Getting the grades you want is not that difficult if you are willing to put the time and effort, and especially if the class material is of interest to you. The administration provides a simple 5 step recipe to follow to be academically successful and it is actually true!
- Go to lectures.
- Do the course readings.
- Submit all course assignments.
- Study for midterms/exams.
- Show up and write your midterms/exams.
Following this basically ensures you a passing grade. However, taking a full course load, especially in the social sciences, can come with a tremendous amount of readings and papers to write. This is why time management is fundamental in prioritizing your deadlines. Sometimes, you also have to actively push yourself to pay attention and engage with the material.
Paying Attention in Lectures
You can’t simply go and be present at lectures. You also have to pay attention. That means no listening to music, watching videos, chatting on Facebook or Skype, reading gossip magazines, or any other distracting activity. All you should have open is a Word Doc for taking down lecture notes or a pen and a notebook. If you have weak will power, disable your internet or use software like “Anti-Social” to block social media sites. Another strategy is to sit in the first few rows, right where the professor can see you, so that you are discouraged from talking with others and therefore pay more attention. Which brings us to another point: don’t sit with people who are distracting. Also be realistic with yourself. If you know from the beginning you are unlikely to go to the lecture because of its time or day, then don’t take it. Set it up, so you don’t have any excuses not to go.
Taking lecture notes can also be tricky. If you can, try and write down everything the professor says and decipher and condense the notes later. You should also go prepared. If the professor posts a PowerPoint lecture before class, save/print them, or copy and paste them into a word doc. This way you can save time writing down what’s already on the notes (and therefore save your poor fingertips from typing) and just add the extra material the professor discusses. As well, volunteering to be a note taker for Accessibility will encourage you to attend class and take better notes.
Taking great lecture notes will be fundamental when it’s time to study for your midterms and exams, since most of the exam material always comes from lectures. You will be pleasantly surprised when you are reviewing your notes and have detailed explanations for important concepts because you were present and engaged during lecture.
Participation marks are the easiest portions of your grade to complete and could make a significant difference in your final grade (sometimes a difference of a whole grade i.e. between B+ and an A-). Make sure you know and follow the requirements each course asks for. Sometimes participation is in lectures, in tutorials, or online. Sometimes it’s as little as attending tutorials. Don’t miss out on easy marks because you are too lazy to make it to tutorials! If you are too shy and don’t feel comfortable participating in class, ask your TA if you can do something equivalent to make up for the marks. Some examples could be handing in a short response or opinion on the readings or the lecture topic. Another strategy is to actually do the readings before the tutorial to gain confidence when discussing the main debates and answering questions.
Meet with your professor or TA and discuss what their expectations are to achieve a certain grade. For example, simply ask what does an A+ paper look like/include. Don’t do this the week before assignments, midterms, or exams are due. This is the time when everyone goes for last minute help. Instead, you should go as soon as you can. Grading can sometimes be subjective and abstract, especially in the social sciences, so you need to have a solid idea of what makes a strong paper and fulfil all the technical requirements.
Don’t Be Afraid to Argue Marks
If you know you received a lower mark than you deserve (either for a paper, midterm, or overall), discuss it with your TA or professor. Sometimes, your mark can be due to a misunderstanding or a technical glitch. If that’s not the case, you should approach the manner calmly and respectfully. You can inquire about where you lost marks (i.e. start from 100% and see how marks were deducted), how you can do better next time, or ask for a review of your paper/exam by the TA or even the professor. It’s also always a good idea to go to the meeting prepared, meaning that you are ready to argue why you deserve a better mark after reviewing your own work, the requirements, and substantiating your claims with solid evidence. However, arguing your marks has to come with some good faith, because there is a difference between not liking your mark and genuinely thinking it’s undeserved.
Don’t Be Afraid to Withdraw from a Class
Dropping a class should ideally be done before the last drop-date, so you should keep track of deadlines. However, even if that has passed you can still drop a class with no real consequences. On your transcript it will be marked with Late Withdrawal, but that has no effect on your application for grad schools or your cumulative GPA. You need to make realistic choices about your classes and know your expectations for yourself. If you think you will receive a low mark (or even fail the class) which will drag down your GPA it is always better to drop the class and just cut your losses (both financially and the time and work you have put into it).
Doing Course Readings
Why does doing your readings matter? Valid question. It gives you that little extra to get you an ‘A’ on the exam. It helps you to better understand course lectures and concepts instead of just memorizing and regurgitating. It enriches your personal knowledge base for future heated discussions, subsequent classes and papers. So the real question then is not why but when to do your readings, and how to do them in the most useful and efficient manner.
Doing your readings before lecture allows for better and more informed participation in class (think about those participation marks!) and it demonstrates to your professor or TA that you are interested and have prepared (think about forging relationships and reference letters!). You can also retain more information during lecture and understand the concepts better, and you have the opportunity to clarify ideas or concepts you don’t understand. You can do the readings while you are fresh and motivated and it gives you a sense of accomplishment, preparedness, and confidence when participating.
Doing your readings after lecture could be more time efficient when taking notes. This is because you already have a good idea on the main topics, debates, and concepts discussed in class, so notes from your readings can simply supplement your lecture notes with greater details. Since you have already discussed the main issues in class, this could contribute to better understanding the readings, especially if they are more academic and dense journal articles. However, the danger with this strategy is that you will probably procrastinate doing your readings at all, because you will be burned out after attending classes.
Doing your readings in advance, can also save you time during exam time, since you can quickly review the main ideas for each week. Here are some simple but effective ways on taking notes:
- Short notes for each article, paraphrasing the main idea (i.e. thesis).
- Mind maps.
- Newer versions of Adobe Reader lets you highlight and insert text bubbles (for additional notes) in PDF files, so you can avoid printing them out or typing out your notes!
- Focus on the key course concepts and their definitions, context, and examples.
- Find the overarching theme or connection between each week’s readings.
- Identify the limitations (or what you think are the shortfalls) of certain readings.
- Take a look at this template as an example on how to take notes on each assigned reading.
Make sure to look at the handouts from the Writing Center on Critical Reading and Critical Thinking for some useful tips.