This may feel odious but it really does help to do the assigned reading in advance of the class session in which the topic will be discussed. You’ll get more from the class, more thoughtfully comment or question, and better answer the instructor’s queries. Whether or not that improves your grade, remember that more important than the grade is the learning that will enhance your professional and/or personal life. Doing the assigned reading in advance will help.
There are few stupid questions and comments. If you fear yours is a clunker, try it on a smart classmate. But more often, your questions and comments aren’t dumb and will both benefit you and your classmates.
That said, consider using this rule of thumb: Speak up no more than slightly above your proportionate share. So if the class has 20 students, the proportionate share would be 5% of the time that students are commenting and questioning. So 10% would be your max.
Note-taking. Don't write too much or too little. If you already know it, don't write it, even if the prof thinks it's important. If it's some detail that won't be important to you after the course is over and probably won't be on the test, don't write it. Write only what you don't know and is likely to be on the test or, more important, is something you want to remember long after the course is over.
Contacting the professor outside of class
Asking questions of the professor during office hours or by email is a way to get individualized instruction and perhaps even improve your grade. Professors like students who care enough to ask questions.
If you think that the assigned term paper or project won’t sufficiently benefit you and especially if you can think of one that's more likely to engender valuable, enduring learning, do ask the professor. Most professors really care about helping students make the most of their class.
The same is true of fieldwork assignments and internships. Often, those can yield especially valuable and enduring learning. If your first time at that placement suggests that you might benefit more from a different one, you might first meet with your supervisor to tweak it but if you feel it’s hopeless, it’s fine to ask the professor for a different placement.
I’ve taken many courses and grew too little from too many of them—I was too focused on the grade, too little on the important learning. With the benefit of the perspective that has come from the decades since my student years, I hope the above tips will help you derive more from your courses.
Marty Nemko Ph.D.
Careers Advisor at University of California