Appendix: Becoming an AWESOME Student

One of my former students sent me an email and asked what techniques I used to get such AWESOME grades. Here are the suggestions I shared with him.

Attitude:

        Getting good grades should be an extremely high priority. The best jobs, those that come with a great deal of personal freedom and that pay the best, are only accessible to people with Masters degrees (or higher). People get these jobs by being in the network, the network accessible only to the elite. To get into this network you need to attend a great grad school, but you canít get in without great grades. That means making sacrifices today.

Choosing classes:

        Not all instructors and classes are equal. Three credits in one course may take twice as much work as three credits in another course.

        Decide what you want from the class. Some classes are probably largely irrelevant to you, like Art History. Others are very important to you. Look for harder courses in your important areas, easier courses in the others.

Choosing professors:

        Look up the professor on www.ratemyprofessors.com.

        Look up the syllabus on the professorís website. If the professor doesnít have a syllabus online, maybe you donít want to take their class. Are they lazy? Are they computer illiterate? Are they too busy with other projects to give attention to teaching? Do they really care about you, their customer?

        Go to the first day of class. If you donít like the professor, drop the class. You need to be able to interact comfortably with your professor to get the most out of any class.

        Donít be shy about going to the professor if you need help.

Class Participation:

        Go to every class. Pay attention. Nod and smile at the professor.

        Asking good questions shows you are motivated and paying attention. The professors will remember you better, which can pay off in the long run.

        Asking bad questions (long and unfocused, overly detailed, or relating to your personal experiences) will make everybody in the room dislike you, so keep questions short and focused.

        Donít volunteer to answer every question the professor asks - the other students hate that - but try to answer a few in each class.

Homework:

        Just do it. Turn in every assignment; youíd be surprised how many students donít.

        Carefully read and follow the instructions. Check off the steps as you finish them.

        Donít do assignments in a creative manner. Follow the format the instructor asks for and you canít go too far wrong.

Memory Aids:

        I often used flash cards to learn formulas and terminology.

        I underlined key passages and re-read them just before exams.

        If I was working with a list, I would try to make a word using the first letter of each item in the list, or make a phrase that would start with those same letters. For example, Office 2007 uses a hierarchical system for arranging icons Ė Tabs, Groups, Categories, and Icons. I remember the sequence as The Great Computer Interface. This technique was very useful in studying for essay exams.

Note-taking in Class:

        I rarely took notes in class. I found that I got too distracted writing things down and often missed what the professor was saying next.

        I always read the textbook chapter BEFORE class so I could better follow the professorís lecture and ask intelligent questions to clarify gaps in my understanding.

Presentations:

        See my advice online at www.cob.sjsu.edu/splane_m/PresentationTips.htm

        NEVER give a presentation without practicing Ė youíll speak too long, youíll forget key facts, and youíll cover too many details.

Seating:

        The professors notice the faces of the people who sit in the front rows and in the center of the room. This creates a subconscious bias in your favor that may make the difference between a B+ and an A-.

        I always tried to sit in the second row near the middle of the room. You can hear and see better from this location.

        Another thing to consider, teammates and study partners are usually selected from people sitting next to you.

Studying Textbooks:

Reading the textbook puts you way ahead of most of the other students.

        Textbooks are written in outline form. If you try to read a chapter straight through, it is very confusing. Donít do this. Read the headings, the first sentence of each paragraph, and examine the charts and sidebars. When you know what the chapter is all about, then you can read it straight through, to pick up the detail.

        I tried to read every chapter twice - once for concepts, once for details.

        Try the sample questions and quizzes that are included within the chapter. If you canít answer those questions, you donít know the material.

        Almost every textbook has a glossary and an index. Use them! If you donít understand a technical term, write it on a flashcard. Look up the definition in the glossary and write it on the back of the card.

        If I knew I was going to have to reread a chapter at a later date for an exam, I would use a yellow highlighter pen to underline key sentences and phrases. Then it was easy to scan through to quickly recall the main ideas.

        If you have trouble staying awake, stand up and try reading that way.

        If you have trouble staying focused, use a kitchen timer to control the length of each study session. Gradually increase the time over several weeks. Your ability will improve.

Teams:

A good team can make or break your grade so learning how to manage teams is vital.

        Step One - have great teammates.

o       This is simple really. Try and take classes with people you have worked with before that you know you work well with. I started this process early, and recruited my teammates ahead of time. In my senior year I had a half dozen people taking classes with me that I knew I could rely on.

o       Whenever you have a problem, talk to the instructor for guidance.

        Step Two Ė resolve the leadership issues quickly.

o       The first week you should get the email address of every team member. The first person who sends out an email outlining what they think the group should do becomes the de facto leader.

o       Be a good teammate. Donít argue over minor details; your role is to encourage and support others. Stay positive at all times.

        Step Three Ė create a project plan.

o       Break down the project into smaller subject areas. This should be part of your initial email the first week of the project. Include specific timelines.

o       Ask people if your outline makes sense.

o       Ask them to each volunteer for a specific subject. It creates buy-in from the other students; they chose the role they want. Slackers become more motivated and the group will unite behind you if you have a problem.

o       Volunteer to take on the piece(s) that nobody else wants. You often wind up with the most interesting and educational piece and everybody is grateful to you for doing the dirty work.

o       Donít try to do all of the work yourself. Have somebody in charge of writing the final draft, and somebody else in charge of creating the PowerPoint slides.

        Step Four Ė create reasonable project deadlines.

o       Allow for slack time in the plan. Everybody will fall behind, so build in a couple of weeks for catching up, one in the middle and one near the end.

o       Allow at least two weeks for preparing and practicing the PowerPoint presentation.

o       Insist on practicing the PowerPoint as a group, using a timer.

        Step Five Ė prepare an agenda for group meetings.

o       Circulate it ahead of time.

o       The group usually agrees with the first suggested meeting place. If you know a convenient spot for you, suggest it.

Tests:

For multiple choice exams:

        Read all of the possible answers. Cross out any answers that you know are wrong.

        Circle the number on questions when you are unsure of the answer. Skip them and finish the questions you know. Now go back and look at the circled ones. Often the later questions will give you a clue to earlier ones.

For essay exams:

        Anticipate what the questions will be. Look at the questions in your textbook at the end of each chapter. See any questions that require listing several details to answer? Well, your professor is doing the same thing.

        Write each likely exam question on a flashcard. On the back of the flashcard, list the ten or twelve key words that you need to include in your essay.

        Generally each item in the list is going to be worth one point. The professors or their TAís are grading on the key words, not the logic of your sentences or arguments.

        Carry the cards with you and look at them whenever you get a chance, like at a traffic light.

Definitions, Terms, Acronyms, and Formulas:

        Use flashcards to help you memorize the materials.

Time Management:

        Donít try to do too much. The world is not going to end tomorrow; take your time to get the most you can out of school. If youíre working full time and taking more than two or three classes, youíre overdoing it.

        Using flashcards was an extremely efficient way to learn. I could use them in the car at red lights, during TV commercials, etc.

        I scheduled some quiet time for studying when I knew I would be undisturbed. For me this was Sunday afternoon and evening, at a minimum.

        I kept a calendar that listed each class and when each assignment was due. I estimated how long each assignment would take.

        I broke down the big projects into smaller tasks with a deadline for each task.

        I tried to keep a week ahead, in case I got sick or something unexpected came up.

Tutoring:

I found it was extremely helpful to study with another student, so I did a lot of tutoring.

        If I couldnít explain the material to somebody else, I didnít know it well enough.

        My study buddyís questions helped to clarify my thinking and exposed gaps in my understanding.

        Knowing that somebody else was depending on me helped to keep me motivated to study, on those days when I was feeling lazy.

        It was also fun as a social activity.

Written Assignments:

I handled these in three different ways, depending on how familiar I was with the topic.

        If I knew what I wanted to say, I would sit down a week or two before the assignment was due and write a complete first draft, then edit and rewrite it three or four times.

        If I knew some of the material, I would write an outline of the entire paper, based on the professorís instructions. Then I would fill in different segments, at different times, over several days, leaving the tough parts for last.

        If I wasnít sure what to write or how to write about it, I would think about the paper for several days, and then write the whole thing down the night before it was due.

        The common thread is that I thought about the paper for several days.

        I would often copy and paste background information into the document as I was researching, including the website so I could cite the source.

        I also created a bibliography entry for the website address at the same time I pasted the info into my document.

        I always proofread an assignment before turning it in. Reading it aloud helps to catch mistakes.

        Get help with grammar and spelling if you need it.

Please send comments and suggestions to Splane_M@cob.sjsu.edu.