What Could I Have Done in Your Class?

StudySmarts are posts written to help college students, based on decades of experience teaching and mentoring undergraduates.

Tutors and Students Work in the New Writing Center
Image by CellPhoneSusie via Flickr

At the end of every semester, I receive a few em

ails from earnest students who wonder why they did not end up with a better grade.  These are not bad students – they didn’t miss a dozen classes or fail a few exams.  They are students who ended up with a B when they hoped for an A, or a C+ when they need to maintain a B average for their major.

Learn from the evaluation

These students have courage – and basic StudySmarts. They take the grade as a piece of information about the level of their performance, and ask what could be done to improve it. They wonder if there was one area – their papers or their exams, their class participation – that pulled their grade below the level they desired.

Most of the time, though, these messages take me by surprise – not because I think the students don’t care about their grades.  No, I’m surprised that they don’t know what the problem is.  I’ve usually been trying to get their attention about it for weeks or months.

Don’t wait for that final grade – learn now!

I set up my courses – especially those with first year students – so that they get a lot of feedback about their performance along the way.  Frequent small assignments or quizzes, several exams instead of just a midterm and a final.  A few smaller papers instead of one large paper.  Each grade – each evaluation – is accompanied by hints for improvement, referrals to resources like the Writing Center or help with studying, and an invitation to work with me to pull the grade up.

With all that information, a few things are usually true:

Office Hours
Image by shawnblog via Flickr
  • The final grade should not be a surprise; most of it was determined before the student turns in the last paper or takes the last exam
  • Most students have relatively similar grades across several tests or several papers. Unless they do something different after the first exam or first paper, all the rest of their grades will be pretty similar.
  • The best time to ask, “What could I do to get a better grade in classes like yours” is right after the first exam, first paper, even the first quiz.

Better still – talk before you have any grade at all

Most faculty members have Office Hours posted; few students ever visit them.  Students who drop by after the first class -before anything has been evaluated – develop good rapport with the professor.  They ask what the prof looks for on exams – and  then they ask why that’s important for this subject.  The information can save hours of fruitless studying – they know how the prof is thinking!

I always answer those end-of-semester emails honestly and in depth – hoping it will benefit the student in another class.  But the most important piece of advice is this:

Don’t write the email when the class is over.  Write it the first time your grade is not where you want it to be.

Is there a topic you’d like to see covered in StudySmarts? Drop a note in the Comments and I’ll add it to the list.

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