For many students, getting good grades is an art – a fly-by-night effort that involves cram sessions, expert use of Spark Notes and a sixth sense for knowing what it takes to see that A at the end of the semester.
Professors have the perspective to quantify it as a science – an enterprise honed by experimentation, tried-and-true technique and a career of observations.
University of Arkansas professors Lynn Jacobs and Jeremy Hyman take that approach in their new book, “Professors’ Guide to Getting Good Grades in College.”
Along with tips from University of Michigan teachers, here is their advice:
Go to office hours
At the very least, this will make professors less lonely.
“The fact of the matter is that in large colleges as well as small ones, professors find themselves mostly alone in office hours,” physics Prof. Gregory Tarle said.
Tarle recommended going to see professors even when there is not an upcoming test, because they love to help students learn anytime.
Anthropology Prof. John Speth agreed, though he cautioned against the overuse of office hours, suggesting that professors know the difference between genuine interest and brown-nosing.
Students have a tendency to highlight and underline passages they already understand.
“Highlighters are too indiscriminate – they’re a big yellow blob,” English Prof. John Whittier-Ferguson said.
Instead, he suggested taking margin notes, making topical indexes in the front of the book or chapter about relevant pages and referencing other sections of the text in the margin.
Use section meetings intelligently
Tarle said section meetings are an ideal place to find homework partners. Section gives students a chance to explain things they understand to other students.
Be cautious about challenging grades
Jacobs warned that it is often futile for students to complain about the grades they receive. Speth recommended students figure out what went wrong on the assignment they are unhappy with and ask advice on how to improve their performances in the future.
He also suggested comparing missed test questions with the lecture notes on the subject.
“Try to assess the nature of the material that didn’t get into the notes,” Speth said. “If the critical material did in fact get into your notes, then the issue is how you studied.”
Don’t obsess about a professor’s preferences when writing a paper
“The problem with students’ logic is thinking they need to crack the code of what a professor likes in a paper,” Whittier-Ferguson said.
He said that when faculty come together to discuss grading, they often come up with the same grade for a sample paper. Writing with clear and focused logic, he said, should appeal to any teacher. He also said that going to office hours to discuss a thesis or a draft prior to the paper’s due date can help students understand what a professor is looking for.
Use old and practice exams as a study aid, not divine revelation
Tarle recommended simulating test conditions while taking old or practice exams. These exams should be taken after the bulk of studying has occurred, he said.
Don’t skim the reading
Whittier-Ferguson especially emphasizes this for discussion-based classes and English classes.
“If you’re skimming for an overview, you might as well read Spark Notes,” he said. Despite Jacobs’s contention that professors often assign more reading than they expect students to read, Whittier-Ferguson emphatically disagreed. The exception, he said, is secondary or supplementary readings.
Attend class regularly
This may seem obvious, but Jacobs stressed how important it is to take notes – yourself. As Whittier-Ferguson said, “Writing is a way of learning,” and taking notes helps internalize the information so the student will have to do less studying later.
Test material is often mostly drawn from issues presented or raised in class.
“If you don’t go to class, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason you should pass,” Speth said.