Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Advice Students Need (that no one seems to tell them)

Every year (usually at the end of the semester) it occurs to me that somewhere there should be a handbook for students on what some of the unwritten rules are about being a good student, and doing well. I hear professors and TAs bemoan this, usually in the form of "They should have learned this already." But I'm a big believer in teaching where your students are not where you think they should be.
These are usually little things, but I notice that they are often the difference between students that excel, and students who flounder.

So here's my list:
  • With absences, don't push them. A student with 4 (out of the max of 6) absences a month into the semester is a warning sign. Some professors will not let you know that you're close to being dropped (I email mine) and you could end up dropped from a course at the end of the semester despite the work you've done.
  • Read the syllabus. No, seriously, read it. It forms a contract between you and your professor, which means you are responsible for all the information on it.

Personal responsibility is the single biggest thing that defines good students.
  • Show you have it. This goes for absences (don't email professors and ask "What did I miss?"). A little professionalism goes a long way.

  • Stay on top of your absences, and while it's not required, it's always nice to let your professor know. Notice that you're not making excuses, or expecting them to make allowances, just informing them as a conscientious student. Here's my favorite:
Dear Professor Shimabukuro, 
    ​I will not be attending class on -----. I apologize for my nonattendance this week, and I will make efforts to be caught up with the work I will miss in class. I will be in class Monday and ready to start -----.
  • And on that note...Professors are not psychic. If you don't understand something, it is your responsibility to seek help. If done in a polite manner with honest intentions professors are more than willing to help.
  • Attend office hours. At least once. And not the day before the final paper/project is due.
  • If you get a paper back, and you don't understand why you got that grade, make an appointment to see your professor and ask them to go over it with you so you DO understand and can improve on the next one. Notice nowhere in there do I mention anything about asking your grade be changed.
  • If you're not doing well on smaller/earlier assignments, don't get nasty the last week of the semester because you don't have the grade you want (see all of the above). Grades are not gifts. They are not decided by Magic 8 Balls, or by where your paper fell on the stairs, or by the dart board in our office. They are earned by the work put in. If you are concerned about your performance, it is your responsibility to use your professor as a resource to improve.
  • Let's talk about tone. Professors are human, and how you speak to us makes the difference between helping you, and going the extra mile, and not. USA Today has a great article that I use the first week of class with my students. I like to make the assumption that maybe they just aren't aware.
  • Take advantage of extra opportunities the professor offers. Notice extra opportunities not extra credit. If your professor says they'll look at drafts, send them one. If your university has a writing center your professor recommends, go to it. Showing effort and professional responsibility is the difference most of the time between a C student and an A student.
  • Show that you care about the work you're doing in the class all semester. Not just the last week of classes when you see what you're grade is going to be. 
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So that's my list. I'm sure as soon as I post this I'll come up with more. So tell me, what are the things you wish your students knew that they don't? Looking for honest here, not snarky.


  1. This bit of widsom from the dean of the dept. where I first taught as an adjunct: part of your job is teaching freshmen how to be college students, period. They don't know this stuff, so you have to be tough/prescriptive in terms of the logistics--turning in work, coming to class, how to address a prof in email, etc. These are skills they need as much as where to put a comma or how to shape a paragraph.

    Granted, this was at a community college, so I think the dean saw this as a central part of his mission (and ours, as teachers of first-year comp), and it's always stuck with me. That said, I've not found the same attitude at other public and private institutions where I've taught, which I find fascinating/disheartening.

  2. As a high school teacher for twelve years, I think a lot of that stuff comes naturally to me. But I agree- it's not stuff that is normally taught in FYC.
    I'm a firm believer in teaching your students where they ARE not where you want them to be. So I do a lot of surveys, check ins, to see where they are, what they know, and what gaps I need to fill.
    I think part of this is (still) a lack of focus on teaching/pedagogy at the university level.