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Shannon’s Guide to Not Failing Your Classes

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

A new semester is here, which means new classes, professors, assignments, deadlines, and of course, stress! Whether you’re a freshman or a senior, you already know that college takes (at least some) work to get through. 

Many students, even upperclassmen, sometimes still struggle with getting the hang of getting through, let alone thriving, in your classes. As someone who has maintained a 4.0 throughout my entire time at Oswego, has been awarded the Edward Austin Sheldon Award and the Dr. Richard Wheeler Scholarship, has been a Teaching Assistant, and is part of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, I have a pretty good idea of what it takes (at the bare minimum) to pass your classes. Whether you’d like to stop failing entirely or simply get something higher than a B, I have the guide for you!

BASICS

Get a planner + colored pens/highlighters

In short, planners are essential for college. Not being able to plan and organize your time is the #1 downfall for any college student and is the biggest transition from high school to college. Planners are an easy way for you to simply bookmark whatever week you’re on, open it up to that week, and have an entire day-by-day list of what you have going on that day and what is due in the upcoming days. Put down assignment deadlines, campus org meetings, work time, friend’s birthdays, when you’re going away, when to clean the kitchen or go shopping — whatever you want! Maintaining a planner is also an essential skill you’ll need in the professional world. 

This is also where getting colored pens and highlighters come in — color-coding your planner is going to make it 10x easier for you to read quickly and access what you need to do. Yeah, people might make fun of you for being “extra” or “that person,” but when you score the A in that class and they fail because they couldn’t keep the assignments straight with their personal life, who will be laughing then? Usually, I associated each class and campus org with a specific color, and so, when I went to mark down assignments, instead of writing out “Women’s History: Quiz due today,” I could simply put “Quiz due today” in my purple pen and knew instantly that it was for my Women’s History class. I did the same color-coding with any orgs I was part of as well, and for holidays, sometimes I drew small doodles. It made me excited to use my planner because it looked visually pleasing as well and wasn’t just all boring work and business stuff. I also kept a general black pen in the spiral of my planner to quickly write in things I needed to add as they came up, such as if I had a date or needed to run an errand. Planning can be fun, if you give it a chance!

Get the books before class starts

I just want to be clear that if you can find digital copies of the books online (whether legally or not), then this isn’t applicable. However, a lot of people choose to get physical copies of books during the first week of classes after they’ve decided whether or not they want to stay in a class. While you can do this, what ends up happening is that so does everyone else, meaning the bookstore inevitably is sold out and your order goes on back order. You end up waiting a week, sometimes two, and then sometimes three and all of the sudden you’re five assignments behind and the first essay or test is coming up and you’re barely following what’s happening. You’ll definitely have classmates who will be willing to help you out, and some professors will find accommodations for you. Eventually, you’ll simply need your own copy – some way somehow or else you won’t be able to understand the material. Looking into what books you can get digital copies of beforehand and then buying other physical books before the semester starts means you’ll be able to follow along from day one. In the event you do drop the class, you can always return your books.

Read the syllabus

Seriously! Read it! Your professors don’t put together the syllabus just for fun — it has some important information in there. As a former Teaching Assistant, the #1 cause of students struggling in classes was because they didn’t read basics outlined in the syllabus (tied with not reading the directions on an assignment, which we’ll discuss later). The syllabus lists the entire schedule of assignments along with class policies, such as how to address a professor in an email, when they check emails, if they accept late work, their office hours, how many absences you can have, assignment grade percentages, and any extra credit opportunities. If you end up struggling in a class, know how to respectfully reach out to a professor to talk to them about your concerns and what assignments are better than others to submit late, depending on if late work is accepted at all. 

Put down the schedule of assignments in your planner from day one

This is why you read the syllabus as well: to put down all the assignments in your planner from day one. Monday and Tuesday of the first week of classes were dedicated to me going through each syllabus and putting down the list of assignments for my classes in them. This will save you a ton of time and stress down the road when you’re swamped during midterms and don’t want to have to fill in your planner for that week — it’s already filled in! 

Show up on time and regularly

Don’t skip class and try not to go to class late. Sure, people say all the time how they “went to two classes and got an A,” but they aren’t necessarily you. If you continually skip, you may not realize you’re struggling until you get your grades back and it’s already too late to help yourself. Some professors will automatically fail you if you miss a certain amount of classes, which is another reason why you need to read the syllabus. Showing up to class on time also means that you aren’t missing any piece of the material necessary for the entire lesson. In some cases, showing up late can also mean you don’t get to participate in the activity in class at all, or you’ll be asked to leave by the professor.

Turn things in on time and communicate if you can’t

Why settle for 70 on an assignment you could have gotten 100 on if you turned it in on time? While it may seem like you’re finding a loophole by turning in things late and getting the bare minimum to pass, it could come back to bite you later if you begin to do poorly in the class and your grade continually slips lower and lower. I have seen some good friends of mine put assignments off and then find that they can’t complete them all before the end of the class, and end up failing. They had the knowledge and skills to pass if they had just turned things in when they were due! And again, some professors simply don’t accept late work (as detailed in their syllabus), which means you’ll earn a zero even if it was perfect. If you truly have extenuating circumstances as to why you cannot turn work in on time, simply reach out to the professor and talk to them. Communicating that you need help is not just about being a good student, but is part of being human. We all have times when life hits us unexpectedly, and professors are humans too who understand this. In the professional world, the difference between you having a job that pays your rent and not will be your ability to effectively communicate your needs, boundaries, and circumstances. 

Utilize Accessibility Services

If you have a disability that affects your performance at school, whether in classes or on campus in the dorms, talk to Accessibility Services. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, you have the legal right to accommodations for your disability both inside and outside the classroom, whether that disability is physical, mental, intellectual, or some combination of all three. Accessibility Services can help you get accommodations and documentation of those accomodations for your professors, residence halls, or dining halls that means you can comfortably participate in the full college experience like other students. I personally have used Accessibility Services my entire time at Oswego and I can attest to the incredible service they have provided me with. These accommodations are also things you can talk to your professors about so that they’re tailored to the specifics of the class and your needs. There is no shame in getting the accommodations you need to succeed, and Accessibility Services is here to support you. To learn more about Accessibility Services, click here.

ASSIGNMENTS

Always read the directions

This one goes along with reading the syllabus and is pretty straightforward — always read the directions on any assignment, project, presentation, etc. If you don’t read the directions, how will you know if you’re actually doing what’s been assigned at all? At most, you’ll take five minutes from your day to make sure you don’t get a 0 on something because you missed a crucial step and came up with an answer that was off by a few digits or missing some kind of label. I can’t tell you how many emails I got from students as a TA asking me about how to do basic parts of the assignment (like where and when to turn it in!) that were listed right in the directions. Yes, some professors do monologue in their directions a little, but even that could help you when it comes time to complete something. Just read the directions and save yourself the hassle (and embarrassment!) begging to redo an assignment.

Format your assignments properly + spell check

Formatting fits into reading the directions, as many professors have specific formatting rules for papers, presentations, equations, lab work, films, etc, that they’ll outline either in the assignment directions or the syllabus. Many humanities majors (such as English or history) require citations for a paper in MLA format, meanwhile, a Psychology or Broadcasting class may require them in APA format. Your professor may ask you to turn in an assignment in a specific document format, such as .docx, .pdf, Google Docs, Excel, Powerpoint, .mp4, .psd, Vimeo, and the list goes on and on for the many different types of assignments you’ll encounter in college. These document types often allow professors to see certain things in your work, and so if your professor requested a Google Doc for your final so they can comment on it and you email a .pdf, that might mean the difference between a passing grade and a failing one. As well, even if you don’t proofread, at least hit the spell check option on your paper writing program of choice. Better yet, you can also get Grammarly if you feel especially weak in writing. Formatting your assignments correctly and fixing small spelling and grammar errors will not just help you pass class, but also stand out to your professors, who can offer you exclusive professional opportunities later on. 

At the bare minimum, skim the readings

Even as an English major I’ll be honest — I don’t always do the readings. I know, my career is over! However, this is pretty common as I’ve learned, even among us hardcore readers. Sometimes, the text is just downright boring. Even if it’s not necessarily a snooze-fest, it might be a slog to get through and overly confusing. A lot of professors (even well-meaning ones) seem to underestimate the amount of work you have in general and will over-assign readings. It’s understandable that you might have class and homework, are working, have extra-curricular activities, and trying to balance a social and family life on top of that, which means that time to carefully read 250 pages a week for one class just isn’t possible — and that’s perfectly fine. At the bare minimum though, just open the pages and quickly skim through (maybe even use one of those highlighters for whatever sentences or phrases catch your eye?) so you’re not completely lost when Dr. Smith throws a pop quiz about role theory in your face on a Monday at 10am. 

Estimate how long it takes to complete assignments

This is something you’ll get better at as you progress through college. As a freshman, I was awful at estimating how long anything took to complete until I got well into a course. Now, with every new course or professor it still takes some getting used to, but experience has helped me understand how to budget time more wisely. I am now familiar with a large scope of common assignments as well as my own abilities. The first time you go to complete an assignment, note the time (either mentally or literally) and then do it again when you complete it. Does it take you four hours to write a five page paper? Does it take you 20 minutes to complete the weekly quiz? Does it take you an hour to complete the lab for that day? Of course, your estimates will fluctuate, so give yourself a bit of a range — “it takes me between 20 minutes to a half hour to write a discussion response” — that way you have wiggle room in planning. Estimating how long it takes to complete an assignment means in the worst case scenario of deadlines all starting to pile up one after another, you can cut it to the last minute without anything being late. While assignment time estimation will also certainly help you avoid turning things in at the very last second, it also means that you won’t risk a zero for late work. 

CLASS TIME

Research your professors + classes

While you’ll have an advisor (usually within your major) that can tell you which classes to take, you’ll likely need to do most of the work yourself in figuring out what you need to take. You can figure out which classes and credits you need using DegreeWorks under the Registration tab in myOswego. If you have a lot of different options in terms of which classes you can take to complete a requirement, ask around to friends and see what classes they recommend. I would recommend doing this even if you don’t have a ton of options just to be prepared (and it helps you bond with your fellow classmates too!). Class titles and descriptions can be vague or just outright misleading at times, and ending up in a class that is completely different from your interests or skill level (even if the professor is incredible) can be hard to get through.

Along those lines, you should also look at Rate My Professor (RMP) when deciding which professors to take. As much as professors would rather you not acknowledge it, they have reputations and so do the classes they teach. If you have a specific style of learning, time concerns about getting coursework done, or just in general want to avoid professors who have bad reputations, RMP is your go-to. As RMP is an anonymous service, when looking over reviews, it’s important to balance the extremely positive and extremely negative ones to find some sort of middle ground. Look for patterns in reviews (such as 5+ people saying the professor is lecture heavy or there are only three papers) to determine truthfulness of reviews and eliminate some bias. There may be times when only one professor teaches a required course and in that case, there’s no window shopping you can do. However, checking their RMP can still help you prepare for their class by letting you know what you’re in for.

Have an idea of what you want out of the class

I feel like this is pretty self-explanatory, but you can save yourself a lot of time and get much more out of a class if you know what you want to focus on in it. This may not always be applicable for every class, such as some science courses are already heavily focused, but many classes are what you make of them. For example, if you are in a history course about the American Civil War, perhaps you want to learn more about the lives of Black troops, or maybe you’re interested in analyzing a specific battle. If you’re in a marketing course focused on social media, perhaps you are interested in Instagram marketing specifically. If you go into classes with something you’re specifically interested in, you’ll be able to get 10x more out of the class that’ll help not just your grade, but your career beyond college.

Participate in class

So, so, obvious— participate! Raise your hand! Contribute to discussion! Even if it’s only once or twice a class, or more realistically, once or twice a week. Participating in college isn’t always about asking questions, sometimes it’s just for you to share your thoughts and make connections between the material. There are also other non-traditional ways to participate, such as sharing notes with others, forming a study group, and emailing the professor your thoughts on the material (most are okay with this — though if a professor ignores or rebuffs you, don’t take it personally! Some are very busy). Most professors will require you to participate in class in some way and so if they never see you taking notes, answering questions, or interacting with your classmates, you’re very likely to receive a poor participation grade. If you have a disabling condition that interferes with your ability to participate in the ways the professor is requesting, talk to Accessibility Services and your professor. 

Talk to your classmates 

If you’re a freshman or transfer student, you are probably eager to make friends and find “your people.” While this will happen when you join student organizations, sororities/fraternities, and live in dorms, this can also happen in your classes. As you take classes within your major, you will inevitably find like-minded people who share your interests, hobbies, and goals. It is important to talk to your classmates (if you organically can) to make friends, as well as have connections in class. If you miss a class and need notes, being able to quickly text your classmate and ask for the notes is extremely useful, as is asking them any clarifying questions about the material. Need a partner for a group project? Boom, you already have that! Want some extra studying before the midterm? Got it! Talking to your classmates also helps you feel more comfortable participating in class. If you can, introduce yourself on the first day to the people sitting next to you and see if they’re receptive. Nine times out of ten, your classmates are looking for the same thing you are. 

Go to Office Hours

I know going to your professor’s office hours can seem like a hassle or waste of time — schlepping yourself all the way to some obscure part of a building on the other side of campus to sit and wait for 15 minutes while he talks to another student just to ask them a basic question that probably makes you seem like a dumbass? Or, they don’t even have hours that coincide with your schedule? Well, the first thing is that I promise you your professor won’t look down on you for visiting them. As a former TA, I was more excited whenever students visited me during my office hours. I never thought any question they posed or any ideas they wanted to discuss in further detail were stupid or useless — I loved it! That was what that time was for! Not for me just to sit, lonely and waiting. Many times when I visited my own professors during their office hours, they were also excited to hear how I was processing the material so they could better improve their teaching. Going to office hours can only benefit your grade, yourself, and your relationship with your professor (which is usually important to passing). Ever wonder how those TAs show up in your classes? They went to office hours. If your professor’s office hours are during a time that conflicts with your schedule, email them and include times that do work for you. No professor has ever turned me down before. 

If there is a serious problem, tell the Chair and/or Dean

You will not be labeled a “snitch,” your problem is not too small, and you are not being “over dramatic.” If you feel a professor is engaging in misconduct, bullying you or other students, or simply not doing the basics of their job such as assigning appropriate materials, grading assignments in a timely manner, not responding to emails (ever), or making time to meet with you, go to the Chair of the Department or Dean of your school. You can find who both of these people are simply by Googling. The Chair is the first person who you should talk to before escalating to a Dean, and only escalate if the Chair does not take you seriously. The goal is not to get a professor fired (unless something like serious physical abuse happened, in that case contact authorities and/or your Title XI Coordinator), but rather, to have the problem addressed appropriately so that you don’t have to further feel distressed and can receive a fair education. The times I have complained, tangible change has been made and not only was my grade saved, but so were other students and the class was improved as a whole. You are paying to be here, and in my opinion, that means you should receive the education you deserve. 

Shannon Sutorius is an award winning 23-year-old English major, over 40-time-published author, editor, and former Teaching Assistant currently attending SUNY Oswego who graduates in December of 2021. Shannon is one of the current Campus Correspondents for Her Campus Oswego, previously Senior Editor, and currently writes the Advice Column, "Dear Athena." Shannon has worked with and been published in Great Lake Review, Medium, and Subnivean. Shannon's awards include the Edward Austin Sheldon Award, Pride Alliance's Defender of LGBT+ Rights in Journalism Award, and the Dr. Richard Wheeler Memorial Scholarship. As well, Shannon is an active member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. She currently lives in Oswego and has a dog named Nugget.
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