John's Ideas for Doing Better in Class
J.H. Miller, 1997-2003 (c)
Who should be reading this?
If you have received a below average grade on a major exam, or
are averaging a C or below, you should definitely be reading
and acting on these suggestions. Moreover,
if you would just like to do better, regardless of your grade, take a look.
How can I do better in this class?
Through the years, I've noticed that students have trouble for a variety
of reasons. Regardless of the reason, there seem to be a lot of simple
actions that you can undertake that often have surprisingly positive impacts
on your learning (and, through this, better grades).
Below is a list of actions you can take to improve your grade. Of course,
reading this list is not enough, you must take
Make sure your life is not in chaos:
It is obviously going to be hard to learn if your life outside of the
class is in chaos. Some chaos in life surrounding family, finances, personal
relationships, etc., is normal, but in rare instances
it becomes overwhelming. If you have such major issues
disrupting many aspects of your life (one sign of this is that
you suddenly find yourself doing poorly in all of your classes),
then you should get some help.
The office of student affairs (x8-2073) is designed to help you handle these
issues---don't be shy about contacting them.
Take responsibility for your performance and for taking action to improve it:
While we are always subject to ``bad luck'' and unfortunate circumstances,
ultimately it is up to you to make the best of the situation. Poor performance
may be influenced by being sick, by me giving a lousy lecture or an ``unfair''
exam, etc., but it is largely a function of your
actions and behavior. Moreover, it is not my (or the TA's, or your parents')
responsibility to seek you out and improve your performance, it is up to you
to take on this responsibility.
Take full responsibility both for your performance, and for improving it.
Don't ignore the signals:
If you do poorly on an exam or on a homework, something is wrong.
If you find yourself cramming the night before an exam, staying up all night
doing school work, missing one class to complete work for another,
etc., something is wrong.
If you wait too long to act on such signals, there will be little anyone can
do (including yourself) to help. Don't ignore such signals, but rather act
on them immediately.
It is going to be hard to do well in a class, if you don't know when assignments
and exams are occurring, how much they are worth in terms of your grade, and
what you should be reading when. Get a calendar
(it can be a nerd-like pocket organizer, wall calendar, etc.)
and mark down all of these dates for all of your classes for the entire
semester. (Of course, these dates may change, but that is fine.)
You should always know what assignments are due, how much they are worth, and
what is left in a given course.
Once you get organized, begin to think ahead.
You should always be roughly aware of what is coming up over the next month, and
have a very specific idea of what is expected of you over the next two weeks.
If a bad week is ahead, figure out what you can do now
to make it go better later.
Sometimes assignments are surprises, but for the most part you should have
a lot of lead time to complete most of your work---make sure you use this.
Being able to slowly complete an assignment before a deadline will lower
your stress considerably and make for a better project.
For big assignments or exams, mark in your calendar start dates that give
you a reasonable head start and some guidance as to what you should be doing
at that date (for example, big paper due in one
month, get outline finished and approved, etc.).
Go to class:
You need to go to class, every time! There is no excuse not to attend class.
It highlights the most important material, it presents this material in a way
that is very conducive to learning, it allows you to clarify misunderstanding,
it keeps you up to date on changes in requirements, etc.
If you are sick and near death, then perhaps you shouldn't go to
class, but otherwise I can think of few legitimate excuses not to go.
(BTW, calculate some time the amount of tuition you (or someone else) pays,
One reason lectures don't always make sense is that you have not developed
enough of a context in which to frame the lecture. Reading the required
material before it is discussed in class (even quickly) gives you this context,
and will really help you understand what is going on in lecture.
An added bonus is that when you go back to read the material (you are going
back to read it, right?), it will have some familiarity and go much easier.
Take good notes:
Having the right attitude when you take notes can really help. I've found
that one useful attitude is to take notes
so that you would be able to teach the material that
is being covered to others.
You need to make sure to get down the major topics, and have sufficient material
so that you can recreate and understand what was going on in class that day.
Moreover, always review the notes that you just took on the same day
as that of the class, and make sure that they make sense to you at that time
(if they don't,
highlight them so that you can get them clarified from
either friends or during the beginning of next class).
When you review your notes, feel free to add additional clarifying comments
to what you have written. If you wait (even a day) to review your notes, you
will find that it is much more difficult to clarify them.
In the end, ten minutes of review at the end of each class, will save hours
of effort when, weeks later, you try to figure out why you wrote what you did.
Finally, you should occasionally compare your notes to those of a few other classmates
(preferably some of which are doing very well), and see whether or not
there is something you can learn from how they take notes versus what you
Ask questions in class (or just after class):
If you don't understand something, ask a question about it as soon as possible.
Getting an early questioned answered, will often make later questions unnecessary.
Don't be shy, and get things right the first time.
Form a good study group:
Forming a study group can often help. During these groups you can review
what went on in class, talk about answers to old exam questions, homework
problems, etc. The best study groups are relatively small, have participants
at a variety of skill levels, and are ``professional'' in the sense that
they meet at a particular time, last for a predetermined length, and during
the session are focused on the material at hand (because of this, you may
want to get a group together that is composed of people you don't know all
that well). If you want help finding a study group please let me know.
If you are doing excellent on the material in the class, forming a study
group is a great way to help others while simultaneously helping yourself
develop a deep understanding of the material.
Don't ignore the material you do poorly on.
There is a tendency to ignore material that went poorly (out of sight, out
of mind). When you do poorly on something, spend some time to figure out
why. Did you miss points all over the place, or only on particular parts?
If it is an exam, did you study for all the questions that were asked?
Always do the following:
Go back through the material, and using your notes and readings do the best you can to figure out the correct answers. (Do this before you look over the key.)
Next, check the key and see which questions you still need help on,
and go get help.
Finally, use all of the above information to improve.
What kinds of questions do you need
more work on? What changes can you make to your study habits that will
avoid the problems that occurred?
You may want to sit down with me or a TA to help sort this stuff out.
Finally, after you feel comfortable with the material that you had
trouble with, get another assignment/exam on the same material (perhaps
something from previous years---ask me for suggestions) and
complete this to make sure you now understand the material.
Take advantage of the resources available to help you:
Typically there are a lot of resources available to help students do
better. Office hours are remarkably under used (except for the day before an exam,
in which case they are over used), extra recitations
are attended by only a few students, etc. Use these resources to improve
your performance. If you find that you are using one of these resources and
it is not effective, let me know and we will see what we can do to make it
better meet your needs.
If you have any ideas and suggestions that might help others do
better in classes, please let me know and I will incorporate them
into this document.
John H. Miller ,