Thursday, August 25, 2016

How to Earn A's in Every Class

THE FIRST DAY OF CLASSES IS THE MOST IMPORTANT.   This is when teachers spend the greatest amount of time telling you HOW TO EARN “A’s” in their classes by reviewing the course syllabus.  Pay close attention to this and you are on your way to an A before lectures even begin!

  • A syllabus is 5-7-page document that tells you all about your class, your assignments, and your teachers’ expectations. If your instructor plans to do a detailed review (most do) it’ll likely happen during the first class session. 
  • Print your syllabus.  Listen carefully to what the prof says, and make notes it.
  • GO TO CLASS if you are on a waitlist and it looks likely that you will get the course.
  • As an undergraduate, I used to 3-hole punch my syllabi and put them at the front of the relevant section of my notebook.  That way, I could review due dates and upcoming assignments at the beginning of each class session.
  • If you need special accommodations for learning disabilities, or if you are observant of your faith’s religious holidays, you must inform your teacher during drop/add period so that if test dates need to be changed, s/he can do so.


Course Information: course title, course number, and credit hours, and pre-requisites.  “Pre-requisite” means “knowledge required in advance.”  This is the information professors assume you know and are comfortable using.

  • Science, math, and math-dependent courses (like Economics) are highly sequenced, and instructors in class B aren’t going to review material in class A except very briefly – and only then, to “set up” the class material that follows.
  • Do not skip a pre-requisite course, especially in the sciences or Math, thinking you will somehow make it up as you go.  You won’t.
  • For the same reason, you need to bear down and do your homework thoroughly from the beginning, even if it looks “easy.”  Just because material looks “familiar” to you, doesn’t mean you could successfully complete a test question if someone handed it to you. 
  • To be “safe,” you MUST “over-compensate” and do all of your work all the time – especially in Math and Science.
Course Descriptions/Objectives. Reading through this can help orient you to the purpose of the course, the instructor's expectations, etc.  Read it carefully.  Is the course what you expected it to be?

Text, Readings, Materials. College-level instruction is heavily dependent upon reading, if not a required textbook, then a variety of shorter readings. The syllabus indicates whether the readings are “required” or “recommended,” and where to find them (online, on reserve in the library or bookstore).  

Professors’ treatment of assigned reading varies considerably and they often give clues to this during the syllabus review.  Some instructors will use textbooks as…
  • background material -- for lectures that will be much more detailed and graded more heavily.  Students call this “testing on the lecture.”
  • detailed supplementary information -- for lectures that will serve as a review of unifying concepts. Students call this “testing on the book.”
  • a second instructor -- providing readings that complement and add to the material in class, and for which you are equally responsible for knowing on the exam.
  • For best results, always treat your books like a second instructor!  You will be able to add depth to your essays, and ask better questions in class. 

  • If you are a slow reader, or have a hard time figuring out what’s important, use the material here to help you strategize: 
  • Reading slowly and carefully, making notes as you go, is actually an excellent way to study!  When it comes time for your exams, you will already have done the “heavy lifting,” and what’s left is intentional review.

Course Calendar/Schedule. The calendar or schedule includes week-by-week topics for lectures and discussion; dates for exams and quizzes; and due-dates for papers, or other projects.  Finally, any required special event should be listed on the syllabus.  Some science classes will have 1-2 mandatory Saturday field trips; art history classes might require a trip to the Smithsonian, which you’ll have to do on your own; or you might be required to attend a special on-campus lecture, outside of class periods.

If you observe religious holidays that fall on important test-dates, it is your responsibility to notify your professor during Drop/Add period.  Instructors are not allowed to schedule important exams/projects on religious holidays; however, we have a diverse community at Maryland, and that combined with human error may mean your instructor overlooked an important observance.  Instructors need to revise their syllabi if they have scheduled an important exam on a religious holiday.  Please check your calendars now to verify whether there will be exam conflicts with your religious observances. 

To keep track of assigned readings and assignments, I recommend 3-hole punching your syllabi and putting them in the front of your course notebook, so that you can review it every day before class begins.  After the first day of class, some instructors will never mention a deadline again; they expect they’ve told you what you need to know, and will trust you to keep track from there. 

Additionally – take the time to enter important assignments/papers/exams into a separate monthly calendar – so you have both a “monthly picture” of your responsibilities and a “daily picture.”  It’s also helpful to identify exam-heavy weeks ahead of time, so you’re ready for them when they come.


Attendance/ lateness – Is attendance required? will students who attend regularly be given a break if the grade is borderline? Will lateness be penalized?  The very first part of a class period is especially important, because it’s when most instructors make important announcements; and lab instructors give detailed information about the day’s learning objectives, lab procedures, and safety information.
  • Notify your teacher/lab instructor ASAP if it becomes obvious that you will have problems getting to class on time.  Route 1 traffic is NOT an excusable reason for being late!
  • However, having to take a required class in Lefrak, followed by another required class in Animal Sciences, might be acceptable – but do not assume so.  Please contact your instructor immediately to discuss this; and contact Angela if you need help making schedule adjustments. 

Class participation – Will you be expected to speak up in class?  If active participation is expected, the syllabus should say so. It also needs to explain how participation will be graded. If speaking up in class is uncomfortable for you, sit up front so everyone else is behind you and you don’t need to yell to be heard.  Remember that most students are uncomfortable at first; it gets easier with time!  If speaking up in class is horribly uncomfortable for you, see your instructor or teaching assistant ASAP to see if written work might substitute for spoken participation.  Sometimes it will.  Either way, best to know up front. 

Use of laptops in class – Some professors are fine with this; others feel like a laptop lid is a little “wall” between you and them, and find it very bothersome.  “Bothersome” can escalate to severe irritation if said professor (or TA) discovers you are doing something other than taking notes on your laptop (enough said :+)  

  • If your professor doesn’t want you to use a laptop, try your very hardest to respect this request.  Consider your handwritten notes “draft 1” of your note-taking.  Re-typing hand-written notes is like “reviewing your notes,” which is an excellent study strategy.  The no-laptop policy may actually work to your advantage!
  • If you really, really, can’t do without a laptop, ask your professor if you can use it if you sit in the back row, where your screen will not distract him/her or anyone else.  Either way, best to know up front. 

Missed exams or assignments – Ideally, you will never miss an exam or assignment.  That is the goal.  Having said that, it sometimes happens.  Find out: Can exams and assignments can be made up? Under what circumstances? Are there possibilities for earning extra credit?  What are the guidelines and deadlines for extra credit? 

  • Each professor has his/her preferences – and will usually explain them in detail during the syllabus review.  For best results, abide by the prof’s requests.
  • Please call or e-mail your instructors as soon as it’s clear that illness or emergency will prevent you from taking an exam. 
  • Science and Math students:  Do not assume that because the professor will “drop your lowest grade” that your first exam is a “gimme.”  Take each and every exam seriously.  You might need that “dropped lowest grade” policy for something serious later on, like a personal illness or family emergency. 

Grading – Each syllabus should include details about how you will be evaluated -- what factors will be included, how they will be weighted (either by points, e.g., 100 points v. 250 points; or by percentages, e.g., 10% v. 40%), and how they will be translated into grades. 
  • This is where important information like late-point-deductions might be mentioned. 
  • Also, some professors want assignments submitted online; others prefer hard-copy. Find out ahead of time how your professor wants you to submit your work -- and be on-time!

Finally – here is an excellent summary of “The Differences Between High School and College.” This page applies to all subjects and students, not just Math and freshmen.  Get started right; have a great semester; and let Angela know if you need help!