What to do Until a Really Good Teacher Comes

Dr. Jake Davis

"That teacher sucks. I didn't learn anything!"

Whoever says that takes no more personal responsibility for their progress than a baby bird waiting for his momma to drop a worm in his open mouth.  Image courtesy mathsse2011.wordpress.com

Yes, some teachers suck. A few really suck. By definition, half of all teachers are below average. Don't let any of that stop your quest for knowledge. It's up to you, not the teacher, to get the most from every course. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to squeeze every bit of useful knowledge from every course you take, regardless of the teacher's skill.

First, realize that most of the learning will not take place in the classroom. It will occur as you prepare for class and as you review...in other words, when you study the material. You need to establish a study routine, including a consistent time slot aside during the day, a set location without any distractions, and whatever supplies you will need close at hand. Keep your class materials and notes together in one safe and easy to find place. Let others know that when you're studying, you don't want to be interrupted.

Second, make sure you are taking a course that is right for you. You should have an interest, or better still, an enthusiasm for the subject matter. Also, is the course at hand the right level for you? Not too simple and not too advanced. If this is an advanced course, make sure you have already taken the introductory course. Otherwise, you are wasting your time and taking up space better utilized by someone else.

Third, you can safely assume that the instructor knows more about the subject than you do, even if their teaching skills are sub-par. Don't waste precious class time trying to find ways to trip up a poor teacher, but see if you can help out the teacher (and the other students) by asking relevant questions or providing good examples.

Fourth, early on get as much understanding as you can from the instructor about what will be covered in the course. There should be a written syllabus explaining what will be covered and when. If not, ask for one. Review it carefully, taking note of when topics of particular interest to you will be discussed, so you can be fully prepared for them. If something you expected to be covered is missing, talk to the teacher after class about your interest, and he will likely either add that topic or at the very least direct you to another source of information.

Fifth, recognize that the teacher is almost never the sole source of information in a course. There are almost always handouts, books, a reading list, guest lecturers, or some other source of information on the topic. These supplementary informational sources take on additional importance if your instructor is less than a prize-winner. Use the syllabus to guide the direction of your studies, the supplementary materials to provide the depth you want, and ask the teacher probing questions to explain things you don't understand.

Sixth, prepare for class ahead of time. If the first time you're exposed to new material is when the teacher gives a lecture, then you're already behind. Know what's coming up in that session, read all the material ahead of time, and identify what you don't understand before that class session. Take notes as you study the supplemental material--you will use them again later. Also, make sure you bring to class any materials you will need: books, handouts, homework, paper, pens, and especially questions for the instructor.

Seventh, choose your seat in the classroom deliberately. You should be close to the front where you can clearly hear even a soft-spoken teacher, and where you can easily see whatever's written on the board. This will also show the instructor that you value his experience; hence he will be more willing to go out of his way to provide extra assistance if you find that you need it.

Eighth, take good notes during class. Don't try to be a court reporter and transcribe every word coming out of the teacher's mouth. Rather, be a discerning listener, focusing on the meaning and content of the lecture. Having studied the supplementary materials ahead of time will be a huge help here. Match your note-taking to the teacher's course structure, which is outlined in the syllabus. There will be main topics followed by sub-topics, which are usually illustrated by examples. Capture main points. Also, if the teacher thinks something is important enough to write on the board, it's certainly important enough for you to write it in your notes.

Ninth, be interactive in class. If the teacher is going too fast or mumbling or you simply missed something he said, ask him to repeat it. He will be absolutely delighted that at least one student is paying that much attention. If there is something that you don't understand, almost certainly there are other students who also don't understand. Don't depend on someone else to ask: raise your hand and ask for clarification when you need it. That's expected.

Tenth, be diligent about homework and class projects. They are designed to help you understand and remember the key points of the course. Class projects are a wonderful opportunity for you to investigate something that brought you into the course in the first place.

Finally, the most important step: After class, compare your class notes with the notes you took from the other sources, and consolidate all of those notes together, following the outline provided by the syllabus. While this may seem like overkill, it will really help you to learn and retain the knowledge you enrolled in the course to obtain. Don't worry so much about what you'll need to know for the final exam. If you follow these steps, not only will you do well on the test, but you will also gain the knowledge you wanted in the first place, and retain that knowledge.

Or, you could keep doing what you've always done, but when you finish your next course you'll have to say, "I didn't learn anything. I really suck as a student."

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Author:  Dr. Jake Davis was a scientist, manager of scientists, and adjunct professor at three universities. He is also the author of over 40 scientific articles. Now he's a felon.