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Doing College

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

Another thing I have discovered in my 18 years as an engineering professor is that high school does not really prepare students for how to do college. They take the required classes to graduate but they don't learn the professional skills they need for college. For example, it is important to have critical thinking, creativity, organization, time management, communication, writing and problem solving skills to do well in college.

In addition, students must learn to be comfortable with not immediately knowing the answer. Sometimes you have to work for it. This requires reading, research, investigative skills, and asking questions. This means going to the library, internet, Google Scholar, ResearchGate and Wikipedia.

In college, submitting work late is not typically an option. Neither is extra credit or multiple do overs to iterate your assignments into an an A. Therefore, learning to do it correctly and on time the first time is vitally important. This means you have to learn to follow directions, explicitly, to the letter. Reading comprehension is key to this. If you need help to do that, get it.

The reason professors don't always just give you the answer is because you cannot develop as an intellectual without some self-discovery. College is about teaching you how to problem solve and mature as a scholar. This cannot be done without solving open-ended, ill-formed, long-term problems. I like to tell my students, if I tell you the source of your mistake, you will do it again. However, if you spend the next six hours finding that missing semi-colon in your code, or realizing you did not push the power button for your circuit then you will never make that mistake again. 🤣

I went to high school in Nashville, TN. My school was a big castle downtown on Broadway near Second avenue, shout out to Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet. At my high school, we did ten page essays on novels that I barely understood and stayed up all night studying for Spanish exams or trying to balance an accounting ledger. Therefore, I was surprised to discover that some of my students barely had homework and never took a book home.

I see my role as a professor as one who takes the students on a journey to achieve their personal and professional goals. I am like a personal trainer who provides guidance to get them there. In order to prepare students for their future, I have to increase the reps and add on more weights. This is why once you learn how to do something in class, it will look harder and more difficult on the homework. Then right when you think you have that mastered, I will switch it up on the exam. This teaches you to learn in context and not to simply memorize or pattern match. Students always complain the test did not look like the quizzes, lecture problems, homework. Exactly. This is because when you become a working engineer, your boss will not give you problems that they already know the answer to. They also will not give you problems where they know all the steps to get to the solution. Your job is to figure that out.

My students tell me that I am hard. I tell them that I have exacting standards, I am rigorous but I am also fair. I went to an engineering school that was hard and rigorous but without the fairness and standards. For example, professors would curve a D to an A when most of the class failed the exam, this is not standards. Exams were so hard that the only way to pass was memorize old versions of the professors tests, this was not fair. My syllabus is my contract with the students and my grade levels are on it. I give exams with clear learning objectives based upon the lectures, exams, quizzes, homework and labs. I don't curve exams because I make exams that are passable. In this way, they are a true reflection of the student's understanding. I also provide all students with old exam materials to make it fair to everyone. The entire class starts on the same playing field. In other words, I give you all the support and resources to be successful. The choice is yours whether to take me up on it or not.

So today's advice list is How to Do College.

  1. Make a 4 year plan in a spreadsheet that has all of your major and minor courses. Figure out the pre-requisites and what quarter you will take each of them and make sure everything is in order. Mark them off with the grade as you complete them. If you have to make changes or fail something, make the necessary adjustments.

  2. Go see your advisor every quarter/semester to review your major and minor classes and also discuss opportunities like internships, co-ops, global and/or research experiences. Try to do at least two of these before you graduate.

  3. Learn how to calculate your GPA to figure out what you need in courses to get the GPA that you want.

  4. Learn how to calculate your grade in class so you know what you need on assignments and the final to get the grade in the class that you desire.

  5. Have a spiral notebook, folder on computer for each class and put in important documents like the syllabus and assignment due dates. Also make sub folders for materials like projects, homework, quizzes, exams.

  6. Go to class every day, sit in the front, and take notes. Notes should be in one place together like a spiral notebook. Put a date, topic, objective on your notes. Write down what the professor says as well as what they write on the board or document camera. Put all hand outs together with the notes and other assignments. Put an asterisk or put questions beside any content you don't understand. Either raise your hand to ask or save it for later to ask during tutoring or office hours.

  7. Print out the course schedule for each class and put it over your desk to make sure you never miss a deadline. Also, set reminders on Outlook calendar on computer and on mobile phone for exams and assignment due dates.

  8. Be clear how to submit assignments whether in person or in a learning management system. Also if there are late penalties, know what they are and how they are applied. If there are policies academic honesty make sure you are clear on them. Different professors have different policies. Know when you can Learn how to use Microsoft Word or Google Docs for papers. Do as much writing as possible to improve your creative and technical writing. get help and work with classmates and when you cannot.

  9. Learn how to use Excel for calculations and to create graphs. Also learn hot to create and give a technical presentation.

  10. Learn how to use PowerPoint and make a compelling set of slides and presentation. If you are uncomfortable speaking in front of people, take a toastmasters, acting or communications course.

  11. Learn how to engage and speak to people to get comfortable talking to your professors, advisors, and peers. This will also be invaluable when you interview for internships or scholarships.

  12. Get to know your classmates and dormmates and find people to take classes with and study with. Unlike high school, doing college alone is darn near impossible and a recipe for disaster.

  13. Make a daily schedule of studying, working, eating, sleeping, exercising, and going to class, see example here.

  14. Go see all your professors and tutors. Ask questions and take notes.

  15. Do all required reading and take notes. Put the notes in the same book as your class notes so everything you need is together when you need it for exams and homework.

  16. If you need supplemental instruction beyond the class lecture, then watch trusted sources on YouTube, KhanAcademy or sites like McGraw-Hill Education.

  17. Start at least 2 to 3 days early on every assignment so there is time to ask questions and get help if necessary.

  18. Never take a quiz or exam without studying at least an hour the day before. Do not cram but save enough time to study. Make a study guide of the learning objectives or a curriculum or concept map.

  19. Break down the exam topics by day and study a different one each day leading up to the test.

  20. As soon as you get a bad grade, review the assignment, figure out what you missed and then go see the professor or tutor to understand and learn from your mistakes.

Note that this list is in no way extensive and it is only recommendations. As an advisor, I give advice but I don't tell grown folks what to do. If something fits your style, then use it. If something does not, then throw it out. Lastly, if you have any additional recommendations, please add them in the comments.

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