Pointers For Selecting College Classes

With summer orientation going on for a lot of rising freshmen and transfer students I wanted to discuss an issue that is important when you choose your first classes, and that will remain critical as you continue in your college career. This is the idea of how best to select classes. As I present my thoughts on selecting classes, keep in mind (as is always the case with blog posts) that I am offering my opinion on this issue. There are bound to be others (e.g., professional advisors) who do not agree with me. But, my opinion on selecting classes is based on almost 30 years of dealing with undergraduates, including helping countless students select classes.

selectclass-computers-377117_1280To begin, I believe very strongly that the ultimate decision for which class to take or not take rests with you. This is very important, because it goes along with the idea that when you are in college you must take responsibility for your college career. Of course, there are those around you (e.g., parents, friends, professional advisors) who will be giving you advice. In the end, however, it rests with you. You can’t just sit there and have others give you a copy of a schedule while saying “Here’s a nice schedule” or “This will work best for you.” Make sure you understand what is on the schedule, and that you agree that the classes you are going to take are the ones you want and need to take.

This brings me to another critical point–there is an art to selecting classes. Each class you select must lead (as close as possible) to a perfect fit. This includes making sure you know who is teaching the class, when and where the class is taught, and finally what is the “value” of the class. Let me discuss each of these in some detail.

1) Who is teaching a class? Over and over again I hear stories from students where an advisor suggested a course, but never says anything about who is teaching the course. This is done despite the fact that the person who teaches a course is critical not only to whether you will enjoy the class, but if you will learn anything. For example, do you want a faculty member who is going to interact with the class, use various types of media, and generally be a nice person? Or, do you want someone who stand in one place in the front of the classroom, reads their lecture, and seems like teaching your class is the last thing they would like to be doing. Of course, you want the first instructor. It is that first instructor who will get you motivated to attend class and complete all work; higher grades will usually follow!

So when you select a class, check out who is teaching the class. If the course schedule says “TBD” that is not a good sign–it stands for “To Be Determined”. Often when this occurs a department may still be trying to find a part-time faculty or graduate student to teach the class. These people can turn out to be good instructors, but compared to a full-time faculty member with a stellar reputation there is no comparison. If you can find out who is teaching a class you want to take, check them out in three ways. First, ask advisors or fellow students if they know anything about the instructor. Second, many schools allow you to search faculty evaluation scores. There are scores based on surveys that students complete each semester. If you can look at these, make sure you are not signed up with someone who has low scores. Finally, there are online reviews of faculty (e.g., Ratemyprofessor.com). These websites are controversial and people complain that they are not valid. Nonetheless, I feel you have every right to give them a look and decide for yourself if a comment is just that of an angry student who is upset about their grade or that the comment has some value to you. The bottom line to me is that you should never take a class where you don’t know something about the person in the front of the room.

selectclass-auditorium-572776_12802) When and where is the course is taught? Now the two parts of this question get very tricky. Let’s start with the “when” part. As you can imagine, a school cannot have all of their class on certain days at ideal times. For many students this would be Tuesday and Thursday (TR) between 11 AM and 2 PM. Students often like a TR schedule because it allows for a 4-day weekend. The 11-1 slot means you don’t have to get up too early or stay on campus too late. The problem is that most students take 4 or 5 classes so there is really no way you can fit in everything on this TR time frame.

So now the decision-making begins. Here are two critical questions: (1) Are you willing to take classes on any day; and (2) Are you willing to take classes that start at any time of day? These are questions only you can answer, but I want to make an important point: Don’t let anyone tell you to take a class on a certain schedule that you really are not happy about. For example, if you just do not think you can get up for an 8 AM class, I believe you should not take this class. Let me add that I understand that you may have to take a class that early if it is a required course or there is simply no other time you can take a particular class. Also, there are those who argue that letting students determine when they want to take classes will lead to scheduling nightmares, again because students want to take classes at “prime” times. Finally, it is argued that when students get a job they will have very little say over their work schedule so they need to get used to taking classes at all times, early or late. Still, I believe that forcing a student to take classes at times they do not prefer decreases a student’s responsibility for their college career, and will likely lead to lower motivation and less learning.

Sorry, but I must add one last point about when you take your classes. Don’t forget to leave time in your schedule for lunch—you gotta eat!

As for the “where” part of selecting classes, this is also an important consideration. The main issue here is that you want to try and select classes in buildings close enough together that you are not scrambling to get to class. In general, there is a 10-minute break between classes. Most schools are relatively compact as far as the location of buildings. However, if you attend a large university it is quite possible that your classes will be far away. Getting to your next class may require you to leave one class a little early. If you have to do this, make sure you talk to your instructor about this. This is made tougher when the weather is lousy—think Chicago in the winter! Again, you may have no choice over where a class is located, but if you can be selective try and make sure that the buildings are kind of close. One thing you can do in this regard is to check out how long it will take you to walk between your classes.

selectclass-classroom-824120_12803) What is the “value” of the class? One could argue that every class has equal value—they are all important. However, I feel you need to be pragmatic about this point, and realize that some courses have more value than others. For example, I feel that required courses are more valuable than electives. The value of required courses is even higher for those required courses that are only offered once a year or once every other year. You need these courses to graduate so make sure you select these to take as soon as possible As far as electives, taking these is much more flexible. I realize electives may be really interesting and may not be offered on a regular basis, but it is best to take electives to fill in slots in your schedule when required courses just will not fit in.

I want to add three caveats to my position on required courses. First, don’t take a required course if it will lead to taking more credit hours than you had planned. The additional time and stress that the additional course will probably cause is really not worth it–just plan on taking the class another semester. Second, there will be a number of required courses you must take that are typically called “General Education” courses. One view about these courses is that they should be taken as soon as possible (e.g., freshman and sophomore years) so that you do not have a big delay between what you learned in high school and taking the class in college—think Math. Also, if you take General Education courses early on you can concentrate on courses in your major in your final years of college. However, others feel that there is no problem interspersing General Education courses with those of your major as you move through your college career. It’s your call on this, but I tend to side with the General Education courses throughout one’s college career viewpoint. Finally, sometimes when students select classes they use a strategy of selecting one more required course than they need. They then attend all their classes and drop the class that seems least appealing. In general, I am not supportive of this strategy, because before you drop a class you are holding the slot that another student needed.

I know this is a lot of information to think about, However, because selecting classes is so important to your college success I wanted you to have a faculty member’s perspective on this process. Good luck as you select your classes!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

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Dropping a Course: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

One of the toughest decisions you might have to face in college is whether to drop a course or not. The fact that you have this choice makes clear that college is a time when you have a lot more say over your education than in the past (e.g.., you can’t just drop courses in high school). However, it also shows that as you go through colleges there seem to be more and more decisions you need to make.

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Why would consider dropping a course? Believe it or not there are many possible reasons for dropping a course and they really range quite a bit in the circumstances surrounding the course you are in:

          You don’t like the Instructor 
          You feel the course is not meeting your expectations (e.g., too hard)
          You are not doing well in the course
          You are spending too much time on this course
          You are feeling stressed and anxious because of the course
          You have had significant life changes and can’t spend time on the course

Regardless of the reason, I feel it is very important that ultimately it is you who takes the responsibility for making the decision about dropping or not. Sure you should talk to others about your situation—an advisor, friends, family members, and/or the Instructor–but in the end you must be the person who decides to stay or go. Also, do not think that if you drop the course that it indicates some weakness on your part. To the contrary, this decision is a sign of strength, that you realized something was wrong and you took steps to deal with the situation and move forward with your college career.

As you consider your decision, here are a number of critical questions to think about:

1) If you drop the course, can you take it later? When you take a course you typically need it to fulfill some requirement. But, dropping a course does not mean you cannot take it another semester. If you need the course, check with your advisor and see when it will be offered again. It is likely that the course will be offered soon and you can retake the course with a better outcome.

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2) Should you just hang in there and hope that things will get better? In some cases this might be a worthwhile strategy. Perhaps you had a something relatively minor come up that set you back and you can overcome this “hiccup in the road” with renewed effort. However, this can be a risky strategy and all the work in the world may not overcome certain factors that indicate you should drop. For example, if you feel that you do not mesh with the Instructor’s teaching style it is probably best to drop and move on. It is unlikely the Instructor is going to change their style to suit you any time soon.

3) What are the financial implications of dropping the course? Now this gets a little more complicated because there are two issues to keep in mind: tuition costs and financial aid

a) Tuition costs. Most colleges have you pay tuition for a range of full-time credit hours. For example, you pay the same amount for taking 12-15 credit hours. Therefore, if you are taking 15 credit hours and you drop a 3 credit hour course, your tuition payment will not be affected. In this case, dropping a course is not going to set you or your parents back any money.

 b) Financial aid. For certain types of financial aid you must be taking a certain number of credit hours. Thus, if you drop a course you might fall below the threshold and potentially lose your financial aid—not good! For other types of financial aid, dropping a course is tied to financial aid dates. These dates indicate what percentage of financial aid you will lose—dropping early in the semester penalizes you less than dropping later in the semester.

4) Will your transcript reflect dropping a course? Maybe—it all depends on dates again. Whether you know it or not, there is an academic calendar at every college that indicates the deadlines for when certain things must get done, including dropping courses. For example, colleges allow you a short grace period at the start of each semester (typically a few days or a week) where you are allowed to drop a course and that course will not even appear on your transcript. However, as the semester moves on the “penalty” for dropping gets a bit tougher. This may include a grade of “W” (for withdraw) appearing on your transcript. Ultimately, there is a date where you basically cannot drop a course (and must accept the grade you are going to get) unless you have extenuating circumstances (e.g., an extended illness). The bottom line is to know your drop dates!

5) Does having a “W” on my transcript hurt my chances to be accepted to graduate or professional school or to get a job offer? Again, it depends. A student may worry that a “W” grade on a transcript will indicate to others that they were lazy or not able to deal with difficult material. However, it is typically the case that a “W” on a transcript does not give any indication for why a student dropped a particular course. Thus, a faculty member could infer something negative about a student who has a “W”, but it would be an inference with no actual evidence. Let me add this to hopefully make you feel better–in my 28 years as a professor, sitting on admissions committees every year, I never heard a colleague suggest not accepting a student because they had a “W” grade.

As you can see, dropping a course is not a very simple process. It requires a lot of thinking and ultimately a difficult decision on your part. However, with the help of others (especially your advisor) I am confident you will make the right choice.

Decisions, Decisions…Choosing a Major

          The Spring semester is ready to start and for many of you it is probably time to start thinking about choosing a major, or if you already have a major, deciding if your major is best for you. Just to be clear a major involves the concentrated study of a specialty area. These specialty areas are referred to as “disciplines”. Psychology is a discipline. Similarly, disciplines include English, Hispanic Studies, Economics, Mechanical Engineering…I think you get the picture! It is possible to have two majors–a “double-major” for those who have two primary interests.

student&computer-15812_1920          It would be nice if I could simply tell you what to major in, but that decision has to be yours (no matter how much your parents think it should be their decision!). For some of you choosing a major will be relatively easy. Let’s say you want to be an accountant, you will major in Accounting. In this example, your major allows you to enter a profession upon graduating. This example is what we call a “vocational major” and it involves an applied career. Other vocational majors include Nursing, Education, Architecture, Engineering, and Journalism.

          There may be some of you who are also clear on your professional career goals in other fields. As examples, you may be interested in Medicine (not just being a doctor, but a physician’s assistant or physical therapist), Dentistry, or Law. You should understand that there is not a major (e.g., “medical doctor” major) for any of the careers just listed. If you have one of these career goals you will typically choose a major in a discipline directly related to Medicine (e.g., Biology or Chemistry), Dentistry (e.g., Biology or Chemistry), or Law (e.g., Political Science). After graduating with your undergraduate degree, you will then apply to a specific “professional school” to get a graduate degree. For example, if you want to be a doctor you will hopefully get into a medical school and graduate with a graduate degree—an M.D. (Medical Doctor). All of these fields have changed quite a bit in recent years and you do not necessarily have to major in a directly related field. In fact, you can major in anything as long as the courses you take meet the requirements of the medical school, dental school, or law school you would like to attend. As an example, I can tell you that there are an ever-increasing number of Psychology majors who apply to medical school and law school.

          Unlike the examples of specific careers above, it is important to keep in mind that most majors prepare you for a range of job opportunities and professions. For example, if you decide to major in History the job opportunities include: advertising executive, analyst, archivist, broadcaster, campaign worker, consultant, congressional aide, editor, foreign service officer, foundation staffer, information specialist, intelligence agent, journalist, legal assistant, lobbyist, personnel manager, public relations staffer, researcher, and teacher. For many students, having a major with multiple career options is a real advantage.

          If you really do not know what to major in, try to keep calm about it. You will start college as “Undeclared” or “Undecided”, but you will be fine for two reasons. First, at most four-year colleges and universities, you are not required to declare a major until the end of your sophomore year. Second, it is important that you take the time and effort necessary to make an informed choice. This way, in the end you will be rewarded with a major that will help guide you to a successful career. Exploring different majors will require some research, including reading about different majors, talking to others students and faculty and even taking a course in various majors. Other ways to help you decide about majoring is searching the Internet, reading about different majors, talking to your academic advisor, talking to your parents, going to the Career Center on campus, attending meetings of student organizations and clubs, and reading campus bulletins. One thing I will add about taking classes in different disciplines is that while all students seem to know what certain majors are about (e.g., Biology and Psychology), until you take an Anthropology or a Geology course you may not really understand what career possibilities there are in these lesser known majors. As a student said to me, “When I came to college I didn’t have my major chosen and I would  advise    people to explore. Say you do know what your major is, still explore different classes. That’s what your first two years are for. Then if you don’t like your major you’ve already found out. You don’t want to find out your senior year.” A faculty colleague also said to me: “Shop around! Take a broad assortment of classes and see what is the best fit. Don’t be afraid to try out a class that you think you might hate. Make sure that you pick a major that will help you think about the world in a new way.”

          There is one final point to make about majors: Changing your major is not the end of the world. On the one hand, it is OK to change your major because it is critical that you decide on a major that is best for you. In fact, some students will change majors several times before deciding on a good fit. On the other hand, it is important to understand that when you change majors you always risk delaying your graduation date, hopefully by just a little but possibly by a lot. This may occur because certain courses you need for one major do not fulfill requirements for another major. In addition, your new major may require additional courses to be taken. Of course, you should check out all requirements for a major you like and discuss the implications of switching majors with your academic advisor.

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!