Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

College 101

Things you should know when taking college courses

I see a lot of Freshman and I also have kids who attended a high school that has, as part of its program, placement into college level courses, typically in Junior year, but in my kids' cases, during Sophomore year. Having watched this process for many years, it seems that there are some basics about the difference between high school and college courses, that we don't always explicitly tell students. So, here is my attempt to write some down. Feel free to send me others and I'll add them!

1. How do I find out what books I need for my classes?

This varies school to school. At Harvard, most faculty have a course web site and the required and recommended readings are there. At Harvard, MIT, Boston University and other places, you can go to the bookstore (i.e., Harvard/MIT Coop, Boston University Barnes and Noble) and look up the books that you need for any specific class. Beware, at BU and perhaps other schools, the books for different sections of a course are actually different (yes, this is the voice of experience; caused a late night emergency in our household).
Note that you can usually either buy or rent books and you can opt for new or used. Unlike in some highschool courses, the choice is entirely yours -- do what works best for you, however, if you are planning to take multiple years of a language, a nice copy of the suggested dictionary is probably a good investment.

2. How do I find out where my course meets?

Again, this varies by school. In general, any school will have something like these two examples.
At Boston University, visit the Student Link. You should see a list of all your BU classes, including the classroom and time at which your class meets. If you don't know where the building is, check out the campus map.
At Harvard, log in to my.harvard.edu. When you pull up the information for the course, it should include where the class meets.

3. What are office hours?

Office hours are time that your professor/instructor/section leader has set aside to be available to answer questions. In some courses, office hours turn into mini classes or help sections; in others, they are simply the professor/instructor sitting around waiting for somebody to come by with questions.
Getting to know your professor/instructor is a good idea. You don't want to waste his/her time, but if you have a reasonable question about the course, it's worth stopping by. Your question could be about something you don't understand, or it could be something related to the course, but not covered. Chances are that your professor/instructor thinks that the subject s/he is teaching is quite interesting and s/he will be happy to talk about the material with you. Creating a relationship with the professor/instructor will make it much easier for you to approach him/her should something unusual happen -- you have to miss a class, you don't do well on an exam and would like advice on how to prepare better, etc.
Make it a point to visit office hours at least once during a semester; it's time well spent.

4. How do I know when my Professor/Instructor has office hours and where they are held?

Typically, this information will be given out on the first day of class, often on a syllabus. If not, there are a couple of strategies to employ before emailing the professor and asking where/when his/her office hours are. Check out the syllabus, look for the professor's home page, check a faculty directory, and only when all those fail, email the professor to ask when and where office hours are. In most cases, this information should be readily available.

5. What are sections?

Sections typically accompany large lecture courses, but sometimes, you will also have sections for smaller courses as well. Even if the syllabus says that sections are optional, you should treat them as mandatory.
In humanities courses, sections are frequently interactive discussions. You are expected to have done the reading for the week and have attended lectures and the discussion section will allow you to engage in classroom discussion.
In science/math courses, sections are often directed at problem solving. Sometimes you'll get practice working on the kinds of problems you will encounter on homeworks and exams; sometimes you'll get tips on approaching a problem set. Sections should also provide an opportunity to ask questions. You will get the most out of section if you prepare: read the assignment before coming to section. If possible, work on it enough to identify things you don't understand so you can leverage section time to be most useful to you.

6. How are college classes different from High School classes?

First there are logistic differences. Many courses will give you a syllabus that includes readings, assignments, and due dates. You are expected to use that to figure out what you have to do; the professor/instructor may never say anything about these things explicitly. Many courses will have a course web site -- you should check it regularly to see if there are new things of which you should be aware. If the course has online discussion groups, you may need to explicitly sign up for them -- be sure to do so.
Next, there are philosophical differences. There is an assumption implicit in every college course that you are responsible for learning what you need to learn. The professor/instructor's job is to facilitate your learning, but at the end of the day, you are responsible both for knowing what you need to learn and then learning it.
What exactly does this mean? It means that when reading is assigned, you are responsible for having done the reading, regardless of whether the material is covered in class. Beyond simply having read it, you are responsible for understanding it and figuring out how it relates to other things you've read and things that are covered in class.
Material accumulates remarkably rapidly, and you might not notice how much you have been expected to learn without having been explicitly told to so. It is frequently helpful to step back each week and examine what has been covered in each course. Ask yourself, "If I wanted to test someone to see if s/he understood the material, how would I do it?" or "How could I demonstrate that I really understand this material?" If you understand the material well, you will be able to answer those questions. If you cannot, then you probably could use some review. If you do the review each and every week, you will save yourself cramming for exams or finding yourself stymied by the next paper or problem set. Also, being proactive on this front provides good fodder for stopping by office hours, appearing diligent and prepared, rather than flustered and last minute (as happens if you try cramming).
There is a second, deeper aspect here as well. You are expected to be able to go beyond what is explicitly taught. This manifests differently in humanities and STEM courses. In humanities courses, it means that you can synthesize material from different areas to address issues that have not come up in the readings, discussions, or lectures. Ideally, your high school classes prepared you well to do this, but be aware that it's expected of you -- don't be surprised.
In STEM fields, this most frequently manifests as presenting problems that are unlike any you've seen before, but can be addressed using the techniques that have been taught. That is, you should find few exams are merely "plug and chug" -- you should find that you have to figure out what techniques you've learned that can be applied in a new situation. If you can get copies of exams from previous years, they should provide some insight into what this might look like.