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What Should I Do to Succeed in this Class?

Professor Amity Reading created this guide for the students in her literature classes.

Our first goal in this class is to learn —to learn about topics and perspectives that you may not know much about. As your instructor, it is my job to provide you with the tools to achieve this goal: effective and interesting readings to give you exposure to new ideas, focused discussion to test your understanding of those ideas, graded assignments to allow you the opportunity to hone your skills, and appropriate feedback to let you know how well you are mastering course concepts.

I am committed to seeing you succeed. If you keep learning in mind as your number one goal, you will have a better chance of performing well in the assessment portions of the class (i.e., on graded assignments). Remember, assessment (i.e., grading) is how your instructors “assess” how much you have learned in the class and how much effort you have put into the learning process. For your instructors, learning is always the top priority in every class. The other things are simply the means to an end. 

But in order for you to learn, you have to keep up your end of the bargain, too, and put in the required work. Here are some practical tips for success: 

- Come to class every day, and rack up as few absences as possible during the semester

- Come prepared for discussion and always bring your textbooks or readings in hard copy

- Keep up with all readings ( yes, all , not just the ones associated with graded assignments )

- Participate in class discussion

- Participate in group work

- Look carefully over feedback on assignments and integrate suggestions into your next assignments

- Prepare for assignments by looking over prompts and producing drafts well ahead of the due date

- Ask for help if you need it 

If you do these things, you will likely perform well on graded assignments and, more importantly, you will learn. 

Students tend to think of the learning process differently than instructors. They are typically focused on grades as external markers of “success” that are tied to particular outcomes (i.e., getting into medical school or keeping a scholarship). It is true—grades do impact these outcomes, and I don’t at all blame students for being concerned about them. But focusing on grades too much can actually distract students from the main goal of education: to learn. And, ironically, it is only by focusing on learning that students can achieve the best grades. 

It’s a problematic cycle that both students and instructors can get caught up in. Based on my own (not inconsiderable) experience as a teacher, it seems to me that this cycle arises from the different ways in which instructors and students talk about the learning process. Instructors are often not upfront about their pedagogical choices, which can leave students confused about what they are supposed to be doing.

Pedagogy refers to an instructor’s learning goals and assessment techniques—it’s basically what we decide to teach and how we decide to assess our students. The best teachers put a lot of effort into making sure their goals and their assessments match, so that (to the greatest extent possible), they are assessing students on what they have learned in class, not what they were previously taught or what they might be innately good at.

But teachers are assessed, too, by their students, peers, and institutions. This means that instructors also often end up focusing on assessing what is really their own teaching, not their students’ learning. This can lead to situations in which students are learning valuable things in a class, just not what the instructor thinks she’s teaching. In these situations, there is typically no space to demonstrate the learning that is actually taking place in the graded assignments. This can be discouraging for both instructors and students. 

Okay, here’s a sample of what this cycle looks like in a classroom setting— 

Professor: I’ve posted the essay assignment due next week on Moodle. It gives students a detailed prompt and format guidelines so that they have a sense of what the assignment should be doing. We’ve been reading poetry in class for the last four weeks together, so they should know what that process looks like now. So, for this assignment, I’ve asked them to analyze a poem that we haven’t read together, so that I can assess how well they have mastered the skills associated with reading poetry. 

Student: This assignment is asking me to analyze a poem that we didn’t cover in class, and I’m going to be graded on that? That’s not fair! How am I supposed to perform well on this assignment if I haven’t ever seen the poem before and I have no idea what it means? And is the focus of this assignment my writing or my analysis of the poem? It’s going to be hard for me to focus on my grammar if I’m struggling to figure out what I’m saying. I’ll just summarize the poem, but I’ll really focus on my writing. I know English teachers are always looking for that. 

Essay grade: C 

Professor: I was clear in my prompt about what the assignment was supposed to accomplish, but this student must not be learning what I am teaching, even though we’ve been practicing the same skills over and over again for four weeks. This essay was written at the high school level, as if nothing new had been learned since then. It was entirely summary, and it did not demonstrate any of the concepts we’ve been practicing in class, like attention to word choice, identification of literary devices, or development of an argumentative thesis. Well, this essay wasn’t worth much of the final grade total, and there are three more essays coming up—hopefully, the student will learn from this assignment and improve with the next one. That’s why I spent the time to give them feedback. 

Student [frustrated]: I got a C? The professor hates me. But it’s not my fault. She graded me on stuff that she didn’t even teach me yet. She’s a bad teacher. Now I’m going to withdraw from this class, because I obviously will be getting a terrible grade on all the rest of the assignments, too. I just don’t know what she is looking for.

In this case, the problem arises from miscommunication on both sides. The professor has failed to make the assignment goals clear and to be transparent with students about what the learning outcomes of the course are. Very often, instructors assume that students can “read” the secret pedagogy behind their teaching choices, and this is simply not true. The more transparent instructors can be about what they are teaching and how, the better the outcomes will be for everyone. But “transparency” is not the same thing as telling students what we are “looking for.” We need to be transparent about learning goals, not performance cues. 

At the same time, the student has seriously misread the importance of what happens in class discussion and in the feedback portion of assessment. Perhaps the biggest difference between the student perspective and the instructor perspective on learning is the value of application as a skill. Instructors always want students to be able to apply what they have learned in a new context—in this case, a new poem.

There is simply no clearer or more accurate way of determining if students have mastered a concept than to see them recognize new contexts in which it is applicable and practice it in new ways.

And that’s all assessment is—determining the extent to which students have mastered a concept. Students, on the other hand, generally prefer the certainty of memorization and imitation (hence, their obsession with study guides). They want to know what answers they need to produce to achieve the highest grade possible with the highest level of certainty possible. And, generally speaking, they want to achieve this with the least effort possible. But we instructors can hardly blame students for wanting efficiency (don’t we want the same thing?), and, in truth, a strong learning process includes elements of all three (memorization, imitation, and, as the last step, application). 

This phenomenon, coupled with students’ cultural focus on grades as an indicator of merit, is what leads students to approach assignments as “guessing games” in which the goal is to figure out what the instructor wants. I can’t count the number of times a student has asked me (somewhat suspiciously), “What are you looking for in this assignment?” as if it were a secret. I can give you a big hint: it’s not a secret. I’ll tell you up front exactly what I’m looking for in the assignments. I want all of you to come away from this class with an A. I really, truly do. And I will give you every possible assistance in achieving that A. 

So, here’s the answer: What am I looking for? For you to show me that you have learned.  How do you get an A? You show me you have learned 1) the majority of the material presented in class 2) very thoroughly. End of story. You show me that you have paid attention to the major themes and ideas we have been discussing, you can apply the material in new contexts, and you have done the reading. Because there is nothing to be extracted from the reading besides the reading itself. In a literature class, this will always be true. The reading is the content. One of the things I will be teaching you is how to read closely and carefully, and you can’t learn that if you aren’t doing the reading. Therefore, if you aren’t doing the reading, you can’t show me what you are learning. And if you can’t show me what you are learning... well, you get the idea. 

To support you in your success, remember that I will be offering periodic feedback throughout the semester, so that you know where you stand in terms of course concepts. I am also available via email and in Office Hours, if you have a question about course concepts that isn’t covered in class. At the end of the day, though, your success is in your own hands. If you are learning, you are succeeding. But learning is different from performing. One is deep, real, and will last your entire lifetime; the other may not even get you what you want in the short-term. It’s your choice which you prioritize. 

Last modified July 2019