Setting is math in the US.

It's quite common for a student who is not doing super well or is worried that they might not be to approach me and ask how they should be studying/what they should be doing do succeed in the class.

I never know what to say. I just don't see it as part of my job to give "study skills" advice and probably won't be able to say anything particularly apposite (especially because I was educated in a completely different system in Europe, so I have no first-hand experience of taking the kinds of classes they are taking). Also, I think developing your own study skills that work for you it literally part of the challenge of being an undergraduate.

But they still feel like, as the professor for the class, I ought to be able to tell them something extra and useful about studying.

What is a good way to deal with these sorts of requests for advice?

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    You don't view it as part of your job as teacher to teach your students how to succeed at your class? – Najib Idrissi Oct 9 at 14:31
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    Doesn't your lecture include some kind of weekly tutorials where students have to solve math problems to practice their skills and understanding of the material? If yes, refering them to this would be one thing you could do. – problemofficer Oct 9 at 14:34
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    Do you feel uncomfortable telling students how to succeed in your class because you don't think it's your job, or because you don't actually know? Nothing flumoxes a master juggler like asking them what they're doing with ball #2. – JeffE Oct 9 at 16:35
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    @NajibIdrissi I'm not sure I agree your comment is as helpful as the upvotes suggest, but let me try to respond. I feel like maybe you are re-conflating exactly what the question is trying to separate. Of course it is my job to teach them - to the best of my ability - the material of the class, which will help them succeed. But it is very easy to find oneself giving a student basic lessons in time management, study skills lessons, motivational pep talks, advice on life goals etc. and even though those things will help them succeed in my class, where does my job as class prof end? – T_M Oct 9 at 22:49
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    It is not always a good idea as a teacher to teach people how to succeed in their classes. Because later in life there are no such cheat sheets available. – mathreadler Oct 10 at 5:52

10 Answers 10

Actually, in the US, in modern times, it really is your job to help them develop study skills. Many students arrive at college with hardly any skills at all, having coasted through their previous education, often with few learning burdens put on them. Many don't know how to take notes, or summarize them, or separate the important points from the rest.

More important, in math, they may not have an attitude that it may take more than the minimum to get by and that memorization isn't going to carry them very far.

I've discussed the teaching of learning skills here in other answers, so won't repeat it (search: Hipster PDA, for example).

But there are two things that might work. The first is to require more practice and make sure that students have some way to get feedback on that practice. A text book usually has more exercises than you want to require, but you can suggest that more (even all) be done. You can even hand out supplementary problems that are graded or not.

The second thing is to have a daily quiz, taking up the first 5 minutes of your class. Ask questions based on the previous few lectures (2 or 3, say). The quizzes don't need to count much toward the grade, but should count for something. Students can swap papers and grade each other for a short quiz, so your load doesn't need to increase. But an additional advantage of this, other than the goad, is that you get feedback every day on how they are doing.

I can't say that the students will love you for this, of course. They will likely grumble. But you will learn who most needs your help and it won't be much of a burden on those who don't need additional work to succeed.

I once became something of an expert on rational functions and could look at a definition and pretty much know what the shape of the graph would be. I learned this by graphing hundreds of them, by hand (1960s) using derivative information.


Two specific links you might want to examine for Hipster PDA are one here and one at CSEducators

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    I'd recommend just adding a link instead of recommended search terms. you never know whether what you intend to point to will someday be buried by other content in the search results. – dn3s Oct 9 at 19:09
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    Hipster PDA is a misnomer, IMHO, it should be PAA. – Aaron Hall Oct 9 at 20:35
  • @AaronHall, I didn't name it, of course. Just found and used it. – Buffy Oct 9 at 20:45
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    I don't know how to take notes either and I have a master's degree in CS... it is not really a valuable skill for everyone. – Adrian Oct 10 at 8:30
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    @dn3s, There are different aspects discussed at different links. I didn't want to list them all. I don't see how it would be buried if others contribute to the idea. It would possibly be enhanced. – Buffy Oct 10 at 12:50

It is certainly part of your job. You say:

developing your own study skills that work for you is literally part of the challenge of being an undergraduate

This may be true, but the point is that some students need help doing that. If a student came to you with a math question, you couldn't very well say "learning math is part of the challenge of being a math student" and send them on their way.

I'm not saying you need to hold their hand through mundane organizational details, but broadly speaking, how to spend one's time effectively is both a crucial component of success and a common point of confusion for undergraduate math students.

Anyway, when students come to your office worried about their grade, the first step is to diagnose the problem. Look at their graded work and talk to them about where they are getting confused. You may find there are specific gaps in their background knowledge. (If the gaps are large enough, you may determine that this student shouldn't be in your class at all.) Or you may find that the student isn't working through enough problems on their own. Or they are blindly working through problems without trying to understand the underlying concepts or what the questions are asking. Or some particular key concepts aren't clicking. Or they understand things well, but they have testing anxiety. Tailor your advice accordingly.

Of course, this all requires the student to meet you halfway. In my experience, the problem is often gaps in background knowledge and unwillingness to put in enough time. Then, the right advice boils down to "put more time in on the course material and put in extra time brushing up on prerequisites," which goes unheeded most of the time, but at least you've tried.

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    Moreover, how to spend one's time effectively changes as students advance through the curriculum. The habits required to master differential calculus are neither necessary nor sufficient to master combinatorics, or real analysis, or algorithm design, or quantum mechanics, or organic chemistry, or operating systems. There are generalities, of course, but each topic exercises different skills and thus rewards different kinds of practice. For each topic, students need to learn (and thus we need to teach) what questions to ask, especially about their own thinking, to make progress. – JeffE Oct 9 at 16:30

The students who are asking you this probably already know the general study skills advice. What they're trying to find out is what you think is important, how you're going to assess them, and how much time (realistically) it should take to prepare for class. Many professors tend to be rather opaque about all of this, which students find frustrating. It's particularly frustrating if the student has many other demands on their time, such as a job or family responsibilities, which is much less frequently the case at European schools.

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    I'm not sure I agree they already know the general stuff, now that I see some of the other comments and replies, but if I accept that for now then my main thought is: I genuinely don't know how much time realistically it should take. – T_M Oct 9 at 17:39
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    @T_M You should certainly have some idea, although of course it varies between students. I put a typical honest minimum time commitment on the syllabus, with the addendum that if they are putting that much in and still struggling, they should consult with me one-on-one to troubleshoot their study skills. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 9 at 22:50
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    About the assessment part: thing about questions like "is studying the 5 pages long proof useful for the exam ?" or "will the exam be about exercices or about theory ?" (students may be reluctant to ask them directly to avoid looking like they want to minimize they working time). Making the objectives clear is an important part of the teaching process. – Kolaru Oct 9 at 22:57
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    @Kolaru This is exactly the point. I would argue that making the objectives clear is the most important part of the teaching process. It also equalizes opportunity, a point which is made wonderfully here. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 9 at 22:59
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    That "which is much less frequently the case at European schools" may be unwarranted. Maybe you have some specific country in mind? I suggest to check OECD statistics to qualify and/or back up this claim, or to remove it. – Nemo Oct 10 at 7:17

This is an important question to answer for a bunch of reasons, most of which have been discussed in other answers (all of which I like). One aspect that’s been neglected is that you have more info than your students. Many of them have never taken a course with you before. Many of them may have never taken a course in this subfield before. None of them have access to historical information about course performance, such as average homework grades or test medians and standard deviations. This information would be a huge help to students who are trying do figure out how to study for your course, and you should absolutely share some of it with them.

There are two ways you can think about this question: academically and administratively. Both involve thinking about the design of the course and how it interacts with student performance, and especially what sets apart the students who end up getting As.

Thinking about this academically involves focusing on the content. What do students tend to find hard? Is there a particular subject or collection of ideas that students tend to do poorly with? Even just warning students “many people struggle with dynamic programming but find A* algorithms much more intuitive” can be hugely helpful. The next step would be to recommend additional resources or ways for students to check their understanding. Information like “if you can do the two-star problems in the book you should be confident in your exam scores” or “khan academy has a video sequence on adjacency matrices that many students find helpful” can help students help themselves succeed far more than they would be able to do on their own. Do students regularly get dinged for not being rigorous enough in their arguments? Warn them explicitly that this tends to be an issue, especially for weaker students.

Thinking about this question administratively means focusing on the design of the course, especially how students tend to preform on particular aspects. Do most students get 95%+ on the homeworks, and get differentiated by their exam scores? Are the homeworks very time consuming, so that students who work in groups have a significant advantage? Is the median on Exam 2 a 45-50% and students who get a 60%+ on that exam largely shoe-ins for an A/B+? Telling students things like that can help them schedule their lives around your course.

Of course, the best possible response tends to be a mix of both approaches. Here are two comments that I would consider to be extremely helpful responses to this question.

Answer 1:

This course is a lot of work. Homework tends to be a large time-commitment, and most students don’t end up answering every question. Since homework is worth 40% of your grade, answering one or two additional questions per week really adds up. Many students rely on study groups to get through the homework efficiently. I don’t reuse homework problems on the exams, but checking out the problems I don’t assign in the textbook is a good way to make sure you’re not missing key concepts that don’t get tested in homework and often times I will draw on them for inspiration to write exam questions. The course is a lot of work, but graded leniently and most students who put in the time get grades that they are satisfied with.

Answer 2:

In this course I tend to focus on higher level concepts than computation and detailed analysis. Many of the homework questions are designed to be thought-provoking but not necessarily time-consuming. It’s important that you put time into the homeworks, but the exams are designed to challenge you beyond what the homeworks contain and so it’s also important to go beyond them. They are short, but the problems are very deep.

I will often spend my office hours talking about extensions and applications of the things we cover to other areas. For example, on next Tuesday I will talk about how the Compactness Theorem is a well-known result in topology in disguise, and will show how to translate proofs typically done with Tyconoff’s Theorem into the framework of this course. This is emblematic if the kind of work I will expect you to do on the exams.

What to tell students who want to know how to succeed in your class

A few concrete suggestions In addition to other fine answers:

  • Pay attention to what students tell you about their experience towards the end of the semester. You will often hear people say "X was hard for me because of Y", "I really liked Z", "W was confusing to me, I couldn't follow what you were trying to do". Based on that, you might develop advice you could give students earlier on.
  • Encourage students to come to your office hours if they feel they're falling behind, have missed something, or are having trouble. Make it clear that the office hours are intended exactly for help in these situations (on this point I disagree with @StellaBiderman).
  • If your course is generally considered difficult or challenging, acknowledge this fact at the beginning of the semester, don't just start teaching. Recite some platitude about the importance of applying willpower and patience in tackling a significant challenge; and that the course staff is there to help the students learn and get through it, rather than just handing out homework and exams. You might be surprised, but this rhetoric, despite being supposedly obvious, does often help. Say it like you mean it though...
  • If the students are organized in a student council with official representation, be in touch with the relevant representative to see if there are difficulties that get reported through them but not to you - especially if it has to do with your demeanor, attitude or personality.

But I also have to share an anecdote about a teacher of mine, Prof. Michael Kaminski. He taught me "Logic for Computer Science 2" about 15 years ago, including Goedel's incompleteness theorem, temporal logic etc. Starting his first class he told us - in his slow Hebrew with a think Russian accent, and kind of an apologetic but all-knowing half-smile:

Well, the material in this course... it is very difficult. You... no, you are not able to understand it. But that is fine. It is fine. You will learn it, you will memorize, and you will remember it for the exam, and that will be good enough. What can you do, this is how it is.

Now, that guy - people were so scared of his advanced classes that nobody would take them. Only 5 people were taking that class, and the exam grades were (on a scale of 0 to 100, and when you can accrue up to 125 points on the final exam): 9, 11, 31, 59 and 68. But the scariest thing is, that he gives the same exam every time he gives the course! And the guy who got 68 was taking the course a second time! Anyway, he's a great teacher and had a quirky set of humor.

What to tell students who want to know how to succeed in your class

I usually get these types of "weaker" students to come out of the woodwork around the middle of the semester (this is in engineering, in the US); they've been copying off of their friends for the first 8 weeks, and now their friends are struggling a little bit more than they were at first, so (some of) the weaker ones are in a state of panic.

So, what to tell them?

I tell these students that I'm here to help, but emphasize that the student needs to take advantage of that assistance and follow through; it is not my job to stay on top of whether the students understand the material or not.

Also, I try to be straight with them: they may have already gotten themselves into too deep of a hole, so it may not be possible to salvage the semester with a passing grade. In these cases, I emphasize that they should not focus on the grade and just try to get caught up on the "old" material as efficiently as possible, while trying to keep up with the new material.

Finally, as mentioned in other answers, some schools offer some type of tutoring services/center -- past experience suggests that this doesn't seem to be helpful for my students as much because the tutoring center can't really help my upper-level engineering students with their studies.

  • And that they should work with their friend(s) on helping each other, using each other in a 'talk to the duck' style. It is good collaborative practice and aids mutual learning. One explains how far they got, what their problem is, and the other has a clue about overcoming the problem, and together they both learn where the problems and solutions are. It worked well for me (especially when others essentially came an told me where the tricky areas were..) – Philip Oakley Oct 10 at 16:30
  • @PhilipOakley Most of my struggling students seem to have ill-functioning academic relationships with their friends in the same course. – Mad Jack Oct 10 at 17:08

Back in my day - when we bought and studied out of books because the WWW didn't exist until about '93, and wasn't useful until about '95 - the professors would put books on hold in the restricted section of the library.
You could look at the book in that section, but not take it out of that section (it was guarded; backpacks were searched).

I learned... not in my freshman/sophomore years... that this was where a lot of test questions came from. There was never any homework from those books.

Maybe there is a way to make resources available in the same way - for those that want to 'do extra'.

The students seeking advice could be pointed to those resources as additional work for them to do. If they want to do it, great. You're available during office hours to help them.
If they just want a leg-up without learning the material then they're no worse off with that advice.

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    Maybe there is a way to make resources available in the same way — There is. It's called "putting books on reserve in the library", and we still do it. – JeffE Oct 10 at 18:54
  • @JeffE I was wondering because all of my children's school books are electronic, except for workbooks. I know that my university still has a library (with a big robot that gets the books from the shelves) but wasn't sure about a reserve section, and wasn't sure if new books were purchased in print. – J. Chris Compton Oct 11 at 17:53

To contribute a bit on things that have already been said, I want to mention an actual anecdote that I always mention when this topics arises.

I was teaching a (basic) group theory class, so at the very least the students has already passed three university math classes. One day this student comes to see me to ask the same question the OP got: "I'm working hard studying for this class, but it's not working for me; what should I do?". So, without thinking much, I told the student:

"look, just reading math is never enough. You have to grab the book and the class notes and read them, with pen and paper, writing the ideas and the math as you go through. When you get to the exercises, try them and you will (probably) not be able to do them. Then go back to the text, trying to find the notions that you might need to do the exercise, read again, try the exercise again."

His face changed completely, he was in shock. He said "wow, that's awesome! That's a super idea! I gotta try that!" and he left happy. Remember, this student had already passed (probably with decent grades) three university math classes, and yet he had no idea what "study" meant.

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    This is a great anecdote! Great example of why I am suspicious of some other answers and comments which emphasize that the student might secretly already have the right study skills and wants to know some other information but doesn't know how to ask it. I think I instead believe your answer is what should be emphasized more, that they might have got this far and genuinely lack really basic skills for studying math. – T_M Oct 12 at 16:44

I am not an academic, but as a former college student (good but not great) I am completely baffled by the answers in this thread.

I never would have thought to ask this question to a professor while in college. Not once did I ever consider it the professors responsibility to teach me how to succeed in a particular class. If a fellow student would have confided in me that they did this, it would have led to a severe loss of respect for them. These are adults we are talking about.

If they made it that far without learning how to study, a failing grade would be the single best life lesson you could give to them, worth far more than whatever the course was about.

  • Thing is, it looks like you had the right attitude towards studying and your responsibilities, but that's not always the case with otherse. Many of us see students fail again and again, and they seem to learn nothing out of it. – Martin Argerami Oct 12 at 1:46
  • So you fail them. Then what? Fail them again next term when they still don't know how to study? (It's a serious question. How do you expect them to learn to study?) – Jeffrey Bosboom Oct 12 at 20:20

You don't say what level of students you are teaching or whether they are primarily math majors. If you are teaching first year students you are playing a crucial role in teaching them how to be college students; if you are teaching first year math students (or maybe even math students in their first course above calculus) then you are teaching them how to be math majors and ultimately mathematicians. This continues over the years, but the skills get more sophisticated. I think it is great that you are seriously thinking about how to answer this question.

I don't teach math but I often do include a section on my syllabus that discusses "How to succeed in this class" or "How to get a good grade."

Some common things to include (that are surprisingly not obvious to American undergraduates especially first year)(of course only include items if they are really true for your class):

  • Attend every class unless you are infectious.
  • Do the reading (including working your way through examples if it is that kind of reading).
  • Do the homework yourself even if you ask for advice from other students. (Especially important if this is the kind of class where homework is not collected.) (I point out "Data analysis shows that homework completion is strongly predictive of final project grade.", but that's just my course.)
  • If you get homework wrong or points taken off, make sure you understand what you got wrong and make corrections. Same thing for quizzes and the midterm.
  • Take notes during class. This includes taking notes on what other students ask (if it's that kind of class) or contribute to discussions (if it's that kind of class).
  • Get help if you need it, by asking questions, coming to my office hours, and/or using the tutoring (or writing) center.
  • Everyone can be successful in this class if they put in solid effort on the work and persist when they find the work challenging. (Of course don't say this if you don't really believe it.)

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