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What Every First-year Student Should Know - Pay Attention

Pay Attention

OK, you’re in class every day. Now what? Well, being there is better than not being there, but being there and paying attention is better still. Listen to what the professor says; think a bit; take notes. I don’t really need to explain why paying attention in class is a good thing, do I? I mean, if you’ve gone to all the trouble of going to class, you might as well be part of it, as long as you’re there anyway. Still don’t understand why you should pay attention? You did just read “Go to Class”, didn’t you?

Some other tips about paying attention. Don’t sleep in class. Don’t read the newspaper in class. Don’t balance your checkbook in class. Don’t study for another class in this class. Don’t sit and giggle with your friends. Or chat constantly. Or pass notes. This isn’t middle school! If you want the professor to treat you like an adult, act like an adult. The object is to get the professor to respect you as a serious student. So act like a serious student.

(What students don’t seem to grasp is that you can see everything — everything — from the front of the classroom. If you’ve never stood in front of a classroom, try it someday. It’s a very revealing experience.)

In a large classroom, don’t sit in the back row. Professors have learned over the years that students who sit in the back row are goof-offs. You know, the guys who still think it’s cool to wear their baseball caps backwards, the ones who sit there and guffaw or fall asleep or wander in and out to go to the bathroom. If you sit in the back row of a large classroom, for whatever innocent reason, your professor will assume you are a doof. Do not do this!

Instead, sit in the middle of the classroom — or towards the front, gaze attentively at the professor, chew thoughtfully on your pen, take perceptive notes, nod as if you’re really caught up in the discussion, laugh at the professor’s jokes, and volunteer the occasional insightful answer. Do this and the professor will get to know you in a positive way. Sitting in the middle of the classroom also means that there’s a greater chance that you really will pay attention.

(And don’t feel compelled to answer every question or to ask a question about every point the professor raises. Professors aren’t real crazy about students who monopolize the discussion. It doesn’t show us that you’re bright; it shows us that you don’t know when to shut up. So, think before you speak. Engage brain before putting mouth in gear.)

Paying attention also means paying attention to the course syllabus or outline that the professor is supposed to hand out the first day of class. (If a week goes by and the professor still has no syllabus, get out of the class, unless you have a very high tolerance for ambiguity. This professor is not someone who’s well-organized, and you and the other students are likely to be the ones who have to deal with the consequences.)

The syllabus is, in effect, a contract: it tells you what you can expect from the professor and what he or she expects from you. It should tell you what you’ll read, what subjects the professor will cover, and when assignments are due. It should tell you how you’ll be evaluated, how often you’ll be evaluated, and about when during the semester you’ll be evaluated. It should tell you the professor’s attendance policy and anything else the professor thinks you should know right away. Read the syllabus carefully. If you’re unclear about any aspect of it, ask the professor immediately. (If you don’t like the professor’s policies, find a different section or a different course. If it’s the only section of a required course, grimace and bear it.) And during the semester, consult your syllabi (plural of “syllabus”) frequently. Professors assume that part of your job is to read the syllabus regularly, so your excuse of “I didn’t know” or “You didn’t tell us in class” isn’t going to win you much sympathy.

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