College-level learning

Midterms are here again and now that the results are in, students are likely to be more receptive to learning tips than before. A lower-than-expected grade tends to work that way.

So: here we go.

The bigger picture of college courses

When you take classes, you are expected to master three domains:

a. Knowledge, such as facts and definitions. Often achieved through textbook readings and lectures.

b. Understanding, such as correlations and causations. Often achieved through class discussion and lab packets.

c. Skill, such as the ability to apply knowledge and understanding to a given situation. Often achieved through exercises and assignments.

Knowledge and understanding is tested through exams.

How to participate in courses

  1. At the beginning of each week look over the week's lesson. Review the week's learning goals and look through the readings (textbook, slides, and supplemental reading). Make time for this and calendar it.

  2. During lecture time, take rough quick notes. Focus on being an active listener first. After lecture time, write out (preferably with a pen on paper) your notes and supplement them with your reading. Schedule time to do that the same day and preferably immediately after class. When you are done, you should have a weekly summary.

  3. You can use somebody else's quick notes if you miss class, but never rely on them for studying. Always make your own like in the previous step.

  4. If you have questions about lecture or readings, write them down and come to office hours. Professors actually like it when prepared students show up and ask questions.

  5. Before lab time, review the assignment to make sure you understand it. Come up with a rough plan to solve it.

  6. During lab time, apply the lessons through the lab packets, be an active participant, and ask questions about assignments and exercises.

  7. Complete and submit assignments before the deadline.

  8. At the end of the week, review the learning goals again and make sure you are good to go.

Do I really need the required textbooks and do the required readings?

Yes, that's what the word 'required' means.

How much time does this take?

For Computer Science classes, you should set aside 2-3 hours of additional time for every hour in class. For graduate classes, that can be more.

Example: a 3-credit undergraduate class meets for 3 hours a week (yes, we pretend that 50 minutes is an hour. Roll with it). That means you should budget an additional 6-9 hours for each class.

Does that seem a lot? Yes. That's what being a fulltime student means.

15 credits = 15 hours per week in class + 30-40 hours per week on assignments.

Computer Science is hard. Get used to it.

How do I prepare for exams?

If you followed the participation guidelines above, studying should be easy. For all topics covered in the exam, review your notes, the weekly learning goals and the assignments. If that all works out, you're pretty much done.

If you feel that there are gaps in your knowledge, understanding or skill, work on remediating them (before the exam!) If you don't wait with studying to th elast second and you have questions, you might even go ask your professor (!)

If you need to memorize definitions and facts, write them down with a pen on paper a few times. Typing them on a computer is much less effective.

How do I take exams?

Step 0: Prepare. See above.

Step 1: Don't panic. The best way to do that is by being prepared. See step 0.

Step 2: Put your name on the exam. Yes, right away!

Step 3: Before you start answering questions, briefly look through the entire test to know what you can expect.

If a question is unclear, call over the instructor or proctor and ask for clarification.

Step 4: Budget your time. Consider:

Step 5: Always answer all questions. Worst case scenario, you're wrong and get no points. Best case scenario, you are correct and you get full points. Most of the time, you'll be at least partially correct and you'll get partial credit. Remember: 2/10 is still more than 0/10!

Step 6: Put your name on the exam! Yes, you'd be surprised…

Don't cheat. At least in my classes, there is only one consequence for cheating, and that is failing the course.

What's the difference between graduate classes and undergraduate classes?

In undergraduate classes, you are taught most of the materials you need to master. Readings and exercises supplement the lecture.

In graduate classes, you study most of the materials yourself. Lectures supplement reading and exercises.

In other words: graduate students are guided through the materials by the course design and the instructor is there to help. Undergraduate students are taught and given specific direction.