Connect With Your Academic Advisor

The end of the semester is already here for some of you. For many others, it’s finals week. For those with finals, I hope everything goes well. Here’s something to think about once you’re finals are done: interacting with your academic advisor.

All students should have an academic advisor—either a staff member or a faculty member (I’m an advisor myself). How should this advisor be helping you during your time in college? If you get on your college’s advising website you will likely see a mission statement. These mission statements generally boil down to two points: an advisor is there to (1) help you develop a plan to make sure you take all the classes you need to graduate and (2) help you move forward with your personal and career goals. The latter can involve presenting certain course options that may be important to your goals as well as providing you with important resources about your plans after college.

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Always keep in mind that advisors are there only to help. Students too often think that advisors are there to make final decisions. This is false. In the end, it’s you, the student, who must make any decision, whether it’s about what courses to take or what career path to follow, even though these decisions can sometimes be quite difficult. Your advisor is there to help you get all the information you need to make these decisions.

Some students don’t understand how valuable an advisor can be. I’ve heard some of them even say that they avoid talking their advisor. I would like to appeal to all students to think about their advisor in a much more positive way; your advisor can help you in so many ways. Here are a few quick pointers to keep in mind when you interact with your advisor:

 1) Try to get to know your advisor by meeting with them more often than just around registration time. Because money is tight on most campuses, your advisor likely has more advisees than they should, and has to meet with many of them to talk about registration. Therefore, if you want to have a meaningful conversation with them, it’s best to arrange a meeting at some other time. Also, don’t think that you’re being an annoyance to your advisor by setting up a meeting. This is what advisors are paid to do.

2) Plan what you’re going to talk about with your advisor. Advising is a two-way street. If you meet with your advisor and only they speak it really is not going to benefit you. You should always have some questions for your advisor when you sit down to talk.

3) Remember that advising involves BOTH course requirements and career planning. Make sure to talk about both of them with your advisor. It’s easy to get too preoccupied with the courses you need to take. Career planning starts as soon as you get into college and all of your advising meetings should involve some career discussion.

 4) Your advisor will have a lot of information for you, which will be up-to-date and accurate. For this reason, I’d be very wary of getting advising help from other students, siblings or your parents. All of these people want to help you out, but that doesn’t stop them from being wrong. I’ve seen students who told me that their sibling said that a certain class was required when they went to school—but that information was out of date.

5) If things aren’t working out with your advisor, consider switching to a different one. Sometimes we have a tough time interacting with certain people—the dynamics we need just aren’t there. This may be true between you and your advisor. Also, some advisors might not be very good at giving you information about your classes and future career. Switching to a new advisor can help you get back on track.

I hope these pointers are helpful, and that you will have a great working relationship with your advisor. Enjoy the Holiday Break and I will be back with a new post at the start of 2016!

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Are Some Grades More Important Than Others?

As finals approach for many students, I keep hearing students talk about how certain grades are more important than others. They talk about this level of importance in terms of how much time and effort they plan to put into their preparation for final projects/papers and exams. For example, I had a student talk to me about how it was much more important for her to get an A in her Chemistry class because she was pre-med than for her to get an A in my Psychology course. Because of her ranking, she told me it was doubtful that she would be able to spend much time studying for her Psychology final. Her hope was that she would end up with a B in my class.

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I gave what she had to say a lot of thought, and have tried to determine what might be the advantages and disadvantages of taking this ranking approach to classes. A clear advantage to ranking courses is that you can focus your resources on courses in your major or program of study (e.g., pre-med). If you are trying for high grades in these courses then making them the highest priority will insure that you spend the greatest amount of time possible studying for these courses.

Sadly, however, the ranking approach only goes so far and there is a major cost associated with it. Of course, when you prioritize some courses over others you will not be spending a lot of time studying for these lower ranked courses. The end result of this strategy is likely to be a decrease in grades in these lower ranked courses. In high school this might seem like a reasonable plan because certain courses, such as AP courses, are typically weighted more than other classes and thus impact your GPA and class rank. However, in college, courses are not weighted. Thus, getting a low grade in any college course is going to impact your GPA.

Related to the above I should add that I have also heard students who rank courses rationalize this strategy by saying that the only courses that really matter for getting into graduate school or professional school are those in your major or program of study. My opinion (and that of colleagues I have talked to about this) is that thinking like this is very risky. When you apply to graduate or professional school, faculty will review your entire record. Yes, they will want to see if you did well in specific courses, but faculty are generally not willing to dismiss poor performance (in my thinking anything less than B) in general studies courses (which often seem to get a low rank).

Let me give a final example that students may want to think about. As I have said in other posts I have been teaching a long time—now in my 28th year—and each year I teach Introduction to Psychology. Almost every year I have at least one pre-med student who has used the ranking strategy and does poorly in my course. I believe that students like this would have done well if they had put just a little more time into my course. Instead, they keep thinking that my course will be a “bunny” course, and they end up with a poor grade. Regrettably, these students do not realize that this low (but avoidable) grade will potentially haunt them when they apply for medical school.

In the end, my advice is to consider all of the consequences of ranking some college grades as more important than others. As I said, there may be some value to earning high grades in only courses in your major. However, you may end up taking a big risk–in my opinion a risk not worth taking.

Time for a Break: Use it Wisely

It’s that time of the semester when everyone needs a break. Luckily, Thanksgiving is only a few days away. How you are going to use your break?
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You’ve spent months working hard. You’ve had classwork, homework, papers, exams, extracurricular activities, and maybe even a job. Now you need some time to calm down and recharge.
All that hard work can take a toll on your body. You’re likely feeling very tired from the hard work and the resulting lack of sleep. If you’re attending school in a climate where it’s starting to get colder, there’s a higher chance of getting sick, because students are indoors more and therefore around more people, increasing the chances of getting exposed to germs, including the flu. If you’re already weak from lack of sleep, your immune system is also weakened, which makes you get sick even more easily.
All the hard work also can take a toll on your mind and make you stressed. Instructors typically give exams just before Thanksgiving, adding to the potential for stress. Besides the extra sleep you can get during break, you’ll hopefully be able to get rid of stress by spending time relaxing, which helps decrease your risk of depression, obesity, and heart disease. It also boosts your immune system.
Even while you sleep and relax during break, don’t forget to do some schoolwork, so you don’t come back to school completely unprepared for the end of the semester. You’ll have only 2-3 weeks left, and those weeks can get extremely frantic if you don’t prepare for them correctly. You don’t want final exams and final papers to catch you off guard, and if you’re dealing with applications to graduate school or other programs like study abroad, you don’t want to find that you don’t have any time to handle them.
The key to Thanksgiving break, or any break, is to strike a balance. You definitely need to recharge and get your body and mind ready to finish the semester. At the same time, you don’t want to slide too far behind in your studies when you have (depending on your school) 5-7 open days to move forward and better prepare for the return to school after Thanksgiving Break is over. Treat the days of a break like you might treat a long weekend. If all you do during a break is work, then you miss the point of having one. If you don’t work at all, you miss an opportunity to stay on track.

The Benefits of Conducting Research with a Faculty Member

One of the best things you can do while you are in college is to get involved in research. You might think that you can only do this at a large university, where there is an active graduate program. However, it is likely the case that most full-time faculty members, even at four-year colleges with only undergraduates, are conducting some kind of research. It may even be the case that community college faculty are active researchers.

Keep in mind that faculty and undergraduate student research on campus go hand-in-hand. This research is highly encouraged and undergraduates (from freshmen to seniors) across all subject areas take advantage of this opportunity. Moreover, faculty members want undergraduates to be involved in what they are investigating.

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There are at least four advantages for getting involved with faculty research, all of which will positively impact your experience while in college and well-beyond graduation. First, you will have the chance to be part of exciting discoveries and to learn new ideas outside of a classroom. When you work with a faculty member you are really involved with the “nuts and bolts” of research. You’re not just reading about the research, you are actually conducting in-depth inquiry and exploration. Second, when it comes time to graduate you will be well beyond your peers in terms of career and academic preparedness. Third, working directly with a professor will help build a professional network for your field of interest. If graduate or professional school is a personal goal of yours, undergraduate research participation and connections with faculty will aid in that pursuit. Research experience will show your dedication and motivation. Finally, related to the previous point you will be able to get a letter of recommendation from your mentor. These letters are extremely important, whether you are applying to graduate or professional school or you are applying for a job.

To get involved with a faculty member’s research is usually pretty simple:

1) Check out the type of research that a faculty member is conducting. Of course, with the Internet finding this out is easy. If a particular faculty member is conducting research you think is interesting you are set to move forward.

2) Contact the faculty member you want to work with to see if they are planning to work with new students. If they are, set up a time to meet in person. You can send them an email to make first contact, but to me I don’t see a problem if you decide to stop by their office during office hours to make initial contact. I will say, however, that when you stop by a faculty member’s office you might consider getting “dressed-up” just a bit—first impressions go along way.

3) Meet with them. When you actually get together with a potential mentor, be ready to talk—don’t go to the meeting unprepared. Read up more on what the faculty member has been studying and be prepared with questions. Let the faculty member see that not only are you interested in their research, but that you are able to have an adult-to-adult conversation.

4) Discuss possible ways you can work with this faculty member. These include volunteering, getting course credit as part of an Independent Studies course, or even doing an Honors project (usually reserved for seniors). The key is that there are usually several ways you can work with this faculty member.

As a faculty member I have really enjoyed working with undergraduates in my lab. I’m proud to say that most of these students have gone on to graduate school, law school, or professional school. Like them, I feel you too can benefit from getting involved in undergraduate research.

Acronyms: Weird Word, Excellent Mnemonic!

There are a lot of different memory techniques that you can use to learn material for class. The one I’m going to talk about today is called an acronym. This is a word that you make by taking the first letter or first few letters of each word you’re trying to remember and then using these to spell a new word. We actually use these all the time; the word SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Another acronym is NABISCO, which stands for NAtional BIscuit COmpany. Here’s an acronym you might already know, which, unlike the last two, is meant as a memory aid rather than only creating a shorter word: ROY G. BIV, which stands for the colors of the visible spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet). If you already use this acronym to remember these colors, you can see that acronyms can be very handy.

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Acronyms are easy to use; let’s look at an example of how it’s done. Let’s say you had to learn the names of the Great Lakes for a Geography class. The names of these lakes are Ontario, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. To make an acronym, write down the first letter of each word and move the letters around until you spell something. Here, that would be HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). Now take your time and think about the word HOMES and the names of the Great Lakes that begin with each of its five letters. After a few rehearsals you’ll know the Great Lakes perfectly.

Another example: the three Axis powers of the Second World War were Germany, Japan, and Italy. Can you think of an acronym to remember them? I’m thinking that you came up with JIG. I’m also thinking that you will have no problem remembering this word, and that once you think of this word, you’ll have no problem remembering the Axis powers.

As you come up with acronyms, keep these things in mind.

1) Try to spell a real word. Some students have told me that they use made-up words, but I think this makes things needlessly hard.
2) It’s best if one of the words you need to learn starts with a vowel, or else you’ll have trouble spelling any word you can reasonably pronounce. You can get around this, though, even if it might make the acronym slightly more difficult to remember. If I had to memorize three large cities for some–New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles–I could add a vowel to make the semi-acronym CLaN. I would actively imagine the consonants as uppercase and the extra vowel as lowercase to remind me that only the uppercase letters stood for anything.

Acronyms can really help you come exam time. In later posts I’ll talk about different memory aids.

Consider a Study Group

Getting all your studying done can be a real drag, but one way to make it easier is to join a study group. Here are some reasons why you might want to consider studying with others at least some of the time.

1) A study group can test you on the material. You can test yourself, but maybe you’ll be tempted to get a bit lazy about this—moving to the next item when you feel sure you know something. It’s easier for someone else, like a classmate in a study group, to be tough and make sure you have the right answer before moving on.

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2) Most students don’t have a very regimented study schedule, only studying when they feel they have the time, and therefore missing or avoiding studying. When you’re in a study group, your schedule is strictly determined. If the group meets on Tuesday and Thursday at 9 PM, then that’s when you are going to study; you can’t keep rescheduling your study time and get off track.

3) A less obvious benefit of a study group is that you can compare your notes with those of other members of the group to make sure your notes are complete. During class, it’s easy to miss important material that might be on the exam because you were thinking about something else. In your study group, it’s unlikely that everyone missed the same part of the lecture.

4) You can discuss the class material with those who think differently from you and who each bring unique strengths to the group. Your classmates may understand certain things better than you, and be able to explain them to you. This will make your study session go faster.

5) In a study group, you will have to clearly explain things so that everyone in the group can follow. Because others depend on your ability to explain things, this will push you to thoroughly learn the material.

6) A study group can help build friendships. I always preach that college is a time to grow intellectually, but also a time to grow personally. You can get to know others as you learn material and hopefully become good friends with them—and the friendships you make in college can last a lifetime.

In closing: I understand that some of you only want to study by yourselves. Please consider what I have said, and think carefully about your decision. For some of you, studying with others can really pay off.