes is a fine art. It is made harder for students when they don’t understand what is supposed to be going on in the classroom. Ideally, every professor would like each class to become a lively and intelligent discussion of the topic with a great deal of give-and-take. This, however, doesn’t always happen (when students fail to do their part, that is, prepare for class) so most professors will fall back on the more one-sided “lecture” format (though they try to draw the class in by asking questions). Whatever the class format, most professors notice, with a sinking feeling, that some students simply fail to take notes and others obviously are going about it all wrong. Some common things to avoid:

    1. “But you didn’t put it on the board (or Power Point)!” Most faculty have encountered students who faithfully put everything the faculty member wrote on Power Point or the board in their notebooks – and not a word besides! The result is a jumble of graphs, terms and diagrams with no connecting logic at all. Naturally, it’s not very understandable.
    2. “But you go too fast!” This is the opposite extreme – the student actually tries to take dictation. Students have even been observed writing down the professor’s (bad) jokes. This is the mode of note taking which gave the rise to the old remark that lectures were an instructional method in which “information passes from the notebook of the professor to the notebooks of the students without passing through the brains of either.” Obviously, what is desired is a thought process above all, in which it becomes clear what is important and what is not and how things connect.
    3. ” I lost track!” Sometimes students start out taking good notes and then stop. This may be caused by the student’s being “thrown” by a hard concept or even a word and failing to get back on track. However, it often happens when the professor succeeds in getting the class to begin some real give-and-take discussion of the topic. It’s very difficult to take notes on a discussion, especially when one is participating in it. The only real solution is to try to make some notes on it as soon as possible afterwards.
    4. “My notes don’t make any sense!” Class notes often suffer from this problem. In spite of your best efforts, important connections (which may have been obvious at the time) get left out. The only cure is to make time less than 24 hours after class to review the notes and put those connections in where they belong while the class is still fresh in the student’s mind.
    5. “What notes? The professor posts the Power Points!”  It’s a common mistake to avoid processing the information for yourself because it looks as if it has been done for you.  The act of figuring out for yourself how to boil it down into the important points is a vital part of studying and mastering material – never take shortcuts.  They don’t work.

Don’t attempt to take notes in complete sentences. Make rough outlines, and use abbreviations for long words. Use logical connectors and symbols such as arrows for cause and effect and backwards “E” for “there exists”.

Do break formal outlining rules. Notes should resemble outlines but only in general arrangement. Just use indentations to indicate relationships of things. Leave plenty of space in the outlines too, for corrections and additions.

Don’t let the sun go down before reviewing notes to see that no connections or ideas have been left out.

Dealing with college professors and help

Professors – at least at small colleges like Mary Baldwin – are quite willing to help students outside of class but there are certain expectations and courtesies involved here. One typical problem involves a conversation like this: STUDENT: “I’m having trouble with this material; could I come in and ask you some questions?” PROFESSOR: “Sure; could you come during my office hours tomorrow?” STUDENT: “Oh, no, I’m meeting some friends then.” PROFESSOR: “How about some time Tuesday?” STUDENT (walking away): “OK, I’ll see you Tuesday afternoon.” This is really a double problem. Faculty schedule regular office hours but almost all of them find that whenever they are, they are “inconvenient” for many students. On the other hand, students often announce (or leave notes saying) that they will come by at some vague time, often not realizing that faculty teach other classes, have meetings to attend, and make appointments with other students. Very few faculty can really make “anytime this afternoon” available to students.

TO DO: Students should get a college calendar with big enough spaces for dates (perhaps a daily schedule book) to write down appointments, or use electronic devices to do the same job (keeping them up to date with deadlines, appointments and such). Students should carry their class schedules with them at all times. Students should also know that faculty are supposed to post the same type of schedule cards on their office doors, and checking these first can make it easier to find a time that’s mutually agreeable. Finally, students who discover that social plans or extracurricular activities get in the way of scheduling academic help very often may need to reconsider priorities.

A second class of problems comes when students make appointments with faculty and then fail to keep them. Sometimes the same student will schedule two or three appointments in a row, fail to keep them, and expect the professor as a matter of course to schedule yet another appointment.

TO DO: Students need to break appointments only for serious reasons, and need to notify the professor as soon as possible if they are not going to come. (Many syllabi include the faculty secretary’s number as well as the professor’s so messages can be left.) Broken appointments always call for an apology and explanation as a preface to any rescheduling. Repeatedly broken appointments probably indicate a problem the professor can’t help with anyway.

Dealing with college expectations of written work

Written assignments of all types are commonly encountered in college courses. There are more or less standard formats for term papers, essays, lab reports and the like, and these are normally distributed as handouts or as part of the syllabus. Just as for the syllabus, however, these format sheets are of little use if they are lost or ignored. Beyond what is specified in any such sheet, however, there are some standards that are expected of any college-level work in general. They fall under five headings, which may not be weighted equally by all faculty but which are all significant.

Drafts: In writing emphasis classes and some others, students are required to turn in drafts of assignments, which are critiqued and returned by the faculty member.  This is potentially a great advantage, but the student has to decide to make use of the critique and truly revise the work to address all the problems identified.  Just turning in the same document as the final form will not be overlooked, and won’t contribute to a good grade.

Physical appearance: While the Gettysburg Address was written on the back of an envelope, college work needs to be in a form that implies some care. The standard is double-spaced, word-processed text on numbered pages, stapled together with a cover sheet giving the student’s name, the date, and the class for which the paper was written. (Double-spacing leaves room for corrections and notes, and numbering and stapling imply that the student had a definite sequence of thoughts when she wrote the document.) On the other hand, it is unnecessary to spend time or money getting cute plastic covers or other commercial decorations to add to the work; clean, legible text is the goal here.

Basic writing: College work is assumed to be free of spelling or grammatical errors. Occasional lapses, of course, will happen, but many of them will (in some classes) lead to lost points and (in all classes) cause the reader to take a dimmer view of the work. Students should know how to use spell-checkers on their word processors, but should also be aware that many common mistakes (such as “it’s” or “its” or “there” or “their”) will not be caught by spell-checkers. Writing style, as distinct from spelling and grammar, is expected to develop during the college years, but even beginners are expected to be able to identify and use appropriate styles for the material. Conversational English is not used for term papers, and descriptive accounts of the author’s emotional state are not appropriate in lab reports. Most faculty will be happy to provide examples of appropriate writing styles for the assignments in their courses.

Scholarly writing: Very little college-level writing can be done entirely out of your own head. Sources may range from news articles to advanced scholarly research papers, but they all must be given due credit in a formal way or else the student has committed plagiarism. Different disciplines have different styles of citing sources which they will provide in handouts or in the syllabus. They all have in common the fact that they are intended to allow the reader to identify (and even get a copy of) the source of a fact or idea the student uses in her paper.
It’s a common misunderstanding that only direct quotations need to be cited; in fact, any factual material or any idea which is not the student’s own should be cited. Direct quotations, in fact, should be kept to a bare minimum – one way of producing a poor term paper is simply stringing together quotations from various sources.

Critical thought: Too many student papers read like book reviews or rehashes of encyclopedia articles. It’s important for students to find good sources for a paper, but it’s equally important for students to work with those sources and think critically and originally about them. Good papers identify conflicting ideas, analyze the evidence and logic on both sides, and reach conclusions. The professor is looking for the thought process involved, not for a collection of factoids neatly pasted into the paper like stamps in a collection. The student who takes sides in a conflict of ideas – as long as she accurately represents both sides and reaches conclusions based on logic and evidence – will show more of that thought process. It’s important also for the student to try to make use of the specific kinds of reasoning and evidence appropriate to the subject matter of the course.

TO DO: Students need to become their own critics, checking for spelling and style errors but also asking the hard questions: “What are my references here? Are they all from People magazine or the textbook? Do I need to dig for better material?” And above all, “What am I saying here? Do I have a point to make? Do I have enough evidence and logic to convince anybody? And have I written this the way somebody in this subject area would approach it, using their kinds of reasoning and applying some of what I have learned in the course?” If these questions are asked ahead of time by the student, and drafts critiqued by the faculty member are carefully revised, then most of the time the professor’s reactions will be favorable, too.

Taking the longer view

The most important thing freshmen can do is to remember that in three years or less (not really a very long time) they will be coming to some, at least, of their professors for letters of recommendation.  These will be needed for graduate school, professional programs, or even just getting a job.  No matter what field they are in, these letters will always need to address the student’s intellectual abilities, professional work ethic, ability to work with others, and values.  Building up a good impression with the faculty from the beginning will make the task of getting a good letter from them later on much easier.  One of the worst things faculty have to deal with is being asked by a student to write a letter of recommendation when that student has shown a consistent pattern of skipping class, not meeting deadlines, not keeping appointments, being unprepared for class, plagiarizing, having trouble working with classmates, and so on.  Nobody wants to write a negative letter, but the faculty have to have some factual reason for writing a good one, and giving them that  is entirely up to the student.