Making the Most of Your University Courses:
What to Expect Academically at College
Richard Garlikov


This is an academic counseling guide for academically serious students who want to do well in their college courses. The booklet is intended (1) for students who do not have access to academic counselors at their campus, (2) for students who have doubts about the academic advice they have been receiving, and (3) for students who, with a little more knowledge, could make much better use of the academic advisors they do have. It is intended to help students select courses that are more appropriate for them, and to learn more in the courses they choose.

This booklet gives my personal views from reflections as a former college student, graduate student, college teacher, and undergraduate academic advisor. It does not give the official view or speak officially for any particular college or university. There may be some curricula I am unaware of to which little of it applies. There may be some individuals who would disagree with my assumptions and my advice. In part I assume that students ought to do their best to learn, and that departments and faculty have an obligation to offer courses that are well-taught and appropriately taught for the level of the students taking them. I believe faculty and staff have an obligation to try to help any serious, conscientious student seeking their help who is having academic difficulty. Unfortunately, I think, those obligations of students and of faculty seem not to be perceived or accepted by all.

The booklet is intended to help those students have a better academic experience at college who would otherwise have nowhere, or not know where, to turn for rational advice about academic matters. And it is intended to help students utilize to the best advantage those advisors they do have access to, by pointing out possible options the students may not otherwise have thought to explore with a counselor or teacher and by pointing out areas of concern to seek help about at the earliest appropriate time -- areas of concern for which a student might not otherwise have realized there could be remedy with the proper work or help. The booklet is not intended for you to follow over the reasonable objections of knowledgeable staff at your campus; it is intended to help you get good advice by such people, even if they reasonably disagree with some of the ideas in it.

The booklet does not discuss any sort of extra-curricular areas of college life such as athletics, social life, fraternities, sororities, etc. Its focus is only on academics.

Finally, it gives no advice about choosing the right college or university to attend in the first place. Be aware that different colleges and universities have different kinds of programs with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. And different colleges and universities have different personalities or atmospheres, emphasizing individual aspects of life at college (work, athletics, academics, social life, etc.) in varying proportions. Hopefully you will research and choose, or have chosen, a school that can adequately meet your individual needs and goals. It is not abnormal for a freshman to feel he or she has chosen the wrong school (adjustment to college is sometimes initially difficult) but that is something to discuss with a faculty advisor or someone else on the school's staff if you are troubled by it. Generally, I suspect, feelings of wrong choice that are merely the result of adjustment to a totally new way of life, rather than the result of actually choosing a college that cannot provide what you reasonably seek, disappear upon successfully completing one's freshmen year and returning for one's sophomore year. If feelings of wrong choice persist into the sophomore year, or if, at any time -- even your freshman year -- you think you have objective reason to believe you have chosen the wrong school for your needs and interests, talk to someone on the staff of your school and possibly to someone on the staff of a different kind of school. It is beyond the scope of this pamphlet to help students find the appropriate school for them; the objective is to help them get the most out of courses they can at a school that is appropriate for them.

Different Kinds of Courses and Teachers

There will be courses that require you to learn a lot of information and courses that instead require you to analyze and interpret information. Some courses require you to do both. I will have some particular comments later about courses requiring the analysis of information since they are not as familiar nor sometimes as straightforward as courses requiring the memorization of material.

In the ideal class the teacher will be knowledgeable, will be enthusiastic about teaching, and will do it clearly, capably, and interestingly; the material will be well-organized and presented clearly for understanding; it will be interesting, and obviously important or "relevant"; all the students will be inquisitive and enthusiastic about learning, will keep up with their assignments and will ask the kinds of delving questions in class that bring out even better performances by the teacher. But unfortunately the ideal is most rare at most colleges -- in regard to teachers, material, and students.

Many students just want to learn what they need to for the exams and don't seek answers beyond the information provided; some do not even try to learn much of even that but seek to get by with a minimum of effort. The easier the courses for many, the better, whether any real challenge, stimulation, or knowledge is provided or not. Unfortunately such students can make a teacher or course less stimulating than they would otherwise be for the interested students by serving as obstacles that provide a damper or drag.

Material does not always come clearly labeled as relevant or obviously important though good teachers may be able to point out which things will be useful later that may not seem so upon presentation. But one never knows what seemingly unimportant information may become important in any one given person's life at some future date. Something seemingly trivial may have great potential in the right situation or context. Professor Richard Feynman discovered formulas applicable to the spinning motion of atomic particles by first pondering, when a student in the cafeteria at Cornell tossed a spinning plate in the air, why the wobble in the plate seemed to go around slower than the blue Cornell emblem on the plate. He began to work out just for his own amusement the mathematics of the relationship between the spin and the wobble. He later was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for his work on the atom, work which was a direct result of his mathematical musing about the cafeteria dish.

There will be good teachers, but also there will be bad teachers and teachers everywhere between. Likewise with courses; and often, particularly in introductory courses of subjects that are totally new to you, such as philosophy for example, the teacher's being good or bad will determine the course's being good or bad. In courses where the kind of content is familiar, a good book may make the course good in spite of a boring or incompetent teacher. There will be teachers who care and with whom you can discuss ideas or questions or problems; there will be teachers who are just putting in their time. There will be teachers who will want to see you thinking for yourself in a rational manner regardless of whether they agree with your conclusions or not; but there will also be teachers who do not care how you think or whether you think just as long as you agree with them, or at least say what they want to hear in class or on exams.

This latter approach makes particular sense in courses where fairly factual information is taught, particularly in introductory or beginning level courses; and it is the approach with which most high school graduates are familiar, since high school teachers, with only few exceptions, tend to test "on the material" and not on your ability to analyze, interpret, and think critically about the material. But even in courses where the memorizing of information is paramount, good or bad teachers can make a big difference. A teacher that can structure or present the information in a way that is logical or otherwise conducive to more efficient learning and retention is generally better than one who simply knows information and tells it all to students he or she expects to absorb it no matter how it is presented. Some lecturers are absolutely no help at all in courses where huge amounts of information are presented in the texts; my introduction to European history had such a lecturer who talked about one or two trivial things related to the 40 pages we had for each class period but who did nothing to put the overall information into any kind of perspective. For one with no previous background or framework, the text was an endless progression of popes, kings, and wars that were almost impossible to distinguish and which gave no feeling of progress or direction. Much (too much) later I found out that the other lecturer in the course, the one all my friends had, spent his lectures giving a framework and perspective that made the textual material have meaning.

Although, as I said before, it is difficult to tell what seemingly unimportant information may have importance later on, there are some additional things I would like to say here about course material, teachers, and students. Some teachers do seem to be so out of touch with students, particularly in introductory or survey courses, that they present or require too much material which justifiably seems obscure, trivial, and unimportant to most or all of them. And, of course they do this while giving the students no help or guidance that might make it appear otherwise. Such teachers readily kill, by nipping in the bud, any possible curiosity or interest students might have had about a subject. I was a teaching fellow (that is, a graduate student teaching assistant) in an introductory philosophy course one time where the professor, in his two weekly lectures, covered material that there was no way the teaching fellows could possibly show to be even remotely interesting to anyone besides that professor in the two smaller class sessions we had with our students each week. It was hard to imagine any but the hardiest students would have ventured into another philosophy class in their career. I have a very intelligent cousin who was at another college and who took a philosophy class simply because she knew how interesting I found it. She, unfortunately, got into a class by someone who had just collected his Ph.D. for a dissertation on St. Anselm, a medieval monk, and who decided somehow that an entire semester on St. Anselm's work would make a great introductory philosophy course. That is hardly possible, even with the greatest of teachers, which this guy was not. Exit one previously straight A student with a C in philosophy wondering what kind of weirdo I must be. None of those students probably ever took another philosophy class either.

But in the other extreme, there are some highly stimulating teachers who present information in a way that seems most important to the uneducated but which isn't, because it is information that is either false, meaningless (double talk), unsupported, or simply illogically tied together. Such teachers are often veritable encyclopedias of seemingly wonderful information which they inspiringly tie together in the most exciting ways but ways which upon scrutiny could easily be shown to be shallow or incorrect. Unfortunately they are presenting it to those who are not likely to (be able to) scrutinize it more thoroughly. Such teachers may be showing off a flair for memory and the ability to shallowly interrelate material from widely diverse sources (a little popular psychology here, a little history there, a little biology and a little theology, or whatever) but they are not helping anyone see (except by bad example) how to think in a rational, sustained, and scholarly way. Their courses may be fun, but they are not thereby particularly productive unless they inspire people to go on in the subject, though that is an inspiration that may prove an unhappy shock.

Finally in regard to students, teachers, and presentation, there will be cases where a teacher, the presentation, and the material will be perfect for some students in the course and not for others. Different students have different styles from which they learn best, and different students have different concerns (at different times at least) for which some material at a particular time may be either particularly meaningful or particularly meaningless. One of the absolutely best teachers and courses for me was an introduction to the philosophy of religion where the teacher and readings answered or gave exciting insight into just about every question or idea I had at the time about religion, and also taught me the approach to doing philosophy that I still use. One day, in the gigantic lecture no less, the professor could see I was puzzled by an argument he was giving -- I had kind of half raised my hand, but had put it down, thinking that asking a question in lecture was inappropriate (we had recitation classes with teaching assistants for that). He stopped the lecture and asked what my question or objection was. I stated it; and then to my amazement, before he answered it, he restated it for the class but in a far more logical, clear, and forceful manner than I had been able to formulate it. This seemed to show exactly how he had been wrong before, and how he must have known that. Yet once he made it clear what the problem was, he went on to resolve it in a way that showed the objection would not really hold up, and why it would not, thereby reinforcing his original view. I was in awe. His lectures had always been clear and logical to me anyway, but this one seemed also extemporaneously brilliant and I left the class in a state of total admiration, in a state of pleasure over the insight provided (and the articulate, logical, and careful way in which it was presented), and with a feeling of gratitude that he had been so concerned and decent to deal with the question at all, let alone so nicely. Yet, most of the students who took this course were not interested in these particular questions about religion or in clear, logical presentations about them -- they seemed to want simply to know whether God existed or not, and they wanted absolute and irrefutable proof, during the semester, about the matter. They didn't want to discuss what would count as such proof nor to discuss evidence that was logical, though not conclusive, on either side. If God existed, they wanted Him/Her as a guest lecturer; and if not, they wanted to be able to demonstrate that to the world.

Choosing courses in the face of this divergence in interest,
quality, material, and teaching and learning styles.

In order to choose courses, begin by studying the course catalogue where brief descriptions of the courses are given, remembering such brief descriptions, though accurate as far as they go, may mislead by what they omit. (For example any survey course that presents only "selected examples" for study may present examples that are not particularly interesting or enlightening; but a survey course that studies a whole range of material may do it in such a rush or with such a deluge of information that students will not be able to digest or savor much or any of it. The short catalogue descriptions may be idealized announcements of what the professor or department intends, not necessarily what is likely to occur.)

Make sure you understand what courses, or options among alternative courses, are required either for your degree or to take particular higher level courses you might want later; that information will be in the catalogue, but it would be wise to speak with a professional academic counselor, if your school has one (or else someone in charge of checking student records to make sure students have met the graduation requirements) to make certain you truly understand exactly what are your requirements and your options. Most students do not understand the requirements and they either do not end up meeting them in a reasonable time or they understand them too narrowly and meet them in a way that is educationally confining, missing courses that would have also fulfilled the requirements but which would have been of more interest and/or value to them.

For example, in the school I attended, in the arts and sciences curriculum everyone had to take three courses in each of three areas -- humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. In each of the areas two of the courses had to be in a special series or combination in one department and one course had to be in a different department. The idea was to give you a broader education by exposing you to different fields in different areas of study, but to expose you to at least some depth -- the combination -- in each area. But only certain courses and certain combinations counted. Students who did not understand these requirements might end up taking three or four courses in a department in order to fulfill the sequence requirement or two to fulfill the individual course requirement since they would mistakenly first take courses not counting or not counting together as a series.

Or, what happened more frequently was that students took courses they did not want, did not like, and from which they learned little, because they did not think to look toward different sorts of courses that would meet the requirements. For example, humanities students who did not particularly like the natural sciences would tend to simply sign up for zoology even though they were not interested in it and were not overly fond of doing laboratory dissections. Further, they had to compete in such a course against pre-med students. Unrecognized by most students, there were any number of happier alternatives -- introductory astronomy, introductory geology, a course in geography that dealt with natural resource distribution, surveying, and map-making, a course specifically for non-science majors called "physics for poets," some natural science (as opposed to cultural) anthropology courses -- courses where they need not get their hands dirty, need not compete primarily against other students terribly interested in science, and where they might learn something of interest that would also make new and fascinating information to others. For future scientists who did not want to have to take another English literature course the rest of their lives there were a number of introductions to music appreciation and music history for non-music majors, history of art introductions, philosophy, logic, linguistics, classics, and great books courses. But most students never even thought about these courses and simply opted for courses like they had in high school that they did not like, but figured they could get through.

If you think you have a legitimate reason to have any requirements, for graduation or for taking higher level courses, waived or modified (for example, having taken a course in high school or somewhere that you believe is equivalent to a required course, or having lived in a foreign country and learned the language there) make your case to the proper authorities. IF YOU EVER DO GET SPECIAL PERMISSIONS OR WAIVERS FOR ANYTHING INVOLVING THE CURRICULUM, GRADES, OR SUCH, GET IT IN WRITING AND KEEP THE DOCUMENT; mistakes do get made, records may not show the waiver or permission, people forget requests they granted, people die, retire, go on sabbatical, or take jobs in other universities or areas. Make sure you have something in writing to show you really did have special permission for something in case you are ever challenged and no one is around to verify what they told you. (In a case where you can document a special permission was given, but it turns out to be one that should not have been given, and you took and completed courses based on that permission, some colleges will still honor the special permission in reasonable cases or make some reasonable adjustment since it was not your fault you were misinformed or that an error was made. Some will not -- "rules are rules, regardless of what someone in authority thought at the time." In any case, it is always safer to have any special waivers or rule changes in writing.)

When there are options about which courses you can take, find out from the departments, or the class schedule announcements, who is teaching the courses that look interesting the term you want to take them. Ask others about those courses and about the teachers who will be teaching them, BUT do NOT just take their conclusion that a particular course is good or bad -- find out WHY they think it is good or bad, since quite often the very reason someone may think a course is good is one that will let you know it is not, and vice versa. A lazy student may think a course good that is neither stimulating nor challenging, but in which it is easy to slide by with a decent grade; whereas a student interested in learning about the topic would think that good reason to avoid that particular course or teacher. You will find that when their assessment of a course is not an accurate or reasonable one, students will give all kinds of strange reasons for that assessment, if they have any at all. If there is still some question, or if you simply have the time or opportunity, talk to the teacher who will be teaching the course, telling her or him you are thinking about taking it and asking for more information such as a course outline or syllabus. The answer you get from that teacher will tell you something about his or her concern for students (or lack of it), personality, preparedness, and the course itself. You may want to examine at the library or bookstore the books listed in the syllabus for their content and style.

Finally in regard to choosing courses each term (except for first term freshmen generally, since often they will have enough work just adjusting to college), if it is possible for you to sign up for a one course slight overload, do so; that way if all the courses turn out to be pretty good, you can get extra credit and extra knowledge that term, and if one turns out to be really terrible, you can drop it during the grace period. If you do not have an overload, or a reservoir of extra credit toward graduation built up from successfully completing past overloads, and run up against a truly terrible course, you are almost virtually stuck in it since it will be difficult to catch up beginning late in a replacement course. (Byan overload, I mean taking more courses during a term for more hours than normal --that is, for more than the number of hours you need on average during a term to complete your degree in the normal time. Some schedules allow that more easily than others. For example, in a semester system, if 120 hours is needed for a baccalaureate degree, you need to average fifteen hours a semester for each of the eight semesters (two semesters per year) to graduate in four years, and if you have no lab courses nor courses that require more than the normal amount of homework per class hour, then five courses for seventeen semester hours may be preferable to four courses for fourteen semester hours. Sometimes you might even be able to find a nice two hour course to make seventeen instead of fifteen hours or eighteen instead of sixteen. You have to be able to judge how much work all the courses might involve; and I only suggest you do this if successfully completing the overload itself could possibly be reasonable. I am not suggesting that everyone intentionally pick one more course than they intend to take, with the sole intention being to drop the worst one. That would wreak havoc with administrative course offerings and scheduling, and would probably bring about rules involving penalties for reducing overloads.)

I attended what is supposed to be one of the nation's better academic schools and I did learn a lot, but most of my courses were simply all right with a few that were absolutely terrible and some that were truly outstanding. I hoped to get at least one great course (or teacher) per term and usually could. The terms I got two really good courses were terms it was easy to handle an overload, as long as the other courses were halfway decent. Often an overload that contained one or two great courses was easier than a normal load, because it was more stimulating and made the work more enjoyable than a regular load of average or bad courses. Further, completing overloads gives you a cushion of extra credit in case in some future term you have to drop a really dreadful course that would leave you with an underload that term. Or you might be able to graduate a term earlier than normal.

When I say great, average, or bad courses, sometimes that means "for me" and sometimes it means in general. A course was good for me, but not in general, if the content or teacher's style was one that gave me great insight or enlightenment about the subject, though it did not do so for most other students. Sometimes a student will be just at the right stage in life with the right questions, talents, or frame of mind so that almost everything the teacher says or assigns is meaningful to that student, though not necessarily to others. If the course is that way for nearly everyone who takes it, and if the subject matter is accurate and important, then it is a good course in general. A personally bad course might be one where most students learn a great deal but in which the person for whom it is bad learns very little even though trying hard. One particular embryology course (unfortunately quite different from the normal introductory embryology course) I took required a high degree of skill in spatial relationships, which is one of my overwhelming weaknesses. You had to be able, in this particular embryology course, to imagine and follow the developing structures and relationships of organs of different animals from studying slides of cross sections of them. I was simply lost in it. Students with no feel for mathematics often cannot do well in a mathematics course no matter how good the teacher, how smart the student is otherwise, or how hard the student studies and works in the course. Most inquisitive people will find something they cannot fathom at all some time in their life; they just will not have the knack or mental set of mind to be able to "see" it. Some teachers are sympathetic to this and will go out of their way not to fail such a student but will just help the student get what he or she can out of the course. Such teachers are grateful the student is adventuring into their field and is trying to learn about it. Other teachers are not sympathetic or understanding; it is generally better to consider dropping those courses with that kind of teacher, if you can afford to.

It can be very disconcerting and discouraging to run into areas for which you have no talent at all, but it should not be. Very few people are good at everything. I was a very insecure and somewhat naive freshmen at college and lived in an "honors" dormitory with fellows who were obviously much more intelligent and better educated than I. They had already had in high school material that I was finding new and difficult. One guy down the hall was a particular genius. He had won a nationwide corporately sponsored scholarship for a science or math project while in high school and was also extremely verbally gifted. He was taking the highest (of three levels) introductory calculus course -- the course for those that already knew calculus and were quite good at it -- while I took the basic, lowest level introductory course. I did all right, but there were some occasional theoretical aspects I just could not understand. I would ask for an explanation and Steve would explain it about every possible way anyone could. He was excellent as a teacher. Yet usually I could just not quite grasp the point no matter what he said. I could work the problems I had to, but I just could not "see" the principle clearly the way he did. I was grateful for his help, but even more intimidated and assured of my inferiority. Then when we were juniors or seniors he took introductory philosophy, and I had already taken a number of philosophy courses and had really enjoyed most of them. He came to me for help and the role was exactly reversed. There were certain principles or distinctions he could not see that were easily clear to me. I explained them in a multitude of ways and with different examples and analogies; but this time, he just could not "see". I still knew he was far more intelligent and educated than I, but I realized then that people often just have different skills and different blind spots. There is no good reason not to be academically adventuresome in college -- that is the way you will expand your mind and your horizons -- but think twice about staying in unnecessary courses, with an unsympathetic teacher, in which you have no talent for grasping the material at all. When the teacher is sympathetic, discuss it with him or her before making a decision about staying or dropping.

A course is bad in general if most of the students have the same kinds of overwhelming difficulties no matter how intelligent they are or how much they try. I have been in a course where the teacher that was hired, as a visiting professor, misunderstood the level of the course to be given, and could not or would not alter the course to meet the level of the students enrolled in it, leaving most of the students foundering with no possible way to meaningfully participate or get anything out of the course. I have been in a course where the professor had a world renowned research reputation, but could barely speak English and could not understand students' questions or give comprehendible answers. And since it was the kind of course that built on theoretical structure as it went along, by the middle it was hopeless for most of the students.

Even in courses involving memory rather than understanding or interpretation, teaching style and structure can be important. Some, generally bad, teachers go so fast and present so many unrelated facts in each lecture that it is almost impossible to take them all down, let alone take them all in. Sometime such teachers seem to be simply showing off their memories rather than trying to teach students. Some teachers will erase a chalk board the minute they have finished covering it so they can have more board to work with even though it is obvious to everyone else, no one had time to copy all the initial information, or they will move to a fresh board so far away from the other one you cannot finish copying one while following what they say at the other. One zoology teacher used different colors of chalk for different organs or tissues, but had colors so close in hue that few if any students beyond the first row could distinguish the colors. Sometimes he had more colors than you could have; sometimes he would run out of colors and use the same color for different things even though that messed up your notes completely. Sometimes he went back and forth among various colors so fast that you got hopelessly behind just searching for the right colored pencils. On one of his more complicated and faster -- worst -- days, one kid accidentally dropped all his pencils down the steps of the tiered lecture room as he tried to juggle back and forth among them. The clatter of all those wooden sticks bouncing and rolling on the concrete steps gave an unmistakably clear picture of what had happened and why. Frustrated and sympathetic laughter filled the room. The professor only looked up for a second, then continued drawing. The laughter abruptly ended in the muttering of curses and the return to trying to keep up. Personally, I never understood why such teachers did not just stencil their notes for students so they could go over them in lecture with the students being able to pay attention to what the teacher was saying about the drawings rather than having to concentrate on accurately copying them, and always being behind in that.

Structural framework is important, whether the course is introduction to European history or introduction to organic chemistry. Two different organic chemistry textbooks or teachers might make all the difference in the world, and have, depending on how they organize and explain the different categories of reactions that are the basis of the course. One of my friends was the victim of a course that used a new text because the professor wanted to try it out -- and to compound the error, taught the same way the text did. When it turned out the students did not learn as well as students using the old text and format, the new one was not renewed. Great for everyone except the 600 or so students of that year.

Sometimes, after you have racked your brain to no avail with your course textbook, you can find at the library or bookstore a text that is better for you than the one you have, or you can find a text which in combination with your course text is more helpful to you than would be either alone. My history of art text covered the Renaissance in a way that was difficult for me to follow -- comparing different regional developments in art as time went along. I found a paperback book that instead charted each region's total development before discussing the next region, and before making any comparisons. That was somehow easier for me to follow and to grasp.

Even with good and conscientious teachers and a good text, sometimes you will have to discover or invent for yourself a structural framework that puts the material into a meaningful and useful perspective. In my second term of calculus they postponed the midterm three weeks so they could include a third chapter of the book for it, since they felt the three chapters together "made a better unit". This seemed odd because none of the chapters seemed to go together at all. There were a zillion separate rules and equations in the first two of these chapters, and adding the third chapter just made it a zillion and a half. Working problems required a tremendous memory, and everyone knew that under the pressure conditions of the exam period, memory was likely to fail badly. Yet the teachers did not seem sadistic, so it seemed to me there had to be some reason they thought the three chapters went together. I was still a freshmen and it did not occur to me to ask any of the teachers what was so unified about them. The night before the exam, I had been working sample problems in preparation for the test for about the hundredth time and couldn't take it any more. I went for a walk, still in the back of my mind wondering how they could possibly call these three chapters (or even any one of them) a unit. During my walk, the light dawned that the first rule on the first page of the first chapter was somewhat different than all the others -- perhaps it was some sort of general principle. I went back to the book and tried a few examples from all three chapters. Sure enough, all you had to remember was that first rule -- that general principle; you could easily derive the other particular rules you needed to work any problem. It was simple. I had been lost in too much detail. I felt like an absolute fool. The next night I took the exam with the 1500 other freshmen in this massive course. It was a breeze. I knew I had been the last person to figure out what was obvious to everyone else, and too obvious for the book or my teacher to state. The next day in class they returned the exams and I had got an 83 out of 84 possible points; I had oversimplified one answer and forgotten the "+" sign in giving a square root. Oh well, at least I would be up there with everyone else. But I became extremely embarrassed when they announced that the highest grade was one 83 and the next was 56, with the median at 30. I couldn't believe it. In this course of people far more mathematically talented than I, no one else had evidently seen the relationship I did -- and that the teachers and text author did mistakenly think was too obvious to state bluntly -- and so they had all relied on pure memory, which was bound to fail, the way it did under the exam conditions.

One of the points of all this is that not all courses are good, certainly not for everyone, and that if you find yourself in a course that no matter how hard you try, you are not getting very far, particularly if others are in the same position, you might realize the situation is not within your control and not necessarily your fault. Sometimes it is better to drop such a course and take it again with another teacher, or never take it again. Talk with the teacher and/or an academic counselor first about the problems you are having understanding, remembering, or using the material in the course. Perhaps even talk with another person who teaches the same course, someone who may be able to give you a different perspective on the subject matter. Dropping or staying can depend on a number of factors: your projected grade, whether learning the course content is necessary for further courses or not, your view of the value of your time, your idea about what college courses should be like (i.e., something just to get through to get a degree, or something from which you gain as much knowledge and understanding as you can). If the term is half over, no one else teaches the course any better, you can probably at least pass the course and with a grade that won't make your average noticeably suffer, you don't need the course information for future courses, and you are willing to let three or four (or whatever) hours toward your degree simply be a waste, you may want to keep the course. If you have better ways to spend the time and energy, need or want the content taught correctly, or don't any longer want the content, and it won't hurt you to drop the course that term, you may prefer to drop it.

Doing Well in Courses

Generally, if you are in the right curriculum for you (about which, more later) if you go to all your classes (or at least talk to the teachers for help if you have to miss some -- and do talk to the teachers, not other students; other students don't often very accurately explain what you missed) and pay attention in them, and if you keep up with all your -- reading and writing -- assignments, finishing them on time when they are due, then unless you get in either a personally bad course for which you have no knack whatsoever or a generally bad course, you will probably get A's and B's most of the time, and should certainly never fail a course. Unless the college has made a mistake in admitting you, unless you have signed up for a course or schedule you had no business trying to carry (particularly if you have to work or are in some overly time-consuming extra-curricular activity) then you should be able to keep up with the work, go to all your classes or make up those you have to miss, and get fairly good grades.

[One of the reasons it is important to talk to a good faculty academic counselor, if your school has them, is to avoid accidentally getting an almost impossible combination of courses, such as (at most schools) two laboratory courses like chemistry and physics or zoology your freshman year, or such as (in combination with the wrong other courses) a course like computer science which may only meet two class hours a week, but which may require an inordinate amount of time outside of class so that it is more like a four or five hour course than a two hour course. Remember when you choose courses, how they go together can be as important as considering the merits of each one individually. For example, a term that you might have two or three heavy reading courses might be a good term to take a music appreciation course instead of another reading course; then you might be able to relax and rest your eyes at the end of the day, yet still be studying, by listening to records or tapes of the music from the course. A good advisor should have wisdom to pass on about that sort of thing.

A good advisor is one who matches the individual students' needs and abilities with the proper opportunities and services the school offers. Hence the good counselor is familiar with the school's programs, opportunities, services, and courses, and tries to learn as much as possible about the student that is necessary to know for academic advising. Good counselors probe and do not just take at face value what either the student or his record alone says, but they are not mind readers and the more information you can tell them about what you need, want, like, have trouble with, or have doubts about, the better they will be able to advise you. Although there may be signs on your record to help determine what might be good for you, you are still one of the best indicators, so you need to tell what you are thinking about your courses and your curriculum.

Bad counselors are those that do not know much about the school or do not care about students or counseling. I innocently asked one counselor one time what I was supposed to do if a popular course he signed me up for was filled by the time my turn to register for it arrived. He snapped that "You'll do just what everyone else does! You won't get any special treatment!" I flinched and then re-phrased the question to ask just what that was that everyone did; what exactly was the procedure to follow at registration if one couldn't get the courses the counselors had approved. I wasn't trying to find out the special treatment; I was trying to find out the normal treatment. One pre-med student went to talk to a counselor once about choosing a major, not really wanting to major in a natural science, if that were feasible. Without asking any questions or getting out the student's record, and without ever having seen the student before, as soon as the student asked the question and said he was pre-med, the counselor told him to major in zoology and terminated the discussion. A better counselor, but one who I now believe still made an error, was a chemistry professor who signed everyone up for calculus after practically convincing us all that even if all we wanted to be were garbage collectors, we would still need at least a year of calculus. If your counselor does not seem to spend any time with you or to take any interest in you, or if your academic counselor seems to be giving you bad or senseless advice and will not discuss your questioning of him or her, talk with another counselor.]

When I say to keep up with the reading in order to do well in courses, I mean doing the reading in a careful and thoughtful or reflective manner, understanding it and following it, not just coasting through it. If you go to class without being totally familiar with the reading or without being prepared to ask about what you have demonstrably tried, yet failed, to understand, you will probably not be able to follow or grasp the class material (as well as you should), will gradually fall behind, will not enjoy the course nor get as much out of it as you should, and will possibly appear to the teacher to be not terribly concerned about his or her course or efforts. You need to read the assignments until you understand them or until you know you will not understand them without asking questions you are prepared to ask and which you do ask.

This should be the same way you take notes too. Don't take notes the way too many students do -- don't just take notes that make no sense to you when you write them down hurriedly in class in the hope they will magically make more sense later when you are studying for the exam; they won't. Wait for an appropriate place -- just before a change in topic or direction and ask questions of the teacher to try to get clarification; if you are being a nuisance in doing so, let the teacher tell you he or she will confer with you outside of class. Then make sure you get that conference and the answers you seek. Don't let a lecture be what it has often been called, "an hour in which information goes from the notes of the teacher to the notes of the students without passing through the minds of either." When I taught philosophy I did not let my students take notes; at the end of each topic I gave them class notes which included both my comments and all the relevant discussion that was raised in class. I did not want anyone writing things they did not understand, nor having to concentrate on writing when they should have been thinking about what was being discussed or pointed out instead. If something did not make sense to them, I wanted them to raise questions about it then and there and not just continue sitting there lost to the ideas that were being presented. If you attend a lecture where there are a mixture of students from freshmen through seniors, you will find that generally the older students take fewer notes, instead often just sitting back listening and following the lecture, distilling the ideas into their own terms or conceptual framework, and then making a few notations here and there to help them remember the ideas later. Under normal circumstances, it seems to me that a course or lecture in which most of the students sit bent over pens and notebooks scribbling down everything the teacher says, regardless of what sense it makes (to them), is a course in which less is being taught or learned than should be. The most extreme and complete, but least helpful, manner of this kind of note-taking is the tape recording of entire lectures. Unfortunately, each hour of lecture then takes a whole hour of study time just to play it back, let alone to learn or distill it.

I had one experience that involved a combination of luck, minimal note-taking, and hard work at studying the reading (perhaps a bit overzealously, though) in the reflective manner that I mean. In a course in Great Books (Greek and Latin classical works in English translation), we had a professor lecturing in a large hall twice a week who gave out almost no useful information whatsoever, and who was boring. Fortunately the classroom teachers were much better. At any rate, the most difficult book that term was Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. My first reading of each assignment in it almost never made any sense to me, so I read each twice before it was due, trying to get some sort of grasp of the train of thought. For the final exam, I had already read the whole work three or four times and had a fair notion of its content and logic. I had finished all my exams that term except for the one in that course and I didn't want to read any of the works any more before the exam. But there were five or six hours before the late afternoon final so I thought I would look to see what notes I had taken from the lecturer on Aristotle. One. I had put a circle around one page number in the book, nothing else, and now I could not remember at all why I had even circled that page's number. I looked at the page and there was only one complete paragraph on it, a short one in about the middle of the page, so I looked at it. It did not seem particularly interesting but seemed to make a number of general points connecting a lot of the phrases and words that appeared in various places in the book. Out of a sort of bored amusement, I thought I would see how well I could relate all that to my understanding of the book as a whole and ended up putting about two hours into it as I had to search back and forth to tie up loose ends for this little project.

The only Aristotle question on the exam that afternoon turned out to be that paragraph quoted in its entirety with the question asking what book in the course it came from and what relevance it had in that book. Many of the students, who had simply given up on Aristotle, said later they did not even know which work it was from. I figure I wrote a great essay on it, showing in detailed manner how it encapsulated the essence of the book. I just wish I could have seen my teacher's face when he saw my answer also included the page number the paragraph was on. I also wish I knew why I had circled that page number during a lecture in the first place. I guess that was just one exam where I was fated to get an A.

That was my freshman year; and because the work was so difficult, because everyone else I was around was so intelligent and well-educated, because adults had all told me such horror stories about college, and because a beautiful and flawless letter that the university president read to us at a welcoming ceremony (as a scare tactic that certainly worked for me) had been written by a student who had nevertheless, he pointed out, failed from the school (and I knew I could not have written such a good letter), I compulsively overstudied just to try to keep from what I thought would otherwise be certain failure. Eating meals and doing my laundry were about my only break from class and study, and I do not recommend that to anyone, nor did I do that again after my first year. But I always continued to attend all classes (or make up those I had to miss, by talking with the teacher) and to keep up with my assignments in a careful and reflective, though not quite so compulsively driven or fearful, way. That was not, except occasionally, particularly taxing, seemed to be what was minimally expected anyway, and generally left plenty of free time for other pursuits, but it still made things far, far easier and better at exam time. And I recommend that to everyone.

Above all, the material you study should make sense to you. You need to try to make sense out of everything you study, and if the material does not make sense to, you need to remedy that. If you find you are having any problems understanding, or keeping up with, the reading or the class material, ask questions in class or talk to the teacher in his or her office outside of class. Chances are a discussion will help resolve any problems. Or write a paper or letter explaining your questions or disagreement concerning the material. Let the teacher examine the paper at his or her leisure and respond appropriately to it. If the teacher is not particularly helpful in such a discussion or after giving him or her a paper, talk to another teacher in the department about your questions or ideas, or talk to an academic counselor about the situation. Seek help from someone in a position to help you; don't just ignore getting behind, disagreeing, or not understanding; and don't wait for someone to read your mind and ask whether something is wrong.

Sometimes you will understand more than you think you do. I had a student one time come to my office who was certain she did not understand some of the topics in my course. I asked her what and why not, and after about two hours of discussion it seemed quite clear to me that she understood everything -- she simply disagreed with it, or couldn't understand why I believed some of the things I did -- not because she did not know what my viewpoint was or the reasons I gave for it, but because she had further objections to those reasons themselves. I took the discussion as far as we could go, which was much further than necessary for what was expected of her in this introductory course, and though she left still in disagreement and still feeling she did not understand the course, she had demonstrated to me in what was tantamount to a long oral examination that she had more than sufficient knowledge and ability to achieve an A in the course. I gave her that A without making her take the exam, and I am not certain she ever did figure out what happened even though I told her. But had she not come in to talk, and had she not presented her "case" on the exam in the way I came to understand it from intense discussion with, and questioning of, her she might have received a far different grade.

That certainly was a rare, but not unique, occurrence; but even in those cases where there is a lack ofunderstanding, a discussion might clear it up. And teachers, generally, like to see that a student is honestly trying to learn. (Just going in to try to impress or "snow" a teacher, however, usually will not work and instead will probably be counterproductive to your grade.)

Courses in which the teachers want students to analyze and interpret information and demonstrate the ability to think clearly and intelligently for themselves tend to be very difficult for most students because they generally have been conditioned not to think for themselves but to parrot the teacher or the text. Teachers also do not always make it clear whether you are supposed to be analyzing material or parroting them. So sometimes your grade will suffer when you do the wrong thing, even though you may be capable of both. And some teachers do not really mean what they say, or do not inspire confidence that they mean what they say, when they ask you to think for yourself. [I will try to explain about "thinking for yourself" in class and give some pointers shortly.]

I sat in on an English literature class once where the teacher asked questions of the students to try to generate class discussion and to try to elicit their views about some of the interesting points the literature raised. No one volunteered any information; no one would hazard a guess or make any sort of comment. After looking across the room or perhaps calling on a few people who either said they did not know or who gave very brief noncommittal answers each time, she would, in order to keep the class "moving", give her answers to the question she asked. Then she would ask the next question and the tediously wasteful search for what would again be no response went on until she again gave her answer and asked another question. Each time she gave her answer, every student wrote it down in their notebooks. If by chance a student did give an answer, no one wrote it down. I happened to attend the class period where she finally wearied of all this and asked them why they never had any response to any of her questions. Of course, they had no response to that question either. I ventured the guess to her that as long as she gave exams, which she did, and as long as she graded the students on the "correctness" of their answer, those students were not about to care what they thought or what anyone besides her thought; they would be afraid and embarrassed to "waste" class time giving their own ideas in class, ideas which yielded no payoff grade-wise and which only postponed her giving her views about the literature, which were what they needed to parrot on the exams. And they knew that if they "waited her out" with silence she would eventually answer her own questions and they could take notes. I felt that if she wanted discussion she either had to cease giving or radically change her exams, or at least not give the answers in class to the questions she asked when there was no response, and perhaps not ever give her answers.

Beware (sometimes) the professor who says he wants you to think for yourself but who uses his own textbook in the course. Sometimes thinking for yourself then just means coming up with additional support for the views he and/or his text holds, not researching or creatively developing rational challenges to them. This may also be true when the text is not his own or not the issue, but his lecture or class ideas are. It is difficult to choose what to do in that kind of situation when you really do have some doubts or questions about the text but aren't certain whether or not you might be risking your grade to assert them in a paper. Some professors thrive on intelligent challenge to their own work, and respect the intellect of students who provide it, but others do not like it one bit. And often it is hard to tell which will be the case until it is too late.

But let me explain what a college teacher who really does want you to think for yourself usually means by that. The point is for you to take a stand that you logically support with all the evidence you can muster from the works under study and any other evidence (not opinion) that you can provide. In one of my freshmen papers about heroism in the Iliad of Homer, I quoted George Washington concerning an opinion about heroism and merrily went off from there, assuming Washington to be a perfectly adequate authority. (I had had a creative writing teacher in 12th grade who absolutely loved you to quote anyone and everyone as "support" for your views -- my Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations was always within reach of my typewriter for her papers.) I did not really understand my low grade and my professor's questioning of whether Washington was right or not. Now I understand. What he wanted was for me to give evidence for the truth of that proposition, not just accept it as gospel because Washington had said it. Possibly not every view Washington, or anyone else, held was true, so why simply accept this particular one blindly or blithely. For a freshmen with little experience of the world, it would have been difficult to do this very well, but the point at that time was at least to try. The assigned paper was to describe a genuine hero in the Iliad and support why he or she should be considered heroic. Most of us picked the obvious -- those who risked their lives to fight against great or overwhelming odds. The teacher's answer was that it was Paris, the person who stood up against public opinion and refused to fight, the man who most seemed to be a coward to most of us. I had grown up in a relatively peaceful era (this was just the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam), and the notion that it took heroism to oppose, ignore, or reject public opinion and not to participate in what society declared a duty was totally foreign to me. Years later when I almost got drafted and would have had to decide what to do about serving in what I considered to be an unjust war or going to Canada, one of the questions that crossed my mind, though it was not a main issue, was which would actually be the braver act for me to do. I felt that since my parents, and most of the country, still felt one should "serve" when called, and that since I did not know anyone in Canada or have any job skills, that it would have somehow simply been easier, less frightening, and less courageous to go along with the draft, though that would still have been quite frightening and though I was pretty certain I myself could not have shot at some unknown enemy. Years after that, about the time I was writing this counseling guide, on a popular television series "Magnum, P.I." Magnum said to some draft dodger turned seemingly unprincipled and opportunistic Congressman that the courage it took to stand up unpopularly against the war was not even close to the courage it took to fight in it. Well, I do not know whether that is true or not, and I suspect it is different for different people. Further, I still do not think my teacher was right about Paris's being a hero because I cannot remember anything in the Iliad about its being a conscious decision involving some courage for him to act the way he did. I can only remember Paris' being somewhat lazy, selfish, and irresponsible, in which case his opting for the boudoir over the battlefield could hardly be heroic. He seemed not to act out of conviction for a principle in the face of public disdain but simply to be acting out of selfishness, sloth, and weakness of character, something which in this case seems to count against his actions being in any way heroic. Since he did not seem to care what others thought about his (lack of) courage in battle, he did not seem to be risking losing anything of value to himself -- other people's respect for him as a warrior -- in order to attain something of higher value.

If I were to write the paper now I would discuss such issues and deal with heroism in terms of one's motivation and one's concerns and awareness of alternatives and their attractiveness, as well as one's actions. I would talk about taking an intentional risk of losing something of value in order to try to attain something of rationally believable greater value. Even if I chose a different hero from my teacher, I think now I could make such a strong case for my choice that he could see there was logical and strong evidence for mine and that I had thought about it considerably and clearly rather than just accepting a shallow public notion of what heroism is. This particular paper would contain two kinds of arguments, the first kind being arguments not related to the book but which explained and gave reasons for my criteria for --or analysis of -- heroism, and the second being arguments related to the book which showed why my choice met those criteria and perhaps why some other candidates did not. The arguments showing why the character met the criteria would then show that I was familiar with the material we were supposed to read and that I could think about it in useful and important ways. Such a paper, if written with proper grammar and any sort of readable style, should satisfy any reasonable professor.

In your papers basically what you want to do is to be clear and unambiguous about what you mean; and you want to give as much good, logical evidence for the claims you make as you can. You want to stay away from vague or ambiguous claims and sweeping generalizations that are unsupported or supported in only the most general, shallow, or trite ways. And you want to stay away from relying (solely) on quotations from supposed experts, particularly if those quotations do not make sense to you and/or if you cannot give some good evidence to show they are reasonable to believe in this case. Anyone can be wrong about something they say, even an expert; the point for your paper is not just to blindly quote what someone says (if you use quotations from others at all) but to give as direct and unimpeachable evidence as you can point out for believing that it is true. Sometimes it is a good idea to state your main points in a couple of different ways, in case one of those ways is unclear or ambiguous and you do not realize it, and your teacher does not understand it or takes it the wrong way. Restating your points in different words sometimes helps you see errors in them too, since some wordings will perhaps seem not to be true without some sort of modification or exceptions to be noted. If there are exceptions, deal with them; do not just ignore them and hope your teacher will not think of them. Explain how the exceptions are different from the kinds of cases to which you think your ideas are relevant. Throughout the paper, give examples that support and further explain what you mean. Write about evidence that you understand, and give as much evidence for the claims you make as you can. Try to make certain that your evidence really does show what you think it shows. In my teacher's choice of Paris as bravest person, he seemed to ignore the question of whether Paris made a conscious choice or intentionally risked something of value (his reputation) in order to pursue his amorous affair; so he might be open to the rebuttal that his evidence did not show what he thought it did, any more than had he claimed a man who sleeps through a fire, unaware of it, is brave for staying in a burning building.

Don't assume the teacher understands what you think you do or believes what you think is obvious. Chances are very good that what you think is obvious is not only not obvious but not even true. Sometimes it will not even be clear enough to make sense. You may figure these things out yourself as you try to come up with examples and reasons to support your ideas. I was trying to make a logical point in a letter recently about probability versus value, and wrote that "if a college football team scored a touchdown as time ran out on the clock, leaving them down by two points, with no time remaining in the game, no college coach would choose to kick for one point rather than try a two point conversion, regardless of how good his kicker and how poor his team from scrimmage." I have used this example many times before, always certain it was obviously true, but this time it occurred to me that a team might choose to lose by one point rather than go for a tie, if it meant the kicker could set a prestigious record in his career -- say, a record for consecutive points after touchdowns -- and this was his last college game to do it. So I made a brief disclaimer excepting such unusual cases (and excepting someone's just trying to beat a point spread), and went on to make my point. It is very difficult to make general claims that have no exceptions. Part of writing papers in college is to practice so that you get better at making very specific claims that you can support, rather than making broad, sweeping claims that others can easily find exceptions to. This is somewhat difficult for young college students because they don't often have the experience to realize there may be other sides to views they have grown up with, always heard or read in the news, always had inculcated in school or church, or simply always believed from their own (limited) experience. This is not to say church, school, or parental views are incorrect, but to say that the child's understanding of them may be shallow, unreflective, or unreasonable. It is not a situation peculiar to young persons or college students unfortunately, but they tend to have to face up to it more than older people in positions of influence who do not have to answer to others about their views.

And, often, even in cases where you agree with a teacher's point in a paper, you need to state the point clearly and support the case for it because often a teacher wants to see not just that you can repeat what he or she said, but that you have good reasons yourself for believing it. They want to be sure you understand the point and can work with it in important ways when it is applicable and have reasons of your own for believing it.

Now, in many cases, you are not required to prove everything beyond the shadow of a doubt, but you are generally required to have reasonable, supported (that is, giving the reasons) ideas. Even in more creative or "interpretive" exercises, such as discussing something like a poem, your comments and ideas actually should apply to the poem and be supported by the poem itself. If, for example, you say something like "the meter of the poem is sad in a way that fits the meaning," then you had better notice and explain any changes of meter in the poem. In history of art we had to analyze a sculpture of a mother and child on display in the art museum on campus. The mother is holding a toddler who is sort of climbing on her. The flow of the lines is very soft and the whole thing looks very loving. Most students just talked about that aspect of the whole thing. But really if you look at the statue with any but the most superficial observation you notice that the mother's face looks more pained than loving and that the arm which at first seems to be reaching out to pull the child closer, is really holding the child away. The statue is much more accurately described in terms of ambivalence of the moment, of a woman who seems to love her child (as part of her posture and attitude reflect) but who seems to want some privacy or some space from it at the moment (as another part of the posture and facial expression reflect). Anyone who is simply "interpreting" or describing the statue as one of a loving posture between mother and child, is not describing or interpreting the statue to fit the facts. So I think the comments I have made pertaining to clarity and logic apply even to cases of supposedly more subjective or interpretive writing. Generally, unless you have very good reason to believe otherwise, for most assignments, clarity, truth, and reasonableness are not something to be casually ignored.

Further, you need to be certain that you do not use as evidence or logic anything that the teacher or the text has already argued against UNLESS you counter those arguments with further arguments of your own. If you simply state what the text or the teacher has already shown to be inadequate without giving any reasons why you think the teacher or text is in error, then you leave yourself open to the justified criticism that you have not been paying attention to the reading or to the lectures. That is one more reason why it is important to keep up with the reading and to faithfully attend class and be attentive. Most conscientious teachers justifiably do not appreciate students who speak or write what they should know better, regardless of how imaginative the answer. [On an exam one time one of my friends did not know the answer to the question asking about the dramatic unity in a certain Greek classic play because he had not read the play, but he had seen correlations between the Greek plays he had read and some of Shakespeare's works, so he invented an answer by actually describing the dramatic unity in a Shakespearian play but applying it to the characters and little content he knew of the Greek play in question. His answer was in fact brilliant, but the question had been a trick question of sorts since the Greek play, about which they asked us to discuss the dramatic unity, in fact had none; it had only been a series of unrelated episodes portrayed just as they might have happened to someone in real life, with no thread of unity or continuity connecting them.]

Ignoring what has already been stated is different (though sometimes it is difficult to distinguish) from not understanding difficult material and raising objections or questions about it again that were raised before but at a time when the answers could not quite sink in, or when you couldn't state your case or question as strongly as you can now. In a philosophy class sometimes, a comment or question might trigger the repetition of a whole discussion that suddenly becomes "relevant" or about which suddenly "the light dawns" even though the topic had been "finished" weeks earlier. For many teachers this is exciting and fun; but some might be upset, treating it as though it should already be understood just because it had already been presented. I always found that sort of thing fascinating both as a student and as a teacher -- the flash of insight over something that was presented weeks or months earlier in a course is really a cherished moment to me. As a student it sometimes even happened a year or more after a course. One night around 1 a.m. I was arguing something in a heated bull session in the dorm that I suddenly realized was the exact position a teacher held the previous year that I had argued against, in a slightly different context. I was so excited I almost called her up then and there to tell her she was right after all. I controlled myself however and waited till the morning when she was in her office. By then I had decided further that the real answer was that there was half a point to both sides and that the correct answer (about whether it was more important to love or to be loved) depended in some cases on the circumstances, and I could describe to her which circumstances made the one more important and which made the other more important. She was glad our classroom discussion the previous year had made an impression on me and was also glad I had not called her at 1 a.m. for her to find out.

Most good teachers will put up with your polite, even if firm or good humored, questioning of them or disagreeing with them when you show you understand their point or at least have listened to it; and many will be able to tell, when the point is a difficult one to grasp, that you persist in your disagreement or questioning because, although you are trying to understand, it just has not "sunk in yet". What is not tolerated well is when it appears quite certain you are persisting in disagreement because you are not listening in class or reading at home, or are not even trying to understand what they have already said or asked you to read. Missing classes without explaining reasonable absences to the teacher or without seeking information from the teacher about what you missed is a sign you do not really care about the content; and it will definitely not help you in any question the teacher might have about what grade to give you. More importantly, it will not help you understand (or participate in) later classes that build or depend upon the information in the class(es) you missed. Missing classes without good reason and with no attempt to talk with the teacher about material missed, and/or not keeping up with carefully reading the assignments and trying to understand them is almost always an unhealthy situation.

Choosing your Curriculum and Major

At the time they have finished high school most students have not been exposed to enough either in life or at school to be able to make a permanent curriculum commitment. Somewhat over half of students entering college do not know what career they want to pursue, and of the half that do, most will change their minds while in college. College, and particularly the first two years, is a good time to explore for areas of interest and ability, keeping open as many options, and gaining as much knowledge and skills of general use, as possible.

All students face the kinds of issues in selecting or taking courses I have been discussing above, but there are additional special problems facing some particular groups of students -- those trying to study in an area for which they have no real interest though they think they do, less interest than they think they do, and/or less, or no, aptitude for what they think they are interested in. Quite often these are students who are choosing a field for the wrong reasons or because they have a misconception of what the field involves.

For example, countless freshmen each year begin in a pre-med curriculum because they want to be able to become doctors in order to help people, a commendable and noble aspiration. Yet some of these people have less aptitude for science than they do for other areas, areas which could also be helpful to humanity, though perhaps not in a way quite so dramatic or so seemingly visible to eighteen year-olds (or their parents). It can be quite traumatic for a student to fail, or nearly fail, a pre-med course such as chemistry or zoology, his or her first term, and some students will simply try to repeat the course and pass it, only to run into the same kind of trouble in the next level course. But generally such failure causes one to re-evaluate and set one's curriculum goals more realistically before too much time has been wasted. Harder cases, because the student suffers doubt, difficulty, and distress in a prolonged and lingering manner, are those in which the student has sufficient aptitude, interest, and resolve or self-control to successfully complete courses in his or her field, but finds himself or herself not liking it as much, and/or not learning it as readily, as he or she likes or learns the material of courses outside of that field. That is generally a good clue that the student might be better off in a different curriculum, but it is a clue the student, out of ignorance, inexperience, perseverance, a misplaced sense of quitting or failure, and lack of proper guidance, tends to ignore, reject, or wrestle against, particularly if receiving encouraging support or pressure from others (such as parents and family) to continue toward one's initial goal. A competent counselor to, say, a pre-med student might pick up on this from probing conversation with the student, or in seeing slightly lower grades in the field than in courses outside the field. I am not talking about a student who enjoys chemistry though getting a B in it while getting an A in anthropology which he or she does not like as much, but about the student who gets those grades (or even A's in chemistry) but really finds chemistry a chore while being much more excited and enthusiastic about reading his or her anthropology assignments. This is not a reason in itself to drop out of pre-med, (sciences may become more exciting with better familiarity) but it is a reason to make sure one explores as fully as possible other areas before becoming so committed to a full pre-med curriculum (particularly with a natural science major) that some possibly more satisfying major or curriculum becomes an impossibility. One wants to try to avoid finding just before getting one's degree, or being in graduate school, that one has chosen and completed the wrong major or wrong whole area of study for oneself.

There are also some quite good (as well as some terrible) psychology tests that some schools give to entering freshmen, or those that want it, which help give clues to the student's aptitudes and interests, quite often being more accurate than the student's own view. A good academic counselor will not base his advice on such test scores entirely, because they can be in error, but will certainly take them into account in trying to help the student select a balanced and advantageous course schedule.

I discuss choosing courses and majors in regard to employment and careers in the next section.

Comments of a More Subjective Nature

It would be nice for people to be able to attend desired college courses on some sort of part time basis throughout their adult lives just for their own enjoyment, enrichment, and edification without having to worry about getting good grades or some sort of (additional) degree. But until that day comes, college for most people means taking the courses necessary for a degree in a field they plan to turn in to a vocation. Nevertheless, even then there is generally enough time to pursue courses outside of your field of training to expand your horizons and illumine your mind. And I think this is one of the best times to do that. If you have hours to fill in your schedule, fill them -- not with courses just like those you have already studied in high school and are taking just out of safety and familiarity rather than interest -- with courses that teach you about new ideas and that enlarge your field of vision and your dreams. Assuming that the teachers are likely to be good, try an introductory linguistics course, philosophy course, or "physics for poets" course. Find out something in anthropology about ancient or distant cultures, in history of art about what makes a painting good, or in music literature about the form and structure of music. These are just a few of dozens or even hundreds of possibly valuable electives open to you that you might consider.

There are a number of reasons to take such courses out of your field:

1) They may give you ideas you can use in your field, perhaps with some modifications. They may even help you better understand or improve your field.

2) Every "educated" person should know something, or some things, about his or her culture, and how it got that way. And there are facts and theories about nature, the world, and the universe that every educated person should know.

3) The more kinds of good ideas and pursuits you are interested in, probably the more inquisitive, reflective, entertained, and happy or content you will be throughout your life, all other circumstances being equal. To paraphrase Aristotle, happiness is an activity of the soul in conformity with (and pursuit of) excellence.

4) There are certain kinds of courses that, when taught correctly, help you sharpen your mind by teaching you to make discriminating, precise, unambiguous distinctions and clear, supported judgments. Certain humanities courses and certain theoretical science courses are among these. Some (of these) courses help you also to communicate better to others (and to yourself) what you really believe and what you want people to understand. Some help you learn to ask the kinds of probing questions that help you learn in any area you may seek knowledge. Part of going to school is not just to learn specific facts, but to learn how to learn on your own whatever you might want or need to know -- how to ask penetrating questions, how to sort basic information from detail, how to put facts and ideas into perspective, how to clarify ambiguous or vague notions, and how to understand the conceptual nature of the kinds of thinking that underlie much of the work in a subject or field.

5) Courses outside your field can sometimes be a refreshing diversion from courses inside it. I had one friend majoring in chemistry who, one term, had four chemistry courses and a German literature course. She said she had never loved German as much as she did that term.

6) Even in a field such as business, one has to remember that money or acquiring money is only the means to an end, the end being a fuller and better life. One still needs to know which pursuits or things make a better and fuller life and why. Humanities courses sometimes deal with such questions. Some courses, whether in the humanities or not, tend to put life into better perspective than others. College is as good a time as any and a better place than most to seek that knowledge and perspective. Wisdom and wealth are not always combined; and everyone knows the old barb "If you are so smart, why aren't you rich." But there are many rich people who should equally well, perhaps, be asked if they are so rich, why aren't they smart [educated].

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College Majors and Careers

While there are some careers that one trains for specifically in college, such as teaching, engineering, architecture, law, medicine, etc., there are a great many careers which do not require a college degree or even any college courses in order for one to be successful. It seems to me that particularly with regard to the latter, one needs to pursue employment in a sense separately from simply taking the college courses one wants or pursuing a major one simply really enjoys. I believe it is personally important to pursue the courses and curriculum one wants, but one should (also) do things to acquire or demonstrate skills that make one likely to be marketable in any contemporary job market. That may mean working for a company while in college, especially where one might be working one's way into a potentially satisfying career. It may mean taking some courses that give one specific marketable skills, along with whatever general skills one develops in other courses. It might mean beginning some sort of enterprise on one's own, inside or outside of course work. It may mean cultivating contacts and relationships with people in a position to employ you or help you get employment.

While a degree in history, political science, art history, or even some areas of business, may be satisfying in some way, and may give very important general or foundational skills, often that is not recognized, and thus it may not open the doors to employment that one might have thought. There are reports from time to time in the news media about how some company or other prefers to hire, say, liberal arts majors for their general knowledge, communication skills, and understanding, and then train them to do the specific kinds of work the company does. I have the suspicion, however, that these reports appear because they are the exception rather than the rule. From what I hear and see, it seems more often that companies tend to hire people with training or degrees in fields they believe are more closely aligned with the work the company does. Or they hire people with previous experience or demonstrated success in such areas. Apart from hiring people they already know and like (or the children of such people) I think they don't tend to hire people just on the basis of a college degree in some unrelated field and supposed general knowledge and wisdom.

This may be particularly true of college students who have the ability to do well in courses or who have what employers sometimes sarcastically call "book learning", but who don't seem to have much experience or understanding of the sorts of practical, social, or organizational kinds of skills an employer may think important, whether those skills actually are important or not. It is possible (perhaps even likely) to graduate from simply four years of college and still be quite naive or "green" in many ways. Undergraduate education is not always as well-rounding or maturing an experience as it may seem to be to the student. It may especially not be as professionally maturing as it seems. Undergraduate education may often correctly be considered as providing the foundation for becoming well-educated through reflections on later experiences, rather than as a complete education itself.

I am not saying that what one learns in college outside of "practical" or "applied" courses is not helpful for doing a job well; in fact it often is; but I am saying that I believe prospective employers don't tend to think so. And it is their perceptions that count for getting one's foot in their doors. I think students need to try somehow to keep an eye on the potential job market and on what seems, at the given time, likely to help them get a satisfying job when they graduate (or move up in a job they already have) while they are taking courses that give them personal growth and are interesting to them. One should not just assume a college degree in a field of interest will automatically open doors to employment one might like.

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In the school I attended there was a totally different atmosphere in each of the different terms. I went year around because there were extra courses I wanted to take, though I carried a generally reduced load in the summer. (Anything near a full load year around generally produces a bad case of burnout when you least need it.) Teachers and courses were far more relaxed in the summer than in the fall term, and the spring term was somewhere in between, though closer to the fall term. College in the summer was definitely, at my school, a much more pleasant academic experience than at any other time. I have heard other students from other schools say the same about their campuses. The same teachers might teach the same courses with the same material, but their personality, style, and manner were different, and that usually made for a much improved learning experience.

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Generally I found honors courses that I was eligible for were both better and yet easier than regular courses, particularly if the regular courses were large ones of the nameless number variety that everyone in the entire university seemed required to take, such as freshman English. Teachers in honors courses seemed to respect you and your questions and ideas more and also to present material that was more interesting and better structured. The other students tended to have more penetrating observations and questions, leading the teacher to say additional interesting things. The same was true of some experimental courses being offered on an acknowledged trial basis, and of courses taught by visiting professors just because they had an interest in teaching the material and neither it nor they were part of the standard curriculum. This was particularly true if the class was small.

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The quality of teaching seemed to me to be almost the same proportionally among graduate student teaching fellows (teaching assistants) as it was among professors. Many people seem to think professors are better teachers than graduate students. I did not find it that way. I figured the better teachers as graduate student became the better teachers as professors and that the bad ones did not improve as teachers just because they got their doctorates. In fact, it seemed that perhaps the teaching fellows were possibly on the average a bit better than the professors. Some of the professors were obviously burned out or jaded and did not seem to care about students; though maybe those professors never really had, even when they had been teaching assistants themselves. I never was particularly concerned one way or the other about whether a course was taught by a professor or a graduate student; that factor alone never seemed to have any bearing on whether a course would be good or not.

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Some students have access to old exam files and old papers from past courses. If there is no university rule against it and if they are not pilfered copies of supposedly secret questions, and if you have the time and inclination, I suppose there is nothing wrong with looking at them, but it would be a bad mistake to assume the next exam will be just like a past one, and it would be cheating to turn in someone else's past paper under your name. That can also be most dangerous. I know of a case where a student one time turned in a paper he found and was caught at it right away. The professor thought it was a pretty good paper for a student; he had originally written it himself when he was a student at the school.

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I believe that most students who are settled down enough to be able to study, and who do study and keep up with their reading and classes, who select appropriate courses and course loads, who seek help or advice from concerned and understanding faculty and staff when they need it and when they choose courses and majors, who do their best and who do not cheat or take short cuts, will do well at college, though not necessarily in every class, course, or area. If you go to class, pay attention, ask questions when you are confused, make (tactful) objections when you disagree, seek help from faculty and staff when you need it (particularly when you have a problem you are unable to solve yourself, as well as when you choose courses each term, so that you might prevent some problems from arising in the first place), and keep up carefully with your assignments, trying to understand them and put them in the right perspective (memorizing what you have to when understanding is not enough), you should be able to graduate with fair to good grades in the normal, or shorter, time. Reasonable, conscientious study and diligence, with the right teachers in the right courses in the right combinations in the right curriculum for you, should make college a personally stimulating and rewarding intellectual experience.