|"I've found that if I study with other people, I get more
done. If I try to study by myself ..."
~~ student overheard in the
hallway outside my office
|"To those of you who received honors, awards, and
distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students – I say, you,
too, can be President of the United States."
The purpose of this page is to pass along to
my students (and anybody else who cares to read it) some ideas for
success in my courses. Most of the ideas are useful for other courses,
By the way, I have written these suggestions as
on two things: succeeding in college and failing miserably in college.
know how to do both from long experience. Some of the lessons below
only be learned the hard way, but I pass them along for those who
ready to benefit from some of my past difficulties.
Do Not Study
Actually, I suggest that you not study. What is a
alternative to studying?
Learn the Syllabus
Most professors spend a lot of time developing their syllabi, so
students do well to spend some time reading them. They act as contracts
the legal sense) between professor and student, and often provide a
outline of how students can succeed in classes. A good syllabus makes
expectations clear; follow it, and you will meet the professor's
expectations. It is often just that simple. Most students who contact
me at the end of the semester about a problem get an answer from me
that makes several references directly to the syllabus.
A good syllabus explains the grading system for the course. Following
the syllabus, a student should be able to calculate -- or at least
estimate with some level of confidence -- his or her grade in the
class. In all of my courses, this is easy: at any point in time,
students can add up the points they have earned and the points possible
so far, to ascertain exactly where they stand. Since I have implemented
this system, very few students have had questions about their grades. (If
you are a professor reading this, I would be happy to discuss in more
detail why I use this system and how it works.) Students should be
aware that because the Blackboard system I use provides students with
detailed information, I see no reason to use mid-semester warnings
. Lack of a warning should not be taken as good news.
In my courses as in any other, if you cannot understand the grading
system based on the syllabus, take the initiative to get help. It is
This discussion of syllabi reminds me of an important point that I have
probably made elsewhere , but it bears
repeating. Each syllabus is different because each professor is
different. Each professor is different because we have the academic
freedom to run our courses as we see fit (within reasonable guidelines
provided by our institutions). This academic freedom is often
misunderstood and it can lead to idiosyncrasies, but it makes the
college learning experience what it is. Politicians who would like to
standardize college teaching do not understand
that students really benefit from the intellectual exertion of adapting
a variety of professorial styles, as well as a variety of disciplines.
should keep in mind that U.S. colleges and universities are the envy of
world -- no other country educates such a large percentage of its
while also attracting students from other countries -- and that these
syllabi are part of this success!
The first quote above is something I actually heard a student say to
another student. I have found that quite a few of my students struggle
through their classes alone, when they could use their time and energy
more effectively by studying together. Consider some of these benefits:
- With a partner, you can more effectively judge the relative
importance of the things you read that you find in your notes.
- With a partner, you can make up questions to assess each other's
progress and understanding. You can do this with household pets, but it
is not as effective.
- If you have been studying with someone, it is easy to ask that
person what happened in that a class you had to miss because of
- You might even make a life-long friend!
Use the Academic Achievement Center
Ground Floor Maxwell Library -
The Academic Achievement Center is located in
new facilities on the ground floor of the Maxwell Library, near the
elevators. The Center combines a variety of high-quality academic
services that were formerly available in separate offices. Of
particular interest are the academic assistance area and the Writing
The academic assistance area is an especially
comfortable and attractive place within the Academic Achievement
Center. Student tutors provide general help with time management, note
taking, reading comprehension, and preparing for exams. They also
provide assistance in specific subject areas, including math and
statistics among many others. Contact this center early in the semester
if you are having difficulty with a class, or if you just want to do
The AAC includes a writing studio whose
services include critical yet supportive feedback to student writers
working on projects in a variety of academic disciplines and at any
stage of their writing processes -- from just getting started to final
editing and polishing. Remember: even famous authors have
|NOTE: During the semester, I may
refer you individually to one of these centers. It is important that
you not consider this an insult. Getting help with these skills is an
important part of the college experience. These are not "remedial"
services. Students at all levels benefit.
Use Your Campus E-mail!
This might seem unrelated, but using the college's e-mail system is
important. If you think of college as a job, then think of webmail as
the office e-mail system. Nobody would be foolish enough to opt out of
an employer's e-mail system, but many people think of the college
e-mail system as optional. Consider this: every professor, staff
member, and student at BSC can find your e-mail address based on your
name. Your address is also automatically included in groups (such as
all sophomores), so that adminstrators can send out targeted messages.
Anybody who sends you a message will assume you have read it. This
could include a professor who contacts everyone registered for an
upcoming class, the financial aid office, or somebody you met in class.
Using the campus e-mail system also adds a bit of professionalism
to your communications with faculty members, potential employers,
for example. Neither group is quite sure what to do with a message from
"email@example.com" or "firstname.lastname@example.org" with a subject line such
as "Hi!" It seems odd, but I have received just such messages from
actual students, though I have probably deleted some without realizing
who they were from.
The final reason to use webmail: it is free and easy. You can check
your e-mail from any web-connected computer in the world. See the BSC Outlook web
page for instructions and details. If you are a BSC student who has
claimed your e-mail address, go to the Account
During the fall 2003 semester, many students bailed out on their
BSC accounts because they were inundated with spam. The college has
time and money in addressing this problem, including a brand-new
e-mail server installed during the holiday break. If you quit using BSC
I urge you to come back to it. No system is spam-proof, but I think you
see a difference soon. (Incidentally, here is my prediction about spam:
soon as a few major spammers end up in jail for fraud, people will quit
it, and spam will be a thing of the past.)
The Counseling and Career Center at Brigham
Young University provides some excellent guidance for doing one's best
on all of the common types of exams on its
Test Taking Strategies page (we'll forgive them for failing to
hyphenate the title). For students in my 100-level classes, the
advice on fill-in-the-blank exams will be especially valuable. For all
students, the page includes my best test-taking advice: know the
For students in my 100-level classes, I offer
this bit of specific help. The questions on my exams at this level are
of three kinds:
A. The Wizard of (Id / Oz) is the
greatest movie ever.
Question A is answered by circling the correct
word of phrase, in this case, "Oz." Question B is answered by writing
"Garland" in the blank. Question C is simply a hybrid of the first two,
and both answers must be given for full credit.
B. Judy _______________ is a very
C. Judy _________________, a very important
actress, starred in the Wizard of (Id / Oz).
It is not possible to get partial credit for
questions of type A. These questions are therefore "easier" in the
sense that a guess has a chance of working, but they are more difficult
in the sense that one must be confident of the answer.
It may be possible to get partial credit for
writing "Davis" in the blank, because Judy Davis
is an actress, though not a "very important" one in this context.
Decisions about partial credit are at the sole discretion of the
professor, but chances are better if an answer reveals some
understanding of the topic at hand.
For both kinds of questions, it is important
to answer every question!
For help with writing, contact the writing
center, or visit my writing page . It is my
belief that many problems with writing derive from a lack of time spent
reading. It is not a panacea, but time spent with well-written
books and periodicals can only help. If, as a busy student, you do not
have time to read the classics, I recommend that you subscribe to a
high-quality magazine such as Harper's, Atlantic Monthly,
or Smithsonian. These consistently contain article-length
pieces of excellent quality. In my experience, because of the purposes
for which they are written, introductory college textbooks, newspapers,
and news weeklies rarely contain high-quality writing.
Exam and Preparation Tips:
- Time on task. The more time spent
learning, the more will be learned. My colleague Dr. Sandra Clark cites
this rule of thumb: 1 hour for a C, 2 hours for a B, and 3 hours for an
A. She is referring to hours studying for
each hour spent in class (credit hour). This means that a
three-credit course should be
treated as a 12-hour per week obligation. We could quibble about this
formula, but I have certainly had very few students fail my classes who
devoting appropriate amounts of time to their studies. This might mean
one's other priorities when school is in session! (Dr. Rapaport at
provides excellent advice on
time management and priorities.)
- Do the reading in advance. If
readings are assigned for a given class session, read the material
before you come to class.
- Participate. My "lectures" usually
follow a question-and-answer format. Your level of participation is up
to you. The more you participate, however, the more able you will be to
retain the ideas we discuss. Do not be afraid of giving the "wrong"
answer during class. It is better to get ideas clarified during a class
session than on an exam.
- Think about what you have learned. Geography
presents some novel ways of thinking about ordinary things. Because the
subject matter is often familiar, students sometimes do not realize
they have been learning new things at a conceptual level. After each
it might be helpful to ask yourself, "What questions could somebody ask
me about what we just discussed?"
- Re-read the material. You will see
things on a second reading that you did not notice the first time,
we have discussed the material between your readings.
- Use my class notes. I usually post
class notes on my web site for each lecture. Some students bring these
notes to class in order to follow the discussion and make their own
notes on a printout of my notes. Others prefer to take their own notes
during class, and to compare them to my notes later. You might wish to
try both approaches to see what works for you. Dr. William Rappaport at
the University of Buffalo has prepared "How to
Study ," which provides very specific advice on how to use notes,
both yours and those provided by a professor. I highly recommend it.
- Study together. This tip is
redundant, but some students resist this message, so I am repeating it.
Especially if you choose to use my notes, which are mostly in the form
of questions, you will benefit from study in small groups of two or
three. You may wish to supplement
the questions in my notes with your own questions for each other.
- Get to know your classmates. This
is a corollary of the previous item. By the end of the first week of
you should have the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of at least two
- Don't wait for an exam to study. You
will retain a lot more if you study following each class session,
than cramming just before an exam. More importantly, while the class is
fresh in your mind, you will be better able to identify ideas that need
clarification, and to ask me about them.
- Take care of your body. If you
come to class well-rested, well-nourished, and well-exercised, you will
follow the discussion much better, and you will retain more. This means
that preparation for class begins the night before, when you decide
how much rest you are going to get. The same applies to
exam days, but do not limit taking care
of your body to those days. It does little good to be sharp and
refreshed on exam day if you have been semi-comatose through most of
the class sessions. See the Health Services
office for a lot of resources that can help you maintain your physical
and mental health through a grueling semester! Remember: in the "real
world," every day is an eight-o'clock
- Study with a dictionary. Paper
is ideal, but many online
dictionaries are also available. Sometimes it is tempting to gloss
over unfamiliar words in the assigned readings. To make your reading
more effective, keep a dictionary at hand whenever you are reading.
This will not only improve your comprehension of the material, but it
will also improve your vocabulary.
- Use glossaries. Do not rely
solely on a standard dictionary, though. In geography, as in all
disciplines, some of the words we use have meanings specific to the
discipline. Many geography texts contain glossaries that describe the
discipline-specific uses of such terms.
For more study tips (and to prove I am
not crazy!), see the
College Success page at Making College Count.
- Emphasize understanding. Memorization
of your notes is not effective if you do not fully understand them.
during class and during your reading, be sure you understand what you
hearing/seeing. Keep a sheet of paper handy to write down questions to
the instructor, your tutor, or study partners.
- Use what your professor gives you.
If your professor has a web site, spend some time getting familiar with
your professor hands out articles in class that are not officially
assigned, read them anyway. If your professor maintains a bulletin
board or a collection of articles on the office door, read them. All of
these things will deepen your understanding of the professor's work,
and this certainly cannot hurt your chances in class.
How to Fail My Class
Based on my own mixed successes as an undergraduate and my observations
of a couple thousand students in the classes I teach, I have the
suggestions for failing a class. I will not tell which of these are
my own experience!
(probably works for other classes, too!)
Choose any two or more items from this list, and your chances of
will be more than reasonable!
- Do not bother learning the professor's name.
- Do not meet any of your classmates, and avoid studying with them.
- Use your book to hold up one end of your couch; this will prevent
you from reading it, and will help you to fail exams.
- Be sure to come to class too tired to stay awake.
- Skip class to do something more entertaining, and then just study
for an extra five minutes.
- When you get an exam back, do not look at it; this would help you
to be better prepared for later exams.
(This is especially true for my GE196 students.)
- Leave some exam questions unanswered, without even guessing.
- Skip the exam instructions.
- Talk to the people around you during class.
- When the professor is going over an exam that was just returned,
ignore the professor and compare notes with the people sitting around
- Avoid reading the syllabus.
Finally, what not to do:
A student reported for a final examination that consisted of only
true-false questions (this was not one of Dr. H-B's exams!).
The student took a seat in the hall, stared at the question paper
for five minutes, removed a coin and started tossing the coin and
marking the answer sheet, true for heads and false for tails.
After quickly completing the exam, the student remained seated
quietly while the rest of the class worked diligently.
Suddenly, with only a few minutes remaining in the exam period, the
student began desperately tossing the coin, anxiously swearing and
The professor, alarmed, approached the student and asked what was
going on. The student replied, "Well, I finished the exam, but I just
should go back and check my answers!"
Return to my Not-the-13th-Grade page.
Any questions? Contact me at
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College