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.

College Summer Break: Use It Wisely!

With the school year coming to a close I thought it would be useful to discuss how best to think about summer break. In talking about this, it is important to keep in mind that my advice is for both those who will still be in college next academic year and incoming students.

I feel that the end of the academic year is a time to recharge. All those weeks of hard work have probably left you tired and in need of some much needed downtime. There is nothing wrong with just hanging out and getting yourself back to normal, at least during a part of the summer. For some of you, those initial days home will bring some much-needed sleep and a lot of good times with family and friends. Think of this aspect of summer break as a reward for a job well done. You made it through the school year and you are to be rewarded for all your efforts. Hopefully, your grades will reflect how hard you worked.

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I hope your time relaxing will include a few good books. As always, there is nothing like reading to calm you down and get your mind thinking about the world in new and exciting ways. In addition, all that reading will have residual benefits of improving your vocabulary, writing and thinking. In addition, what you read may even be related to what you are studying in school. The way I think about it, a good book goes a long way to a more relaxed person.

I understand that the summer is a time to refresh, but summer break is also a time to get things accomplished and to think ahead. One thing you might want to do is get a job during the summer months. It is likely that you can use the cash not only to do things during the summer or buy something you need, but it can also help you out with things you will need when school starts (e.g., textbooks). Also, if you can get a job related to your ultimate career plans that would be great–there is nothing like gaining experience in the workplace.

As far as thinking ahead, you might wonder what there is to prepare for, but it doesn’t take long to think of a list of things you probably need to do during the summer to ready for the next school year. I am not saying you should do all of these things right away, but at some point during the summer there are various tasks that you should try your best to get done. Here are a few:

1) visit your doctor and dentist

2) volunteer with some group, organization, or research lab—it will be great if this is related to your ultimate career goals

3) make contact with faculty who you might want to work with doing research when school begins

4) get your head together about career planning by checking out websites that offer information on various careers (e.g., careersinpsych.com if you are a Psychology major)—if you are a student getting ready to apply to graduate or professional school, start pulling application material together

5) continue to work on your resume

6) get an internship—these are great when they pay, but even if unpaid an internship gives you important practical experience

7) although it may cause you some “mental pain”, take some time to go over certain subject material that you will need to deal with when school starts

8) carefully read anything sent to you from your school, and respond immediately to any requests for information

hot-air-1373167_1280Students who are ready to start college for the first time have other things they need to consider doing during the summer. These include:

1) learn about the college town where you will be living if it will be new to you

2) start buying the things you will need for school—you don’t have to buy everything, because some things you will only learn that you need once you are on campus

3) create a LinkedIn account to help your professional career and to keep in connect with professors and other students

4) attend your college orientation, where you will register for classes and here more about life at your new school

5) if you are going to live away from home: (a) generate a packing list; (b) contact your roommate; and (c) investigate job opportunities if you need to work

6) consider attending a pre-orientation event where you can meet other incoming freshmen and faculty

7) check with the Financial Aid Office to confirm any aid you expect to receive

8) find out about the computer situation at your new school (e.g., what computer resources are available)

9) plan a budget

10) make your travel plans for arriving on campus, including how you will get all your things to campus

In closing, just remember that the summer should be a time for you to enjoy. The school year will be here before you know it. Take full advantage of this time off and be ready to go once school begins!

Special Guest Writer–Dr. Jerry Hauselt (Southern CT State University): Faculty Expectations

Professors expect that college students will act differently than high school students. Why? Because college is voluntary and expensive. Therefore, it is expected that students will take their education seriously and take responsibility for maximizing their investment of time and money. Professors expect that students will act like scholars, and come to class ready to engage with the material. You need to have the same attitude towards studying as you’d have toward training: success comes only after sustained hard work. One of my colleagues explains this to her students by telling them that they should come to class prepared to prove that they are the smartest person in the room. Students with this attitude succeed not because they impress her, but because they know the material.

Many students enter college without realizing that THE RULES HAVE CHANGED and they need to change their attitude towards academics. In high school, studying and doing well may not be popular, but in college, it’s why you’re here.

I try to convey to my students that rules have changed with the following elements from one of my syllabi:

Electronics/Facebook Free Zone. TURN OFF YOUR PHONE! NOW! Texts can wait. Also, TEXTING KILLS GRADES. If you want a poor grade, keep texting. Are you paying tuition so that you can text friends in a crowded room? Are you paying tuition to have a comfortable seat in which to make Mark Zuckerberg rich? Please note that your friend’s latest tweet or Facebook post or last night’s basketball scores WILL NOT be on the exam. Put your phone away for an hour. It won’t hurt. If you find this unfair or foolish, DROP THIS CLASS!

Respect, Please. We are here to learn about psychology. We are not here to chat, text, or engage in other behavior that will negatively impact another person’s ability to learn. You are not as quiet as you think when you text or comment to your neighbor. If you must sit and talk to your neighbor, do it outside this class. If you find this unfair or foolish, DROP THIS CLASS!

Another important element of respect for others is remaining in your seat during class. It is disruptive and rude to those around you to leave in the middle of class and return. Please take care of what you need to take care of before or after class. If you find this unfair or foolish, DROP THIS CLASS!

Electronic Access. We will be using the internet and email. It is your responsibility to gain access to both (available free in campus computer labs) and be familiar with how to use them. YOU SHOULD ALSO PLAN BACK-UP ACCESS. Learn where there are other computers you can use if yours fails.

What are your thoughts on Dr. Hauselt’s pointers?