Study tips

Seven Coursework-related Questions for Students


Professors almost always know what they are looking for in assignments, but sometimes they’re not always as clear students need them to be. 

One secret to being successful in college is asking the right questions, especially with regard to coursework. Here are some to keep in mind.

1. ”How will this assignment be evaluated?”
The criteria for every assignment should be clearly spelled out, sometimes with a rubric that details the components of excellent work. Knowing exactly what the professor is looking for will help you stay focused on what is important.

2. "Are there examples?"
Professors sometimes offer examples from previous semesters for what an assignment should look like. If one is not provided, you can ask. Some professors have been known to do the assignment themselves, which can be very insightful. Among instructors, the practice is called “eating your own dog food.” Yum.

3. ”Are there limits on…”
Students have no difficulty asking questions about minimum expectations—related to pages/words, sources, etc. But the upper-limits are equally important, if not more so. Chances of getting full credit by doing the minimum are pretty slim. Doing well often requires going beyond the minimum expectations, but you always want to stay within acceptable parameters.

4. "Can we spend more time going over this?"
Some assignments, especially complex ones, might assume that you know how to do what is being asked of you. If there is any part of an assignment you do not feel prepared to do, you should ask to spend class time on it.

5. "Can I show you an outline or draft?”
Professors will always appreciate the opportunity to help you with an assignment. Sometimes a three-minute office visit might give you the one piece of advice that makes your work go from good to great. That said, you should avoid simply sending your work in an email or expecting quality feedback at the last minute. You should also not assume that professors have time before or after class to give you the amount of attention you might require. 

6. ”Can I submit a revision?”
Grades are important measures of where you are at the moment, but the feedback you receive is the key to performing well on the next paper or exam. If there’s anything about the feedback that you don’t understand, you also need to make an appointment for office hours. If a professor ever offers an opportunity for revision, you should take it, regardless of how well you did. Even if it doesn’t mean a change in this grade, it might very well mean an improvement on the next one.

7. ”Is it OK if I have an extra day?”
Professors have different takes on deadlines. Some are very flexible; some are not flexible at all. In any event, if it’s ever necessary that your work will be late, you need to let your professor know in advance and in person, if possible. 

For Students: A Brief Guide to Success

Before considering some of these techniques, it’s important to dispel a couple of myths. For one thing, there’s no such thing as "fixed intelligence." Some people might have an easier time with math or the piano, but everyone can learn, provided that they commit to it.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck examines the importance of having a growth mindset. “The view you adapt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” she writes. “It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”

Moreover, as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham has shown, “learning styles” do not exist. It’s true that you might prefer one method to another or one subject to another, but when it comes to learning, the most important thing to know is that it requires regular and focused practice. As Cal Newport shows in his book Deep Work, attempting to multitask is counterproductive. The key is to focus without distraction.

You need to be precise and practice particular activities, the kind that you will be expected to demonstrate on an exam or assignment. One of the best things you can do is practice retrieving information. Flash cards, for example, work to build information networks in your brain, which you can later access with ease. There are a number of good electronic ways to do this, including the Flash Card Machine, which is free and allows for sharing.

You should also practice more difficult skills, like analyzing what you’ve learned and applying it to new situations and across courses. Here’s a great definition and overview of critical thinking that you might find helpful. Even if you’ve moved on to new material or a different module, you should review what you’ve learned. As Dustin Bakkie puts it, “The best time to learn something is right as you’re about to forget it.”

Here’s a video on five different ways to take good notes. The “mind map” method works very well as a pre-writing exercise for papers. When deciding between pen and paper or computer, you should know that research has found that people retain information better when they take notes by hand.

In addition to the how, there is also the question of how much studying. Indeed, “time on task” is one of the greatest predictors of student success. The “Carnegie Rule” is that you should spend 2-3 hours a week studying for every hour you are in class. Not every course will be this demanding, but many of your professors are operating under the assumption that you are a “full-time student.”

One big difference between high school and college is the amount of unscheduled time you have. Most of your work will be done out of class, which means you need to have strong time management skills and an ability to prioritize your activities. Managing your time properly will ensure that you can attend classes prepared. You will get more out of class, if you know what everyone is talking about and you can contribute with informed questions and comments.

David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, which has become a movement of sorts, offers five steps for productivity: (1) writing down everything you have to do, (2) identifying the actionable steps, (3) organizing those activities by category and priority, (4) frequently reflecting on your list, and (5) remaining engaged.

You should also keep a calendar that is accessible from your mobile phone that you refer to and update frequently. At the beginning of each semester, you should add all of the key dates for your courses and assignments—and refer to the syllabi regularly. It contains important information about assignments and expectations that you might not remember from the first day of class.

Todoist a free app to organize your projects and tasks, when merely putting them on your calendar is not enough. Many people use the Evernote webpage/app for notes and lists. It's free, flexible, and integrated into other programs, apps, and websites. You could use Google Docs in the same way. Its formatting makes it simple for writing papers, and since it’s cloud-based, you never have to worry about losing your work.

Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests you keep a to-do list that's organized around how important things are and when they are due. It’s inspired by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president and general. Most people are prone to spend their time working on things at the last minute, then are too exhausted to do anything other than waste time on unimportant activities. The trick is to maximize the time you spend on important but not urgent work.

If you struggle with time management, you might want to check out "How To Avoid Procrastination for Good" or "The Science of Procrastination" video for a number of effective techniques. You could also keep a log of all your activities for a couple weeks to determine if you are using your time wisely.

If you’re concerned about writing, you should make heavy use of the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University and Writing for Success, a free open-access grammar and style handbook. Grammarly is an excellent Chrome extension that helps with spelling and grammar in email and websites.

With a Youtube channel, a blog, and a podcast, is another great resource for serious students.

Finally, you should visit your professors in their offices early in the semester and again later, as the need arises. The same is true of support services around campus—your advisor/s, the research librarians, the Learning Center, etc.

There are a great many people on campus wanting to help you succeed. Most times, however, it’s easier for you to find them than it is for them to find you.