How to Survive the Lecture Course
The introductory lecture course may have an innocuous title, like “General Psychology I,” but such gateway courses can pack a discipline’s worth of jargon and knowledge into one or two semesters. Those who can’t crack the material could be shut out of their dream major.
“The amount of material is overwhelming,” acknowledges David E. Harris, who says more than 20 percent fail his “Introduction to Human Anatomy and Physiology” at the University of Southern Maine.
About 15 percent who take 100-level courses at large public universities get D’s or F’s or withdraw from them, says Carol A. Twigg, president of the nonprofit National Center for Academic Transformation. She works with colleges to make the lecture format more engaging. “We lose so many students between the first and second years,” she says, “because they are not passing these courses.”
You won’t be missed if you skip class and download the professor’s notes online, but you will miss out. Being there and being alert lets you figure out which stuff the professor finds most important (hint: that’s what will be on the exam).
Student support centers — from the University of California, Berkeley, to the University of Connecticut — are offering for-credit courses that help students navigate a specific lecture course.
Last semester, Cathy Healy, an instructional developer at UConn, guided four students through David B. Miller’s intro psych lectures, focusing on how to take better notes. In one exercise, she showed a 10-minute video of Mr. Miller while she, a teaching assistant and the students took notes. It revealed a troubling gap: Students had three pages while she and the T.A. averaged six. “They are not keying into what he is presenting as important material,” says Ms. Healy, who tells her students to notice the lecturer’s gestures and volume of voice. “If he’s loud and he’s waving his arms, you’d better write that down.”
Ms. Healy tells students not to relax when Mr. Miller shows a video (he starts with a music video — Al Yankovic is a favorite — then reaches for a “South Park” or “Family Guy” clip). If he took the time to show it, it’s underscoring a key point.
Does It Work?
It’s no help that 100-level lectures can have 300 or more students; that grades are often based entirely on a midterm and a final exam (so class participation and personal charm can’t save you); and that classes are taught at what feels like daybreak.
Mr. Miller’s class is at 8 a.m., and he catches some nodding off. “When I see them, I know what the outcome will be,” he says. A few have taken his advice to get aerobic exercise before class. “It does increase oxygen flow to the brain by up to 20 percent.” That, however, “doesn’t work for everybody.”
While careful not to draw conclusions, he notes that students taking linked courses have done “a notch” better on his exams — a C+ instead of a C, the class mean. Similar results have been noted for students taking courses that shadow intro chemistry and biology.
Mr. Miller believes that success is less about native intelligence than good study habits. He suggests spending time every day processing what you’ve learned, as if prepping for a pop quiz. One way is to copy lecture notes.
But, he says, “be thinking about what you are recopying — don’t be doing it while you are listening to your iPod.”