What can you do?

1

Be as prepared as you can be mathematically

You must know algebra and trigonometry fluently. This does NOT mean that you can’t succeed if you have weak areas in those subjects; most student possess some gaps in their understanding when beginning calculus. However, you will have to fill in those gaps as you go.

2

Attend all classes if possible

If you miss a class, make sure you have a study partner from whom you can get the notes. Look over those notes and rewrite them in your own hand-writing. If you have a question your study partner can’t answer, take it to the professor. Tell him you are sorry that you had an unavoidable absence and you have a question about just one or two items in the notes of that day. The professor will appreciate that you are taking responsibility for your absence. (I’ve had students miss a class and then, upon returning to class the next time ask, “Did we do  anything important last class?” I kid you not.)

3

Sit in or near the front row

You will be less likely to be distracted by the behavior of other students.

4

Ask Questions in class

By asking questions, you will keep your mind focused on the material. If you can’t ask a question because there isn’t time (for example, the professor has already moved on to new material and you think you will just be interrupting him), write the question down in your notes. Sometimes you will figure the answer out on your own after class. Other times, you may have to go the professor during her office hours and perhaps ask the question at the very beginning of the next class.

5

Get a study partner or form a study group

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of speaking aloud about any concept you are learning.  For some reason, it causes one to slow down and focus in a way that mere thinking doesn’t seem to allow for. If you can explain something well to another person, you probably know it well yourself.

But what if you can’t explain a concept? What if you are the person who is always asking the questions but never doing the explaining? You will still benefit enormously by asking the question out loud. Doing do so will help you to focus on the specifics of what you don’t understand. You will also be doing the others in the study group a favor by asking questions, even if they know the answers. It will give them a chance to articulate their understanding and thereby improve on it. If others in the study group benefit from your presence, you will likely benefit from theirs.

6

Don't take too many classes at once

This would be self-explanatory, except that there is pressure to take a heavy enough load so that one can graduate as soon as possible. However, counter-intuitive as it may seem,
do NOT focus too much at all on future semesters, how long it will take to graduate, how much it will cost, etc. Focus on the current semester only. It is better to take too few courses than too many courses when beginning college. You need to have some early success to gain some confidence when tackling harder courses.

7

Get a Hard Copy of the syllabus

Read it! At least the important parts, e.g. how your grade is determined, when quizzes or tests are scheduled, how to contact your instructor. Keep a copy of the syllabus in your notebook along with all the notes you take during the semester. Perhaps the most important part of the syllabus from the student’s point of view is how grades are determined. If the professor didn’t make this crystal clear in the syllabus, ask him in class. But don’t ask him what is already in the syllabus! That action just signals to the professor that you haven’t read the syllabus or you are too lazy to look it up.

8

Get to Know the Professor

If the professor gave an especially good lecture or class, let her know. Professors, like everyone else, like feedback that suggests they are doing a good job. Instead of saying, for example, “You did a really good job today,” say, “I really learned a lot from today’s class.” If the class experience is less than stellar, you might say, “I enjoyed the first part of the class, but I was a little confused about [topic X]. Could you explain it again?”

If the professor has any concern at all about his teaching effectiveness, he will either try to answer your question right then and  there, suggest that you come by during office hours, and/or address the issue in the next class. In other words, whether a particular class was fabulous or less than stellar, you can use the opportunity to get to know the professor. Professors often like students who are engaged and working hard more than the students who understand everything in the course with seemingly little effort.


The purpose of getting to know the professor isn’t so that she will look favorably on you when it comes to grades, but rather to get a deeper understanding of the material by observing how a master of the material thinks.

Of course, it never hurts to have given the professor a favorable impression when it does come times for assigning grades. If you’re performance puts you right on the edge between two grades, he or she is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if you have genuinely tried your best by asking relevant questions in or out of class.

9

Get plenty of rest

Trying to learn a new concept when you are really exhausted mentally is like trying to pick up a heavy weight  you are physically drained. In either case, it might be possible, but the fatigue will be very unpleasant. Why not wait until you are well-rested to tackle a difficult concept? It will be much more pleasant and you are more likely to be successful. Some general tips for good sleep hygiene are listed below.

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Tips for Getting plenty of sleep

  • Try to go to bed at the same time every night.
     

  • Don’t consume caffeine or other stimulants within six hours of going to bed.
     

  • Avoid looking at your computer or phone screen for at least one hour before bedtime.
     

  • Charge your phone in another room.
     

  • Take a warm bath with epsom salts or baking soda.
     

  • Take a few minutes to be mindful of your breathing, or meditate if you’re so inclined.


Don’t lie in bed for more than 30 minutes if you can’t sleep. Get up and go to another room. Do a quiet activity such as reading. (I often listen to podcasts on my phone in the dark when I can’t sleep.)

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