When class seems tough.

Not all students know how to handle college classes. If you’re having problems, there are places to turn. This isn’t one of the best places – this is just another set of tips that might help those who can help themselves do a little something about their approach to my courses. (For a short list of possible aid sites, see the bottom of this page.) And keep in mind that an “intro” class is not a synonym for an “easy” class… your introductory classes are often the hardest.

Before I start a list, bear in mind that all courses are boring and exciting. To understand anything substantial at a high level you’ll discover that the work is complex and seldom clear; to those who are fans of the topic, this is exciting, but to others the topic gets boring quickly. Teachers try to make things exciting (and some are not good at it), but it often depends on the audience. As in sports, if you don’t care, even the 7th game of a best-of-seven playoff is boring, no matter how great the athletes. To a fan, some Wednesday night game in the middle of the season might be the best game ever. When you get bored in a class, remind yourself of your commitment to becoming college educated; exciting moments are probably just around a corner.

1) Do you have to read the text prior to class?

Of course not. You’re living in a free country. You can do what you want. You don’t even have to eat your vegetables. Have you tried shouting obscenities in church yet? In other words, you can act stupid if you want to. I’m sure somebody will think it’s cool. But why’d you pay for tuition in the first place? If you want to learn the material studied in a class, read whatever has been assigned, and read it prior to the class in which it’ll be discussed.Maybe you think you can understand the text better only after you’ve been in the class. Great. Then read it again after the class. (The absolute best strategy is to read lightly before class to become familiar with the material and then read carefully after class.) The textbook won’t go away, but the lecture will fade fast, especially if you didn’t know what to write notes on, or if you didn’t know what the discussion was about until it was nearly over. Reading the assigned readings gives you the advantage of being at least vaguely familiar with material (which helps to lock it into memory) – and, imagine this: we teachers expect so much of students when you come to class. It’ll also save you from asking redundant questions in class – the ones everyone who reads the text knows the answers to. And in the words of one of my colleagues, “after having read the chapter, if there’s something in there that you don’t understand, you’ll be able to ask about it in class.  If you haven’t read the chapter, how will you know to ask?”

2) Is it important to memorize definitions?

If you don’t know what a word means, you ought to look it up, right? But when you talk with other people about things – about whatever it is you talk to them about, be it politics or sports or work or love or the weather – do you ever just recite definitions? How far will a definition get you in life? I suggest you never satisfy yourself with knowing a few definitions. The tests in my classes (with the exception of PSY 101, which I do not control) require that you know your terminology, but they never just ask you to define words. They ask you questions that are testing to see if you understand concepts and issues. The concepts might be words whose definitions you memorized, but you show me that you understand it – really understand, and have thought about it – by applying it to real or hypothetical situations, or by analyzing whether or not it’s valid, or by being able to explain it in layman’s terms without oversimplifying it (on essay and short-answer tests or in papers). And besides, those glossary “definitions” in the margins of textbooks or at the ends of chapters aren’t really definitions in that authoritative dictionary sense: they’re just short-hand blurbs that try to convey a summary of the concept and they often do a poor job at it, so don’t rely on them.

3) Why do essay questions in my class seem ambiguous?

There’s an easy answer to this one: If the questions seem ambiguous, and you have a feeling that you don’t really know what I’m looking for, then you don’t understand the material well enough. I usually don’t ask simple questions requiring definitions or memorized facts as answers. I ask questions that I think will give you a chance to demonstrate whether you know and understand an issue. It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between when you’re just regurgitating memorized tidbits of knowledge as an answer and when you understand what the concepts and ideas are that are being tested. For example, almost everyone can blurt out that a hypothesis is “an educated guess,” but what does that mean? Few students have much of an explanation on hand. Regurgitate elsewhere. I’m looking for comprehension.

4) How important is that GPA anyway?

Well, it depends. If you want to go to graduate school, or get into a competitive four-year undergraduate school, it might be very important. But GPAs are not an entrance ticket on their own. With problems of grade inflation they might not count as much as they once used to. I heard in the news that 59% of new teachers in Massachusetts – people who had just completed their BA/BS in educationfailed the state’s standard test for teachers. You don’t think all these people had rotten GPAs do you? Of course not. They had passing grades, many probably had good grades, but they obviously weren’t educated. When it came down to passing a standard test – one not affected by grade inflation, spoon-fed practice answers, and “but, oh, I just need an A or my perfect GPA will be ruined” whining – the incompetents were caught. Going back to that colleague of mine again, she also wrote, “Once you graduate, no one cares about your GPA. What they care about is whether you learned something.” Graduate school? A competitive Bachelor’s program? An inflated GPA won’t get you in – a good education might. Jobs? The degree gets you in, not the GPA. The education – if there was one – moves you to a better position.

5) Is everything in the book or everything the teacher says right?

Only if you think we’re superhuman (but then, look at how we dress). Books are written by people and teachers are people. We have one advantage though – we tend to be well-educated people; that’s how we got to being teachers or textbook authors. So what are you supposed to do with all the material you’re presented with in class? First, get a grip on it – work on it until you understand it; then ask yourself things like, ‘is this true? Does it make sense? Why does it work that way? If this is true, then…?’ If you’re paying close attention and are a good observer, you’ll find contradictions in what we know and think. As I mention in my syllabi (course information sheets), psychology is not an easy science. We build theories on the basis of facts and then look for more facts to support the theories. Sometimes we don’t find the facts where we expected them to be. Sometimes we wind up with two or three theories to explain the same set of facts. They’re probably not all right. We try to get rid of the wrong ones, but sometimes we fail in the task. But we don’t get frustrated and give up. That’s not what educated, inquisitive people do. We seek more information, more facts, we revise our theories, we look for something that might have been missing, and so on. The alternative, of course, is blind faith and no progress. You want blind faith and no progress? Save your money and join some fundamentalist sect.

6) Is it the teacher’s responsibility to make sure the student learns?

No. You students are responsible for your own education. As the college teacher or professor I do things that help you learn the material and help you to become educated, but in the final analysis your education is in your own hands. Frankly, it’s your life and I’m not responsible for it. I’ll structure the class to set guidelines for the learning experience; I’ll provide interpretations, viewpoints, and material not provided by the readings; I’ll set assignments so you can get work done that promotes learning, and completes this on schedule; I’ll present information, thoughts, and ideas; I’ll try to stimulate and guide your thinking; I’ll grade your work – but – I don’t implant memories into your heads or alter your thoughts; only you can do that. Learning is a product of your work.

7) Is your opinion important?

Let me say something unpopular: do you think that I care – really care – about all of your opinions? Every person in the world has opinions. Some feel more inclined to share their opinions with the rest of us; others keep their opinions to themselves. There is nothing inherently valuable in an opinion – especially those opinions that are not based on careful analysis, healthy skepticism, or real data. In some classes it might be interesting to see that different people have different opinions, but in most classes this is passé. Your interpretation is important, and you should express it to see if it’s acceptable (based on the course of study). What I care most about is that you are learning the material – perhaps taking material from class and building new, more informed opinions out of it. An informed opinion is one that’s based on careful analysis, healthy skepticism, or real data, and it’s worth more than an uninformed opinion, but many questions can be answered with scientific methods, and opinion is of little value there, unless one has informed opinion about the validity of the science conducted on the issue. Learn to recognize an opinion from an informed opinion and an informed opinion from scientific facts, hypotheses, and theories. Also learn to recognize when an opinion is called for and when an analysis of the validity of an argument, a fact, or a theory is called for. For example, disagreeing with established facts or theories (as I mentioned at the top of this page) is your right, but it doesn’t show scholarship. You shouldn’t disagree unless you have good reason to disagree. And if something doesn’t fit your opinion, that alone isn’t good reason to disagree with it. Disagree because the facts require you to disagree, but not because you simply have the freedom to disagree.

8) But I’m a visual learner…

Don’t fool yourself. There is a lot of nonsense out there about “learning styles” and much of it has been passed along by well-meaning teachers and less-well-meaning journalists. Don’t convince yourself that you are one type of learner or another. The human brain is pretty similar from person to person in this regard, and we all pretty much learn the same ways. Sure, it’s easier to watch a TV documentary or a video clip or a cool demonstration, and trying to explain how to button a button will never be as efficient as simply showing it, but that applies as well to you and me and Einstein. College learning is a struggle, and many people really have to learn how to learn, and quite a few have to learn how to read effectively. But believing something overly simplistic like “I’m a visual learner” is only going to interfere with the struggle of learning college-level material, because it sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy: you predict that you will have a hard time learning anything not visual, so you don’t even try very hard at it, which results in the poor performance you predicted in the first place. It’s simply self-defeating.

9) Why do you have to learn about research methods?

Everything that we know or that we think we know has come from some system of finding out what’s true and what’s not. It’s perhaps the single most important part of your education – to realize and understand how knowledge is acquired. If you don’t know how valid information is acquired you will not be able to distinguish between valid and useless knowledge. You will not be able to protect yourself from the multimillion dollar industries that want to feed you whatever information (valid or not) that profits them. You will not be able to protect yourself from the persuasive arguments of people who have power over you, like your friends, or from fast talkers and con artists in the streets and on nationally syndicated radio or television shows, or the latest ever-so-important Youtube clip. Studying research methods is basically just studying the way we get valid knowledge out of the world. It is an extremely important part of an education.

10) Why don’t we cover the whole textbook?

It’s too long.

Some sites that might help with general college survival problems:
Ten Tips You Need to Survive College

Michael S. Ofsowitz, 1998/2005