Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #4: Go to Class

Another selection from “Haiku for New College Students”:

What a gorgeous day

I’ll just skip this one class

Darn, I missed a mid-term

The Temptations Are Endless

Attending class is one aspect of college that strongly highlights the differences with high school and messes with lots of students. In high school, all of your friends (and, therefore, most of your distractions) are in class the same time you are. Much of the peer pressure and poor modeling that could lead you to skip class are largely nonexistent.

But in college, there will be times when most, if not all, of your friends are not in class at the same time as you. You’ll leave your dorm or apartment, and you’ll bump into your friends going to watch a movie, getting ready to head out for some food, or playing what looks to be a fantastic game of wiffle ball. The temptations can be enormous, and even the strongest among us occasionally succumb.

We have a bargain.

On the first day of each class, I tell all my students that they will do well in the class if they just show up, stay off their technology, and act engaged. I’ll do my part to keep things lively and fun, but they have to meet me halfway by actually being there. It’s a bargain that works out well for the vast majority of students who attend class — I live up to my end of things by preparing good lectures and activities and telling the occasional corny joke, and we all get to know each other better, making it easier for me to help a student if she runs into trouble.

When You Run Into Trouble

As a case in point, I once had two students who sat right next to each other in class. They were high school friends, and they were joined at the hip throughout the first part of the semester. Based on comments they made during and outside of class, both came from families of limited means, and it was clear that they and their families were making a lot of sacrifices so they could get a college education. They came across as nice people, if a bit unsure of themselves and nervous about college, and I wanted to do what I could to help them succeed. But then they both got very sick, each of them ending up in the hospital for a few days. They could not have handled the situation more differently.

You should really stay in touch.

One student emailed me a handful of times to update me on her situation, ask specific questions about missed sessions and assignments, and sincerely thank me for helping her out. She returned to class as soon as possible, and when it came time for mid-semester meetings, she was among the first students to contact me about setting up a time to meet. The discussion went well, and she subsequently caught up quite quickly.

Don’t blame other people.

The other student only contacted me once, well after her friend, and was surprisingly defensive (“You haven’t contacted me about what I’ve missed.”). This was odd, given that she was only finally getting around to telling me why she had missed several classes. She subsequently missed several other classes without contacting me about it, and she didn’t schedule a mid-semester meeting — I had to suggest to her that we meet.

And that meeting went poorly. She was shocked that she wasn’t doing well (despite turning in almost no assignments up to that point of the semester), and she predictably blamed me for not explaining the most recent assignment more clearly. This only got her in hotter water, as we had spent considerable time in class that morning discussing the assignment in depth; she hadn’t noticed because she was on her laptop surfing the web the entire time (despite the course’s no-tech-during-class policy).

It starts with being there.

I will often have students tell me they know they didn’t participate enough in class. But if they show up every session and are engaged, I tell them that I am perfectly happy with their participation: Not everyone is comfortable jumping into class discussions, but everyone is capable of attending class and paying attention.

Takeaways:

  • Skipping classes is like falling into a well: Super easy to do, super hard to get out of it.

  • Schedule your classes at times when you are most likely to attend. Don’t be like one of my recent students who has tremendous difficulty getting up early, yet routinely enrolled in 8 a.m. classes. Poor scheduling sets you up for difficulty from the outset.

  • Turn your friends into allies rather than distractions. Sign up for classes with friends, and use the buddy system to get yourselves to class. Ask a trusted friend to be a pain in the neck if she sees you start to skip a class.

  • If you do miss one or more classes, throw yourself at the mercy of the instructor — and don’t be a tool about it. She was there, you weren’t; it’s your problem, not hers.

Read Jonathan Plucker's introductory article on How to Succeed in College, as well as his two most recent posts, Learn How to Learn and Education = Personal Improvement. You can also check out new installments each weekday through January 15, 2016.

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