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How to Succeed in the College Classroom

Updated on June 2, 2014

Tips to Help you Do Well in the College Classroom

Tip one: Show Up
Tip two: Take the Notes that Make the Most Sense to You
Tip three: Frame Your Questions

A New Beginning . . .

A brand new semester is about to start. It doesn't matter if it is a summer, fall or winter/spring (depending on how desperately your university tries to hide the real January-May weather), there are some things you can do to help improve your performance. Having taught for many years at various colleges and universities, I can attest to the fact that these tips will put you in better position to succeed in class.

But what if I'm late?

Tip one: Show Up

One of the best ways to succeed, and impress your professors, is to attend class regularly. This has two benefits for you.

The first benefit is that it helps you get the information you need to do well in class. This doesn't just mean class notes (which we will discuss later). By showing up you get exact instructions on how your professor wants an assignment done.

Most professors will hand out an instruction sheet detailing assignments. These sheets will vary in specifics. Some professors will lay out EVERYTHING they want in the completed assignment, including style guide preference, page length, font size, number of sources, the weight of the paper and the number of characters per line and lines per page (yes, I have seen these and yes I have seen students punished for too many characters per line--I wish I were making this up). Others . . . well, you're lucky if they have a due date on them--this group of professors will fill in the details as they figure it ou. . . . as you get closer to the due date. Either way, a lot of information is filled in during class.

Let me give you a concrete example. I have one paper, that I assign every semester, where I will hand out an instruction sheet with an outline to follow. I take that basic outline and work through a topic with the class. I do this so that if my kids have questions about what the paper should look like, they can see how I planned the assignment and ask questions. If students don't make that class period, they lose out on that extra information.

Not the same as being there . . .


Your coice

Who are you more like--be honest!

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The second benefit is that the professor can see your effort. Student A shows up to and participates in class, asks questions and turns in assignments on time. He or she can see you are engaged with the course material and trying to learn--things that tend to leave a positive impression with the professor. Student B never shows up to class, when he shows up he plays with his phone and he always has an excuse about why his work is late--he will also leave an impression, along with a number of funny anecdotes for Reader's Digest. If your grade is borderline--say a 79.46% where it could be a "C+" or it might be rounded to a "B-"--which of the two students would you rather be?

Note: Most universities do have uniform attendance policies, but how tightly or loosely they are enforced is left in the hands of the instructor. Some will take attendance every day. Some don't care if you show or not. Some will dock you points if you miss more than x number of days. Some will give quizzes on low enrollment days. It doesn't matter which class you end up in (as long as you know the policy)--showing up in class is helpful to you in many ways.

(And if you were wondering about my favorite all-time excuse for missing class, it is "my face broke out overnight and it's just horrible." A colleague of mine received the excuse that a student wouldn't be in class because they would not be able to arrange bail in time!)

They said what . . . ?

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Tip two: Take the Notes that Make Most Sense to You

You have heard the hype that there is one great note taking system and if you just adopt it you will learn more, get better grades and have whiter teeth and fresher breath.


There are several different types of note taking styles and they all are perfectly fine. You just need to find the one that works best for you. Here are a few types along with there pros and cons:



First is the transcriptionist. This is the person who attempts to write down every single word the professor speaks during the class period. This is a good approach for students who want to be able to mesh the lecture with the book later and this style will help you determine what is the most important information. A warning--you need to look over your notes right after class. If this is your style but you are not reviewing them, I would question if this is the best fit for you.

  • The benefit is that you have a ton of information in front of you. This will help when you go back to study for the test. Make sure your notes are organized or you may find yourself getting lost in the collection of ideas.
  • The downside to really detailed notes is that it prevents you from engaging in class discussion. If you are trying to get every word down on paper, you don't have time (generally) to formulate and ask a question or to raise a point during class. Also, hearing is not listening. Just because you have the words in front of you does not mean you have processed what was being said as it was being said.

The second type is the minimalist. This is the opposite end of the spectrum as the transcriptionist. The minimalist writes down a few keywords or phrases to help jog his or her memory later. He or she prefers to stay in the flow of the class--asking questions, interacting with the professor and other students--preferring to try and understand the main ideas than to record them

  • The benefit is that you are able to focus on the "big picture" in lecture or discussion. Memory is key here--you have to be able to remember what the words and phrases you wrote down mean.
  • The downside is the limited amount of information you record. The same advice that I gave to the transcriptionist applies to you--read over your notes right after class so you can fill in the blanks.



Type three is the jotter. The jotter will take notes in the margins of textbooks or class readings during the lecture. This helps them to connect the material in text with what is being discussed in class. He or she is not as complete as the transcriptionist nor as brief as the minimalist, but will write down key concepts, highlight or underline key phrases in the text and draw arrows--they always draw lots of arrows--to connect the notes together.

  • The benefit is that everything is in one place. Both the lecture notes and the course readings are the same piece of paper. The connection between lecture and reading is made for you as you write.
  • The downside is that sometimes the notes get over-complicated. I know--this style is the one that I use the most. In trying to follow various arrows, circles, highlights, rectangles and the occasional dodecahedron, I will lose the flow of my argument.

Note taking style

What type of note taker are you?

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All three style, transcriptionist, minimalist and jotter, are perfectly fine. You need to find the one that works the best for you. You will probably have to experiment to find the system that best fits how you learn.

Tip three: Frame Your Questions

Sometimes it is all in how you ask it . . .

The problem with some questions is that they are too general and don't really ask what you want to know. The more specific you can be, the more helpful the professor can be. There really are no dumb questions, there are just very poorly asked ones.

A scenario: A test is coming up. You are, understandably, concerned about this. You want to get more information about what to expect. You might:

  • Ask the professor what is on the test. This is a very broad and general question and will likely get you a broad and general answer--get the study guide. Accurate, but not always helpful.
  • Ask for a sample question. This is much more specific and the answer you get will help you in two ways. One, you will see how the professor words the question (and if it is a multiple choice question, the answers). Two, more than likely the response you get back will be a question on the test (or at least be material covered on the test)--bonus!

A second scenario: A major paper/project is coming up and you are stuck for a topic. Do you:

  • Ask the professor for a topic. This is a good question to ask if you want to do a topic the professor would like. But it is only going to get you one or two topics at best--want to take a shot on the professor picking something interesting? I wouldn't--I know too many professors. . . .
  • Ask the professor for examples from past projects. This is a better question-if your professor still has a working memory. Generally he or she can rattle off several from the top of his or her head. It is a more specific question and will generate many more topics. Since former students have already done a topic, it shows that the research is out there.

Like above, the more specific your request, the better answer your professor can provide.

Think though your question. Ask yourself:

  • What is it I want to know?
  • Can my question be answered with a yes or no? (If this is the case, rephrase it to all the professor to explain his or her response.)
  • Do I know the answer? (If so, don't ask. Think of a way to rephrase that will add to what you already know.)

Think through your questions--the answer you seek depends on it.

Helping you get back to school and into the classroom.

Hopefully these tips will help you whether you have been in college for a while or if you are just starting back to school.


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