A Personal Definition of College Success
How do you define college success? The definition really depends on you. You might think that “success” is earning an associate’s degree or attending classes in a four-year college. Maybe success is a bachelor’s or master’s degree or a PhD. Maybe success means receiving a certificate of completion or finishing skill-based training.
You might be thinking of other measures of college success, too—like grades. For instance, you might be unhappy with anything less than an A in a course although maybe this depends on the difficulty of the subject. As long as you pass with a C, you might be perfectly content. But no matter how you define success personally, you probably wouldn’t think it means earning a D or lower grade in a class.
So, if most students believe that passing a class is the minimum requirement for “success,” and if most students want to be successful in their courses, why aren’t more college students consistently successful in the classroom?
Perhaps some common misconceptions are at play. For example, we often hear students say, “I just can’t do it!” or “I’m not good at math,” or “I guess college isn’t for me . . . ,” or “I’m not smart enough.” But these explanations for success or failure aren’t necessarily accurate. Considerable research into college success reveals that having difficulty in or failing in college courses usually has nothing to do with intellect. More often success depends on how fully a student embraces and masters the seven strategies outlined later in this section.
Free-write on what success means to you in college and beyond. You might want to consider the following:
- What people do you consider to be successful and why?
- What is your definition of success?
- What will you do to achieve success?
- What is the biggest change you need to make in order to be successful in college?
- How will you know you’ve achieved success?
Finally, remember that we can’t be successful, all the time, at everything. We have to balance our energy and our focus to get what we really want. The following video stresses the external factors that shape what we consider “success” as a society and encourages us to think beyond these factors to determine what it really is that motivates us, personally–what we hope will define us, and our value, to others.
Strategies to Achieve Success
Considerable research into college success reveals that intellect usually has nothing to do with having difficulty with, or failing, college courses. More often, success depends on how fully you embrace and master the following seven strategies:
- Learn how to take effective notes in class.
- Review the text and your reading notes prior to class.
- Participate in class discussion and maybe even join a study group.
- Go to the office after hours, and ask your instructor questions.
- Give yourself enough time to research, write, and edit your essays-- in manageable stages.
- Take advantage of online or on-campus academic support resources.
- Spend sufficient time studying.
So, don't feel you're not smart enough for college; ask yourself if you can implement some of these skills.
Professors do care about how you are doing in their class; they genuinely want you to succeed, but they will give you the grade you earn. There are people and resources on campus for you to utilize so you can earn the grade you want. Your professors are among these resources, and are perhaps the most important. Go see them during office hours, ask them questions about the material and get extra help if you need it. … Another resource to utilize can be found in the campus learning center. … Kristen Mruk, in The Student Experience," writes "The first time I took a paper there, I recall standing outside the door for about ten minutes thinking of an excuse not to go in. Thankfully I saw a classmate walk in and I followed suit. … Thanks to that first visit, I received an A- on the paper!"
Can you make more time for learning? One approach is to create a regular study schedule and make sure you allow yourself ample time. Most college success experts agree that students should study two hours outside of class for every hour in class. Only break away from your committed schedule if an extreme situation prevents you from sticking to it.
Another strategy to consider implementing is group study. For example, rather than relying just on your own knowledge, notes, and skills, try studying with other students in your difficult classes. Studying in a group gives every group member a chance to ask questions and talk about concepts.
You can also add a tutor to your study group. You will notice a positive difference. Tutoring is generally free in college, and the strategies and knowledge you gain will be invaluable. Usually tutors have previously taken the class you are currently enrolled in, and they are trained to get the best out of you.
Overall, students struggle in college not because of intellect or 'smarts', but because of poor time management, disorganization, and lack of quality study time. You can combat this by creating a regular study schedule, studying in groups, taking advantage of your school’s academic resources such as a tutoring center, instructor office hours, and any available online help.
- Click here to view the Instructional Support presentation from California Community Colleges. It includes an audio overview of success in college.
Why Go To Class?
Students don’t always want to go to class. They may have required classes that they find difficult or don’t enjoy, or they may feel overwhelmed by other commitments or feel tired if they have early morning classes. However, even if instructors allow a certain number of unexcused absences, you should aim to attend every class session. Class attendance enhances class performance in the following ways:
- Class participation: If you don’t attend class, you can’t participate in class activities. Class activities are usually part of your final grade, and they can help you apply concepts you learn from lectures and reading assignments.
- Class interaction: If you rely on learning on your own (by doing the reading assignments outside of class, for example), you’ll miss out on class discussions with fellow students. Your classmates will often have the same questions as you, so going to class enables you to learn from them and ask your instructor about topics you all find difficult.
- Interaction with the instructor: There is a reason why classes are taught by instructors. Instructors specialize in the subjects they teach, and they can provide extra insight and perspective on the material you’re studying. Going to class gives you the chance to take notes and ask questions about the lectures. Also, the more you participate, the more your instructors will come to know you and be aware of any help or support you might need. This will make you feel more comfortable to approach them outside of class if you need advice or are struggling with the course material.
- Increased learning: Even though you will typically spend more time on coursework outside of the classroom, this makes class sessions even more valuable. Typically, in-class time will be devoted to the most challenging or key concepts covered in your textbooks. It’s important to know what these are so you can master them—also they’re likely to show up on exams.
Let’s compare students with different attitudes toward their classes:
1. Carla wants to get through college, and she knows she needs the degree to get a decent job, but she’s just not that into it. She’s never thought of herself as a good student, and that hasn’t changed much in college. She has trouble paying attention in those big lecture classes, which mostly seem pretty boring. She’s pretty sure she can pass all her courses, however, as long as she takes the time to study before tests. It doesn’t bother her to skip classes when she’s studying for a test in a different class or finishing a reading assignment she didn’t get around to earlier. She does make it through her freshman year with a passing grade in every class, even those she didn’t go to class very often. Then she fails the midterm exam in her first sophomore class. Depressed, she skips the next couple classes, then feels guilty and goes to the next. It’s even harder to stay awake because now she has no idea what they’re talking about. It’s too late to drop the course, and even a hard night of studying before the final isn’t enough to pass the course. In two other classes, she just barely passes. She has no idea what classes to take next term and is starting to think that maybe she’ll drop out for now.
2. Karen wants to have a good time in college and still do well enough to get a good job in business afterward. Her sorority keeps a file of class notes for her big lecture classes, and from talking to others and reviewing these notes, she’s discovered she can skip almost half of those big classes and still get a B or C on the tests. She stays focused on her grades, and because she has a good memory, she’s able to maintain OK grades. She doesn’t worry about talking to her instructors outside of class because she can always find out what she needs from another student. In her sophomore year, she has a quick conversation with her academic advisor and chooses her major. Those classes are smaller, and she goes to most of them, but she feels she’s pretty much figured out how it works and can usually still get the grade. In her senior year, she starts working on her résumé and asks other students in her major which instructors write the best letters of recommendation. She’s sure her college degree will land her a good job.
3. Alicia enjoys her classes, even when she has to get up early after working or studying late the night before. She sometimes gets so excited by something she learns in class that she rushes up to the instructor after class to ask a question. In class discussions, she’s not usually the first to speak out, but by the time another student has given an opinion, she’s had time to organize her thoughts and enjoys arguing her ideas. Nearing the end of her sophomore year and unsure of what to major in given her many interests, she talks things over with one of her favorite instructors, whom she has gotten to know through office visits. The instructor gives her some insights into careers in that field and helps her explore her interests. She takes two more courses with this instructor over the next year, and she’s comfortable in her senior year going to him to ask for a job reference. When she does, she’s surprised and thrilled when he urges her to apply for a high-level paid internship with a company in the field—that happens to be run by a friend of his.
Think about the differences in the attitudes of these three students and how they approach their classes. One’s attitude toward learning, toward going to class, and toward the whole college experience is a huge factor in how successful a student will be. Make it your goal to attend every class; don’t even think about not going. Going to class is the first step in engaging in your education by interacting with the instructor and other students. Here are some reasons why it’s important to attend every class:
Miss a class and you’ll miss something, even if you never know it. Even if a friend gives you notes for the class, they cannot contain everything said or shown by the instructor or written on the board for emphasis or questioned or commented on by other students. What you miss might affect your grade or your enthusiasm for the course. Why go to college at all if you’re not going to go to college? While some students may say that you don’t have to go to every class to do well on a test, that is very often a myth. Do you want to take that risk? Your final grade often reflects how you think about course concepts, and you will think more often and more clearly when engaged in class discussions and hearing the comments of other students. You can’t get this by borrowing class notes from a friend. Research shows there is a correlation between absences from class and lower grades. It may be that missing classes causes lower grades or that students with lower grades miss more classes. Either way, missing classes and lower grades can be intertwined in a downward spiral of achievement. Your instructor will note your absences, even in a large class. In addition to making a poor impression, you reduce your opportunities for future interactions. You might not ask a question the next class because of the potential embarrassment of the instructor saying that was covered in the last class, which you apparently missed. Nothing is more insulting to an instructor than when you skip a class and then show up to ask, “Did I miss anything important?” You might be tempted to skip a class because the instructor is “boring,” but it’s more likely that you found the class boring because you weren’t very attentive or didn’t appreciate how the instructor was teaching. You paid a lot of money for your tuition. Get your money’s worth!
Stages of the Listening Process
Listening is a skill of critical significance in all aspects of our lives, from maintaining our personal relationships, to getting our jobs done, to taking notes in class, to figuring out which bus to take to the airport. Regardless of how we’re engaged with listening, it’s important to understand that listening involves more than just hearing the words that are directed at us. Listening is an active process by which we make sense of, assess, and respond to what we hear.
The listening process involves five stages: receiving, understanding, evaluating, remembering, and responding. These stages will be discussed in more detail in later sections. Basically, an effective listener must hear and identify the speech sounds directed toward them, understand the message of those sounds, critically evaluate or assess that message, remember what’s been said, and respond (either verbally or nonverbally) to information they’ve received.
Effectively engaging with all five stages of the listening process lets us best gather the information we need from the world around us.
Active listening is a particular communication technique that requires the listener to provide feedback on what he or she hears to the speaker, by way of restating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words. The goal of this repetition is to confirm what the listener has heard and to confirm the understanding of both parties. The ability to actively listen demonstrates sincerity, and that nothing is being assumed or taken for granted. Active listening is most often used to improve personal relationships, reduce misunderstanding and conflicts, strengthen cooperation, and foster understanding.
When engaging with a particular speaker, a listener can use several degrees of active listening, each resulting in a different quality of communication with the speaker. Active listening can also involve paying attention to the speaker’s behavior and body language. Having the ability to interpret a person’s body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker’s message.
Stage 1: The Receiving Stage
The first stage of the listening process is the receiving stage, which involves hearing and attending.
Hearing is the physiological process of registering sound waves as they hit the eardrum. As obvious as it may seem, in order to effectively gather information through listening, we must first be able to physically hear what we’re listening to. The clearer the sound, the easier the listening process becomes.
Paired with hearing, attending is the other half of the receiving stage in the listening process. Attending is the process of accurately identifying and interpreting particular sounds we hear as words. The sounds we hear have no meaning until we give them their meaning in context. Listening is an active process that constructs meaning from both verbal and nonverbal messages.
The Challenges of Reception
Listeners are often bombarded with a variety of auditory stimuli all at once, so they must differentiate which of those stimuli are speech sounds and which are not. Effective listening involves being able to focus in on speech sounds while disregarding other noise. For instance, a train passenger that hears the captain’s voice over the loudspeaker understands that the captain is speaking, then deciphers what the captain is saying despite other voices in the cabin. Another example is trying to listen to a friend tell a story while walking down a busy street. In order to best listen to what she’s saying, the listener needs to ignore the ambient street sounds.
Attending also involves being able to discern human speech, also known as “speech segmentation." Identifying auditory stimuli as speech but not being able to break those speech sounds down into sentences and words would be a failure of the listening process. Discerning speech segmentation can be a more difficult activity when the listener is faced with an unfamiliar language.
Stage 2: The Understanding Stage
The second stage in the listening process is the understanding stage. Understanding or comprehension is “shared meaning between parties in a communication transaction” and constitutes the first step in the listening process. This is the stage during which the listener determines the context and meanings of the words he or she hears. Determining the context and meaning of individual words, as well as assigning meaning in language, is essential to understanding sentences. This, in turn, is essential to understanding a speaker’s message.
Once the listeners understands the speaker’s main point, they can begin to sort out the rest of the information they are hearing and decide where it belongs in their mental outline. For example, a political candidate listens to her opponent’s arguments to understand what policy decisions that opponent supports.
Before getting the big picture of a message, it can be difficult to focus on what the speaker is saying. Think about walking into a lecture class halfway through. You may immediately understand the words and sentences that you are hearing, but not immediately understand what the lecturer is explaining or whether what you’re hearing at the moment is the main point, side note, or digression.
Understanding what we hear is a huge part of our everyday lives, particularly in terms of gathering basic information. In the office, people listen to their superiors for instructions about what they are to do. At school, students listen to teachers to learn new ideas. We listen to political candidates give policy speeches in order to determine who will get our vote. But without understanding what we hear, none of this everyday listening would relay any practical information to us.
One tactic for better understanding a speaker’s meaning is to ask questions. Asking questions allows the listener to fill in any holes he or she may have in the mental reconstruction of the speaker’s message.
Stage 3: The Evaluating Stage
This stage of the listening process is the one during which the listener assesses the information they received, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Evaluating allows the listener to form an opinion of what they heard and, if necessary, to begin developing a response.
During the evaluating stage, the listener determines whether or not the information they heard and understood from the speaker is well constructed or disorganized, biased or unbiased, true or false, significant or insignificant. They also ascertain how and why the speaker has come up with and conveyed the message that they delivered. This may involve considerations of a speaker’s personal or professional motivations and goals. For example, a listener may determine that a co-worker’s vehement condemnation of another for jamming the copier is factually correct, but may also understand that the co-worker’s child is sick and that may be putting them on edge. A voter who listens to and understands the points made in a political candidate’s stump speech can decide whether or not those points were convincing enough to earn their vote.
The evaluating stage occurs most effectively once the listener fully understands what the speaker is trying to say. While we can, and sometimes do, form opinions of information and ideas that we don’t fully understand—or even that we misunderstand—doing so is not often ideal in the long run. Having a clear understanding of a speaker’s message allows a listener to evaluate that message without getting bogged down in ambiguities or spending unnecessary time and energy addressing points that may be tangential or otherwise nonessential.
This stage of critical analysis is important for a listener in terms of how what they heard will affect their own ideas, decisions, actions, and/or beliefs.
Stage 4: The Responding Stage
The responding stage is the stage of the listening process wherein the listener provides verbal and/or nonverbal reactions based on short- or long-term memory. Following the remembering stage, a listener can respond to what they hear either verbally or non-verbally. Nonverbal signals can include gestures such as nodding, making eye contact, tapping a pen, fidgeting, scratching or cocking their head, smiling, rolling their eyes, grimacing, or any other body language. These kinds of responses can be displayed purposefully or involuntarily. Responding verbally might involve asking a question, requesting additional information, redirecting or changing the focus of a conversation, cutting off a speaker, or repeating what a speaker has said back to her in order to verify that the received message matches the intended message.
Nonverbal responses like nodding or eye contact allow the listener to communicate their level of interest without interrupting the speaker, thereby preserving the speaker/listener roles. When a listener responds verbally to what they hear and remember—for example, with a question or a comment—the speaker/listener roles are reversed, at least momentarily.
Responding adds action to the listening process, which would otherwise be an outwardly passive process. Oftentimes, the speaker looks for verbal and nonverbal responses from the listener to determine if and how their message is being understood and/or considered. Based on the listener’s responses, the speaker can choose to either adjust or continue with the delivery of her message. For example, if a listener’s brow is furrowed and their arms are crossed, the speaker may determine that she needs to lighten her tone to better communicate her point. If a listener is smiling and nodding or asking questions, the speaker may feel that the listener is engaged and her message is being communicated effectively.
Stage 5: The Remembering Stage
In the listening process, the remembering stage occurs as the listener categorizes and retains the information she’s gathered from the speaker for future access. The result–memory–allows the person to record information about people, objects, and events for later recall. This happens both during and after the speaker’s delivery.
Memory is essential throughout the listening process. We depend on our memory to fill in the blanks when we’re listening and to let us place what we’re hearing at the moment in the context of what we’ve heard before. If, for example, you forgot everything that you heard immediately after you heard it, you would not be able to follow along with what a speaker says, and conversations would be impossible. Moreover, a friend who expresses fear about a dog she sees on the sidewalk ahead can help you recall that the friend began the conversation with her childhood memory of being attacked by a dog.
Remembering previous information is critical to moving forward. Similarly, making associations to past remembered information can help a listener understand what she is currently hearing in a wider context. In listening to a lecture about the symptoms of depression, for example, a listener might make a connection to the description of a character in a novel that she read years before.
Using information immediately after receiving it enhances information retention and lessens the forgetting curve or the rate at which we no longer retain information in our memory. Conversely, retention is lessened when we engage in mindless listening, and little effort is made to understand a speaker’s message.
Because everyone has different memories, the speaker and the listener may attach different meanings to the same statement. In this sense, establishing common ground in terms of context is extremely important, both for listeners and speakers.
The Learning Cycle
Too many students try to get the grade just by going to class, maybe a little note taking, and then cramming through the text right before an exam they feel unprepared for. Sound familiar? This approach may have worked for you in high school where tests and quizzes were more frequent and teachers prepared study guides for you, but colleges require you to take responsibility for your learning and to be better prepared.
Most students simply have not learned how to study and don’t understand how learning works. Learning is actually a cycle of four steps:
When you get in the habit of paying attention to this cycle, it becomes relatively easy to study well. But you must use all four steps.
Listening and note taking are closely related. Good listening skills make you a better note taker, and taking good notes can help you listen better. Both are key study skills to help you do better in your classes.
Effective Listening Strategies
Are you a good listener? Most of us like to think we are, but when we really think about it, we recognize that we are often only half listening. We’re distracted, thinking about other things, or formulating what we are going to say in reaction to what we are hearing before the speaker has even finished. Effective listening is one of the most important learning tools you can have in college. And it is a skill that will benefit you on the job and help your relationships with others. Listening is nothing more than purposefully focusing on what a speaker is saying with the objective of understanding.
This definition is straightforward, but there are some important concepts that deserve a closer look. “Purposefully focusing” implies that you are actively processing what the speaker is saying, not just letting the sounds of their voice register in your senses. “With the objective of understanding” means that you will learn enough about what the speaker is saying to be able to form your own thoughts about the speaker’s message. Listening is an active process, as opposed to hearing, which is passive.
You listen to others in many situations: to interact with friends, to get instructions for a task, or to learn new material. There are two general types of listening situations: where you will be able to interact freely with the speaker (everyday conversations, small discussion classes, business meetings) and where interaction is limited (lectures and Webcasts).
In interactive situations, you should apply the basic principles of active listening. These are not hard to understand, but they are hard to implement and require practice to use them effectively.
Principles of Active Listening
- Focus on what is being said. Give the speaker your undivided attention. Clear your mind of anything else.
- Don’t prejudge or assume you already know the material. You want to understand what the person is saying; you don’t need to agree with it.
- Repeat what you just heard. Confirm with the speaker that what you heard is what he or she said.
- Ask the speaker to expand or clarify. If you are unsure you understand, ask questions; don’t assume.
- Listen for verbal cues and watch for nonverbal cues.Verbal cues are things your instructor says that communicates the importance. Examples are, “this is an important point” or “I want to make sure everyone understands this concept.” Your instructor is telling you what is most important. Nonverbal cues come from facial expressions, body positioning, arm gestures, and tone of voice. Examples include when the instructor repeats herself, gets louder, or starts using more hand gestures.
- Listen for requests. A speaker will often hide a request as a statement of a problem. If a friend says, “I hate math!” this may mean, “Can you help me figure out a solution to this problem?”
Listening in a classroom or lecture hall to learn can be challenging because you are limited by how, and how much, you can interact with an instructor during the class. The following strategies help make listening at lectures more effective and learning more fun.
- Get your mind in the right space. Prepare yourself mentally to receive the information the speaker is presenting by following the previous prep questions and by doing your assignments (instructors build upon work presented earlier).
- Get yourself in the right space. Sit toward the front of the room where you can make eye contact with the instructor easily. Most instructors read the body language of the students in the front rows to gauge how they are doing and if they are losing the class. Instructors also believe students who sit near the front of the room take their subject more seriously and are more willing to give them help when needed or to give them the benefit of the doubt when making a judgment call while assigning grades.
- Eliminate distractions. There are two types of distractions: internal and external distractions.
- Internal distractions are things like being hungry, tired, or distracted with other thoughts. Try to manage these by being well-rested and having a healthy meal before class.
- External distractions are things like a ringing cell phone or people talking in the hallway. To manage these distractions, turn your cell phone off and pack it away in your backpack. If you are using your laptop for notes, close all applications except the one that you use to take notes.
- Look for signals. Each instructor has a different way of telling you what is important. Some will repeat or paraphrase an idea; others will raise (or lower) their voices; others will write related words on the board. Learn what signals your instructors tend to use and be on the lookout for them. When they use that tactic, the idea they are presenting needs to go in your notes and in your mind—and don’t be surprised if it appears on a test or quiz!
- Listen for what is not being said. If an instructor doesn’t cover a subject or covers it only minimally, this signals that that material is not as important as other ideas covered in greater length.
- Sort the information. Decide what is important and what is not, what is clear and what is confusing, and what is new material and what is a review. This mental organizing will help you remember the information, take better notes, and ask better questions.
- Take notes. We cover taking notes in much greater detail later, but for now, think about how taking notes can help recall what your instructor said and how notes can help you organize your thoughts for asking questions.
- Ask questions. Asking questions is one of the most important things you can do in class. Most obviously it allows you to clear up any doubts you may have about the material, but it also helps you take ownership of (and therefore remember) the material. Good questions often help instructors expand upon their ideas and make the material more relevant to students. Thinking through the material critically in order to prepare your questions helps you organize your new knowledge and sort it into mental categories that will help you remember it.
What to Do If…
- Your instructor speaks too fast. Crank up your preparation. The more you know about the subject, the more you’ll be able to pick up from the instructor. Exchange class notes with other students to fill in gaps in notes. Visit the instructor during office hours to clarify areas you may have missed. You might ask the instructor—very politely, of course—to slow down, but habits like speaking fast are hard to break!
- Your instructor has a heavy accent. Sit as close to the instructor as possible. Make connections between what the instructor seems to be saying and what he or she is presenting on the board or screen. Ask questions when you don’t understand. Visit the instructor during office hours; the more you speak with the instructor the more likely you will learn to understand the accent.
- Your instructor speaks softly or mumbles. Sit as close to the instructor as possible and try to hold eye contact as much as possible. Check with other students if they are having problems listening, too; if so, you may want to bring the issue up with the instructor. It may be that the instructor is not used to the lecture hall your class is held in and can easily make adjustments.
Now That’s a Good Question…
Are you shy about asking questions? Do you think that others in the class will ridicule you for asking a dumb question? Students sometimes feel this way because they have never been taught how to ask questions. Practice these steps, and soon you will be on your way to customizing each course to meet your needs and letting the instructor know you value the course.
- Be prepared. Doing your assignments for a class or lecture will give you a good idea about the areas you are having trouble with and will help you frame some questions ahead of time.
- Position yourself for success. Sit near the front of the class. It will be easier for you to make eye contact with the instructor as you ask the question. Also, you won’t be intimidated by a class full of heads turning to stare at you as you ask your question.
- Don’t wait. Ask your questions as soon as the instructor has finished a thought. Being one of the first students to ask a question also will ensure that your question is given the time it deserves and won’t be cut short by the end of class.
- In a lecture class, write your questions down. Make sure you jot your questions down as they occur to you. Some may be answered in the course of the lecture, but if the instructor asks you to hold your questions until the end of class, you’ll be glad you have a list of the items you need the instructor to clarify or expand on.
- Ask specific questions. “I don’t understand” is a statement, not a question. Give the instructor guidance about what you are having trouble with. “Can you clarify the use of the formula for determining velocity?” is a better way of asking for help. If you ask your question at the end of class, give the instructor some context for your question by referring to the part of the lecture that triggered the question. For example, “Professor, you said the Union troops were emboldened by Lincoln’s leadership. Was this throughout the Civil War or only after Gettysburg?”
- Don’t ask questions for the sake of asking questions. If your question is not thought out, or if it appears that you are asking the question to try to look smart, instructors will see right through you!
Effective Participation Strategies
Like listening, participating in class will help you get more out of class. It may also help you stand out as a student. Instructors notice the students who participate in class (and those who don’t), and participation is often a component of the final grade. “Participation” may include contributing to discussions, class activities, or projects. It means being actively involved. The following are some strategies for effective participation:
- Be a team player: Although most students have classmates they prefer to work with, they should be willing to collaborate in different types of groups. Teamwork demonstrates that a student can adapt to and learn in different situations.
- Share meaningful questions and comments: Some students speak up in class repeatedly if they know that participation is part of their grade. Although there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, it’s a good practice to focus on quality vs. quantity. For instance, a quieter student who raises her hand only twice during a discussion but provides thoughtful comments might be more noticeable to an instructor than a student who chimes in with everything that’s said.
- Be prepared: As with listening, effective participation relies on coming to class prepared. Students should complete all reading assignments beforehand and also review any notes from the previous meeting. This way they can come to class ready to discuss and engage. Be sure to write down any questions or comments you have—this is an especially good strategy for quieter students or those who need practice thinking on their feet.
Guidelines for Participating in Classes
Smaller classes generally favor discussion, but often instructors in large lecture classes also make some room for participation.
A concern or fear about speaking in public is one of the most common fears. If you feel afraid to speak out in class, take comfort from the fact that many others do as well—and that anyone can learn how to speak in class without much difficulty. Class participation is actually an impromptu, informal type of public speaking, and the same principles will get you through both: preparing and communicating.
- Set yourself up for success by coming to class fully prepared.
- Complete reading assignments.
- Review your notes on the reading and the previous class to get yourself in the right mindset.
- If there is something you don’t understand well, start formulating your question now.
- Sit in the front with a good view of the instructor, board, or screen, as well as other visual aids. In a lecture hall, this will help you hear better, pay better attention, and make a good impression on the instructor. Don’t sit with friends—socializing isn’t what you’re there for.
- Remember that your body language communicates as much as anything you say. Sit up and look alert with a pleasant expression on your face, and make good eye contact with the instructor. Show some enthusiasm.
- Pay attention to the instructor’s body language, which can communicate much more than just their words. How instructors move and gesture, and the looks on their faces, will add meaning to the words—and will also cue you when it’s a good time to ask a question or stay silent.
- Take good notes, but don’t write obsessively—and never page through your textbook (or browse on a laptop).
- Don’t eat or play with your cell phone.
- Except when writing brief notes, keep your eyes on the instructor.
- Follow class protocol for making comments and asking questions.
- In a small class, the instructor may encourage students to ask questions at any time, while in some large lecture classes the instructor may ask for questions at the end of the lecture. In this case, jot your questions in your notes so that you don’t forget them later.
- Don’t say or ask anything just to try to impress your instructor. Most instructors have been teaching long enough to immediately recognize insincere flattery—and the impression this makes is just the opposite of what you want.
- Pay attention to the instructor’s thinking style. Does this instructor emphasize theory more than facts, wide perspectives over specific ideas, abstractions more than concrete experience? Take a cue from your instructor’s approach and try to think in similar terms when participating in class.
- It’s fine to disagree with your instructor when you ask or answer a question. Many instructors invite challenges. Before speaking up, however, be sure you can explain why you disagree and give supporting evidence or reasons. Be respectful.
- Pay attention to your communication style. Use standard English when you ask or answer a question, not slang. Avoid sarcasm and joking around. Be assertive when you participate in class, showing confidence in your ideas while being respectful of the ideas of others. But avoid an aggressive style that attacks the ideas of others or is strongly emotional.
When your instructor asks a question to the class:
- Raise your hand and make eye contact, but don’t call out or wave your hand all around trying to catch the instructor's
- Before speaking, take a moment to gather your thoughts and take a deep breath. Don’t just blurt it out—speak calmly and clearly.
When your instructor asks you a question directly:
- Be honest and admit it if you don’t know the answer or are not sure. Don’t try to fake it or make excuses. With a question that involves a reasoned opinion more than a fact, it’s fine to explain why you haven’t decided yet, such as when weighing two opposing ideas or actions; your comment may stimulate further discussion.
- Organize your thoughts to give a sufficient answer. Instructors seldom want a yes or no answer. Give your answer and provide reasons or evidence in support.
When you want to ask the instructor a question:
- Don’t ever feel a question is “stupid.” If you have been paying attention in class and have done the reading and you still don’t understand something, you have every right to ask.
- Ask at the appropriate time. Don’t interrupt the instructor or jump ahead and ask a question about something the instructor may be starting to explain. Wait for a natural pause and a good moment to ask. On the other hand, unless the instructor asks students to hold all question until the end of class, don’t let too much time go by, or you may forget the question or its relevance to the topic.
- Don’t ask just because you weren’t paying attention. If you drift off during the first half of class and then realize in the second half that you don’t really understand what the instructor is talking about now, don’t ask a question about something that was already covered.
- Don’t ask a question that is really a complaint. You may be thinking, “Why would so-and-so believe that? That’s just crazy!” Take a moment to think about what you might gain from asking the question. It’s better to say, “I’m having some difficulty understanding what so-and-so is saying here. What evidence did he use to argue for that position?”
- Avoid dominating a discussion. It may be appropriate in some cases to make a follow-up comment after the instructor answers your question, but don’t try to turn the class into a one-on-one conversation between you and the instructor.
If You Must Miss a Class…
- Plan in advance: Although nobody can plan to be sick, students should give their instructors advanced notice if they know they will need to miss class for something like a doctor’s appointment. This is not only respectful to the instructor, but he or she may be able to give you any handouts or assignments that you might otherwise miss. If you anticipate that class will be canceled on account of bad weather, etc., make sure you have all the materials, notes, etc. that you need to work at home. In college, “snow days” are rarely “free days”—i.e., expect that you will be responsible for all the work due on those days when school reopens.
- Talk to fellow students: Ask to borrow class notes from one or two classmates who are reliable note takers. Be sure to also ask them about any announcements or assignments the instructor made during the class you missed.
- Talk to your instructor: Even if you have already emailed or called your instructor, check in with him or her before or after the next class period to collect any missed handouts and ask if anything was assigned. Most college classes use a learning management system (such as Canvas in California community colleges). Check your class on the learning management system to see if any handouts or notes are posted there. While you can’t expect the instructor to repeat the lecture, you can ask what you should do to stay caught up. But remember the worst thing you can say to an instructor: “I missed class—did you talk about anything important?”
- Do the reading assignment(s) and any other homework. Take notes on any readings to be discussed in the class you missed. If you have questions on the reading or homework, seek help from your classmates. Completing the homework and coming prepared for the next session will demonstrate to your instructor that you are still dedicated to the class.
Megan is currently taking two classes: geology and American literature. In her geology class, the instructor lectures for the full class time and gives reading assignments. In Megan’s literature class, however, the instructor relies on class discussions, small group discussions, and occasionally even review games. Megan enjoys her literature class, but she struggles to feel engaged and interested in geology. What strategies can Megan use to stay motivated and involved in both of her courses?
Think about the college classes you’ve taken so far. Like Megan, you may feel like it’s a mixed bag: you probably enjoyed the courses with a variety of teaching styles and learning activities the most. Even if you’re a quieter, more reserved student who dislikes lots of group discussions, you probably prefer to have some class projects or writing assignments rather than lectures alone. Group projects, discussions, and writing are examples of active learning because they involve doing something. Active learning happens when students participate in their education through activities that enhance learning. Those activities may involve just thinking about what you’re learning. Active learning can take place both in and out of the classroom. The following are examples of activities that can facilitate active engagement in the classroom.
- Class discussions: Class discussions can help students stay focused because they feature different voices besides that of the instructor. Students can also hear one another’s questions and comments and learn from one another. Such discussions may involve the entire class, or the instructor may organize smaller groups, giving quieter students a greater chance to talk. Another method is to create online discussion boards so that students have more time to develop their ideas and comments and keep the conversation going.
- Writing assignments: Instructors may ask students to write short reaction papers or journal entries about lessons or reading assignments. Such assignments can help you review or reflect on what you just learned to aid you in understanding and remembering the material. It also provides a means of communicating questions and concerns to your instructors.
- Student-led teaching: Many instructors believe that a true test of whether students understand concepts is being able to teach the material to others. For that reason, instructors will sometimes have students work in groups and research a topic or review assigned readings, and then prepare a mini presentation and teach it to the rest of the class. This activity can help students feel more accountable for their learning and work harder since classmates will be relying on them.
Group discussions are examples of active learning that encourage students to participate in their education.
Success in Being a Responsible College Student
Being a responsible college student is another mark of success. College life differs in many ways from high school and knowing what is expected from you is important to succeed in college. Some key differences to keep in mind:
- There are more rules in high school than in college so you have to make decisions responsibly.
- In college, it’s up to you to make sure you understand the material being covered in class. It’s your responsibility to keep up with the readings and assignments.
- In high school, your teachers made sure you understand facts and skills, and now that you’re in college, it’s up to you to apply what you have learned. Always consider how what you are learning can apply to your other classes or your future career.
- In college, the professors expect you to participate more actively in reviews for exams and quizzes. Come to class with questions.
The following video clip is a brief, informal student discussion about the challenges you may face as a student and provides examples of issues students face in transitioning from high school to college. The two main problems identified in the video are time management and working in groups. Multiple strategies and solutions are shared by the students. Click on the “cc” box underneath the video to activate the closed captioning.
- What are some recommendations that you’ve heard from your high school teachers that helped you prepare for college? Make a short list of the advice you got from your previous teachers.
Overall in college, you demonstrate that you are a responsible student when you do the following:
- Uphold the values of honesty and academic integrity.
- Arrive on time and prepared for all classes, meetings, academic activities, and special events.
- Give attention to quality and excellence in completing assignments.
- Allot sufficient time to fulfill responsibilities outside of class.
- Observe etiquette in all communications, giving respect to instructors, fellow students, staff and the larger college community.
- Take full advantage of college resources available to you.
- Respect diversity in people, ideas, and opinions.
- Achieve educational goals in an organized, committed, and proactive manner.
- Take full responsibility for personal behavior.
- Comply with all college policies.
By allowing these overarching principles to be your guide, you are embracing responsibility and making choices that lead to college success.
Major College Resources and How To Use Them
College resources to help you reach your educational and career goals are plentiful on most campuses. Here are several campus resources to know about and find early in your college career. You may not need them right away; some you may not need at all. But you will find several to be vital. So, be familiar with your options, and know where to find the services. Store contact information and visit any center for help.
Most colleges and universities assign an academic adviser to each student. The adviser may be associated with your major. There may also be an office or department that provides advising. Meet your adviser or visit the advising office if you have an issue regarding academics or need any other help.
Tutoring and Writing Centers
Tutoring and writing centers are established for all students, and seeking help from them is expected and to your advantage. Such services are covered by your tuition dollars, and they can richly enhance performance in any area of your studies. Know where to find these centers and how to schedule appointments.
Other Academic Support Facilities
Your college may also offer academic support in various other forms: for example, computer labs with trained assistants, tutors, mentors, peer advisers, and more. You can research what kinds of special support are available and be ready to take advantage of them.
Library Reference Desk
College libraries are staffed with professionals whose main function is to assist you and the college community in finding needed resources. Don’t hesitate to find the reference desk and get to know the reference librarians. Invariably you will learn about valuable resources—many of them online—that you didn’t know existed. Reference librarians are also educators, and they’re there to help you.
Campus Health Center
If you need any health services whatsoever, the campus health center should be your first destination. Step into the center and learn about the services offered, the hours of operation, emergency provisions, and routine health services available.
Counseling is an essential service that colleges and universities invariably provide. Services can ranges from life-saving care to assistance with minor concerns. Life stressors, such as deaths and divorces in the family, issues with friends, substance abuse, and suicide are just a few of the many issues that college students may experience or witness others struggling with. Don’t take matters into your own hands. Get help! The counseling center can help you and support you in gaining solid footing during difficult times. Don’t hesitate to take full advantage of the services and help they offer.
One of the most important purposes of college is to prepare students for a career. All colleges and universities have a career office that can assist you with many critical aspects of finding a suitable career. It may also help you find a campus job or review options for your major, help you get an internship, draft your résumé, and practice interview skills. Visiting the career office is a must for every student, and it’s worth doing early and often (rather than waiting until you’re about to graduate).
Most college campuses have interfaith facilities to meet the spiritual-life needs of the entire college community. You may find these facilities to be a refuge in special moments of need or resources for your ongoing involvement. A healthy spiritual life could bring greater balance to your student life.
Additional support centers that students may wish to visit include offices for financial aid, students with disabilities or learning differences, housing, diversity, student organizations, athletics, continuing education, international students, child care, and many others. Refer to your college website or the college directory for information about the many, many services that can be part of your college experience.
Contributors and Attributions
- Adapted from "Why It Matters: College Success," taken from English Composition I. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution
- Adapted from "Habits for Success," taken from Basic Reading and Writing. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution
- Adapted from College Success. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution
- Adapted from Active Listening in the Classroom. Authored by: Heather Syrett. Provided by: Austin Community College. License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright