Why? Because they unwittingly sabotage themselves in the first few weeks. As a professor who has welcomed (and despaired over) 28 incoming classes of freshmen, I offer some guidelines that can increase all freshmen’s chances of success:
1) Don’t email your professor the first week. Please. We know you are eager to introduce yourself and demonstrate your enthusiasm for our course, but this is not the way to do it. Our boxes are filled at the beginning of each year, and we do not have the time to respond to all 110 students in our classes. Yes, we’ll remember you the first day of class, but not in a good way.
2) When you do email your professors, do so professionally. A “hey, hows [sic] it going?” may be okay for a friend; to a professor, it’s down right disrespectful. Do your homework: check the faculty listing, and determine your professor’s title. Most professors have doctorates and should be addressed as “Dr. Jones.” If you do not see a title, “Professor Jones” is a safe alternative.
Write a salutation, a very brief subject line (“absence from class”), and a short—think Twitter limit—email. Conclude with “Thank you for your time,” and your full name and course number. That email will be answered promptly. The one that begins with “hey” and has the grammar errors may not be answered at all.
3) READ THE SYLLABUS. One of my former colleagues gave an in-depth quiz over his syllabus the second day of class; he could tell with astonishing accuracy from the results who would pass and who would not. Nothing, but nothing, annoys a professor more than having to answer a question—“when is it due?”— that is clearly defined on the syllabus.
It’s fine to ask for a clarification, but don’t monopolize the entire first session, especially when the answer may appear later in the document. READ IT.
4) Don’t ask stupid questions (see above). Every semester, at least one student in every class will ask this question about the first essay: “How long does it have to be?”
Congratulations. You’ve just identified yourself as a total slacker. The professor hears “how little can I do and still pass?” Don’t be this person.
5) Never begin a sentence with “my high school teacher/Mama/preacher said…” We don’t give a damn what they said. Think and speak for yourself.
6) Be respectful in class, both to your professor and your fellow students. Take part in discussions, and express your thoughts, but don’t belittle anyone else’s. Allow everyone to have a say: students who loudly interrupt others are every professor’s nightmare.
7) Don’t question your professor’s pedagogy. You may not like the way we approach a topic, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a considered reason for our method. Just last year a student told me — in class — that I was teaching a story wrong. I told her to leave.
8) Do the work. Maybe you think the homework assignment is dumb, or you hate the writing topic. Get over it, and get it done. You don’t know what you need to know by semester’s end in order to succeed in the next class; we do.
9) Recognize we are humans too. If you have a true emergency that requires you to miss class or a test, check the syllabus first: most of us post our absence/make-up policies there. Notify us as soon as possible, and you’ll find most professors understanding. But please don’t do this every week, with laboriously long explanations of the hardships in your life. Be a grown-up.
10) Come to see us. We hold office hours for a reason: to help students. If you’ve read the syllabus, done the homework, and still don’t get it, drop by during office hours. Bring specific questions that show you have attempted to learn the material. We want you to succeed and will try to help you make that happen.
11) Don’t ever jump rank before seeing us first. Let’s say you received a grade you deem unfair. Come talk to us. Odds are, you’ve just come up against the tougher demands of college. We can explain what didn’t work, and how you can improve. Skip this step and go straight to the Dean, and two bad-for-you things will happen: the Dean will send you back to us, after informing us of your complaint. That will not be a happy meeting. And you’ll forever be known as the boy/girl who cried wolf.
12) Put your cell phone away. And I mean out-of-sight and silenced. You may think a quick text isn’t hurting anything, but it is. It’s hurting you. We see it and assume you don’t care. You miss important directions for an assignment. Put. it. up.
I can tell after the first two weeks of the semester who will pass and who won’t. The people who miss class, play with their phones, and turn their first essay in late have begun a pattern I’ve seen too often, and it invariably leads to a withdrawal or failure.
Start strong, do the work, and you’ll have the foundation for a successful semester.