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Navigating the Classroom and Professors

We’re a couple of weeks into classes, and your students have been sorting through the syllabi to understand course requirements, doing their homework, and participating in class.

They are probably also realizing – perhaps with dismay or alarm – that a college workload is different than a high school workload.  The volume of work can seem daunting – maybe reading a whole English novel or lengthy chapters of science texts in the course of just a few days.  Your student may feel that in the first few weeks of college level math, they’ve covered what took their high school math teacher an entire year to teach.  And now all the material is new, with no reference points to look back on.

It’s at this time that a new student’s confidence can begin to be shaky.  So, how do you help mentor your student as he/she begins to navigate the classroom and interact with professors?

This is a great place to start: Christy Buchanan, Associate Dean for Academic Advising, put together a list of her Top 10 Things That Academically Successful Students Do.  Dean Buchanan has been a member of the faculty in the psychology department for many years and so she has seen a lot of students.  This advice is as solid as it comes.

If Dean Buchanan’s advice is the starting point for your students, how can you help augment those messages?

Encourage your student is to take his/her academic temperature early and often.  “Do I understand the course material? Am I getting it? Am I succeeding?”  And if the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then the student needs to take control of the situation and get assistance.

Assistance can come in many forms:  going to the professor’s office hours (regularly scheduled hours each week when the professor will be in his/her office) to go over course material and ask deeper questions; making an appointment at the Learning Assistance Center for tutoring or suggestions on how to study better, or at the Writing Center for help on papers or the Math Center or Chemistry Center for help; talking to other students in the class to form a study group.

Sometimes first year students do not want to ask for help because they feel like they “ought to know” how to do well in their classes or they feel like “everyone else gets it” and they don’t want to out themself as the one who doesn’t get it.

Most Wake Forest students are accustomed to being shining stars in high school; perhaps they haven’t ever struggled academically.  Suddenly they’re in classes with students who are just as good (or better) in a subject, the pace of the academics is faster, or it’s just plain harder to be the star pupil.  This can rattle some students’ confidence.  This is a great opportunity for family members to remind their student that a truly smart student is one who asks for assistance when he or she needs it.

Some students are terribly afraid of disappointing their parents with “bad” grades, and are their own toughest critics.  Help your students feel comfortable to discuss academics with you without fear of punishment.  It may be that your student is doing all he/she can – studying, getting extra help, visiting office hours for their professors – and the best he/she can do is still a C.  Let your student know that all you ask for is his or her very best effort, and that your love is unconditional.  The reality is that in college, very few students can be a star at everything.  It may help to share a story with your student about a subject you struggled in, and let him/her know you still got through calculus or organic chemistry or Spanish and still managed to retain the love and respect of your parents.

In terms of helping them be successful in interacting with professors, encourage your student to come to class prepared and ready to contribute to the course discussion or lab.  Every professor provides a syllabus, or class outline, that shows all course assignments, dates papers are due, daily reading or homework, and exam dates.  Students are responsible for following that syllabus and being prepared.  Students should communicate on the side of formality unless/until the professor says otherwise.  So always begin with “Dr. Jones” rather than “John” when addressing the faculty member.

Professors enjoy it the most when students are actively engaged in learning.  Students can – and should – bring their ideas to the table.  Each first year student will take two discussion-based seminar classes which are deliberately small, with around 18 people.  Students should feel free to speak up, ask questions, and voice their opinion.  Your student doesn’t have to agree with everything other students (or even the professor) say in these discussion courses – sometimes the best classes are ones where there are vastly differing opinions and ideas.  Those hearty discussions often prompt the most learning.

Professors also like to see students during their office hours.  Encourage your student to visit his/her professors and to get to know them as people, not just as faculty members.  Wonderful friendships can develop from the casual office hours visit, where student and faculty member discuss and share ideas and discover mutual interests.

You can help the University by reinforcing to your student that it is important to be vigilant about plagiarism and to respect the Honor Code.  Professors deal in the world of ideas and theories – so to take someone else’s idea, theory, or quotation and use it as your own (without proper citation) is a very serious academic offense on any campus.  Remind your student that even though it might seem that doing some late night research on Google and borrowing a few paragraphs is no big deal, plagiarism is a very big deal and one must always cite one’s work.

You also have to ensure you respect the academic boundaries in the college setting.  Simply put, parents and family members cannot under any circumstances do the work for the student.  This is absolutely critical.   Dr. David Levy, Associate Dean of the College and Chair, Honor and Ethics Council, wrote a very informative piece on student academic integrity and parental assistance that all parents should read.

Finally, and this is of critical importance, the STUDENT should do the communicating and interacting with the professor, not the parent.  The student needs to form a productive working relationship with the faculty.  So if your student asks you to help talk to their professor, or if you feel twitchy and want to do this, resist that urge.  Your student needs to take the initiative here and the faculty will respect your student far more for being a self-advocate.

As the semester continues, and students have received grades on tests or papers, they will become more comfortable with the pace of college level work and what is expected of them.  For now, parents and families can help by listening and providing encouragement, reminding their student to do the best they can, to get any help they need, and be honest.