How to Succeed in a Lecture/Discussion Class

The college discussion class is unlike any other public setting, and the expectations for participating in it are not always spelled out.  Here are some guidelines to help you.

Course Etiquette
Conduct yourself in class as you expect your instructor to behave: listen respectfully when others are speaking, turn off and put away all electronic devices and other distractions (including phones), remove earphones and earbuds, refrain from eating (unless you bring enough for anyone), and avoid coming to class at all if you are drunk or high.
If you want to make sure you are on track with the class despite an absence, feel free to check with the instructor about any assignments or handouts from the day in question, but avoid asking “Did I miss anything?” as if what happens in class doesn’t ordinarily matter.  It’s a good idea to get to know a few other students in the class so that you can get notes from class if you need them—you shouldn’t expect the instructor to summarize the material for you. 
By all means tell your instructor if you are dropping the class entirely.  No explanations are necessary (students drop classes all the time for all kinds of reasons), but your instructor will find it helpful to know to stop marking your attendance and expecting further written work.  

Why You Should Attend Office Hours
Office hours are specific times when your instructor is required to be available to any students who want to come and talk about the course material or related matters.  You don’t need an appointment for office hours; you just drop in.  You are entitled to the benefits of office hours even if they conflict with your other commitments, so you can (and should) make an appointment to see the instructor at another time if you can’t make scheduled office hours because of work or other classes.
Students should make more use of office hours than they do.  Even if you don’t have specific questions, office hours provide an opportunity to get to know your instructor better, to bring up concerns that you find it difficult to articulate in class discussion, to get extra help in making sense of difficult material, and to make yourself known to the instructor.

How Not to Do the Reading
When time is short, some ways of skimming are more effective than running your eyes over the first third of the reading and then falling asleep.  You will get more out of class discussion if you do less reading with greater attention.  To make best use of limited time, read few paragraphs or pages with care in order to establish what the important themes, characters, or issues seem to be.  Make note of any specific lines or sentences that complicate your understanding of the text.  Then skim the middle of the text, making note of any major changes in theme, mood, character, or style.  Do things seem to be going in the direction you would have predicted from the beginning?  Leave yourself time to look at the last couple of pages.  Can you make sense of the ending based on your cursory reading of the middle?  If not, try to read back enough so that you understand what is going on in the ending.    
As you read, it is tempting to focus on those parts of the reading that make the most sense, but you will be better served by devoting more time to what bewilders you.   Don’t be afraid of your bewilderment—use it! (see “How to Participate in Class When You Have Nothing to Say,” below).  Try to identify questions that, if answered, would help you understand what is going on.  Think specifically about what aspects of the text make it difficult:  Is it the subject matter that is confusing?  The form that it takes?  Its purpose?   Its projected audience?   Flag passages that you find particularly baffling (or interesting, or thought-provoking).  A post-it note or paperclip will make it easy to find such passages again for class discussion or papers and exams. 
Once you’ve closed the book, taking a few minutes to think about it will help you orient the time you’ve spent towards the next discussion.  What themes from previous class discussions does the text speak to?  How is this reading similar or dissimilar to other things you have read for this course?  Does this reading affirm what you already know about the topic of the course or does it give you grounds to question your ideas?
Finally, it usually saves time to read the footnotes if your book has them.  They contain clarification that will make your reading more meaningful.

How to Participate in Class When You Have Nothing to Say
You don’t have to know the right answers to take part in discussion, nor do you need to have particularly brilliant insights into the text.  By all means, do your best to come to class with some grasp of the reading (see “How Not to Do the Reading,” above), but be prepared to talk even if you are confused or bored by what you read.  A good class discussion will build a greater understanding of the course content out of whatever knowledge (however flawed or incomplete) you bring to it.  That process only works, though, if you are willing to take part.  The instructor’s questions are the starting point for discussion, but the instructor’s goal is to get a productive and thought-provoking conversation going, not to determine who can come up with the best answers.  If the questions asked in class are not drawing you into the conversation, you don’t have to sit passively running down the clock.  When you find yourself silent, here are some things that you can do:

·      Share your impressions.  Did you find the reading repellent?  More interesting than the other assignments for the course?  Bewildering?  Are you wondering how the reading connects to the aims of the course?  Your impression may be subjective and misinformed, but it’s a place to start.

·      Ask for clarification or direction.  Are you puzzled about what the reading has to do with the previous week’s material?  Does the reading strike you as inconsequential, wrong, or meaningless?  Do your instructor’s questions fail to track with the kinds of issues that struck you as particularly significant in the reading?  Go ahead and ask! 

·      Display your ignorance.  Chances are, if you feel like you are lacking some basic factual information that would help you make sense of the reading, you are not alone, and far from shaking their heads at your ignorance, your classmates will be grateful that you had the courage to express your bafflement or confusion. 

·      Regroup, rephrase, restate.  If you find you’re not participating because you have only a fuzzy grasp of where the conversation is going, step in and say so.  You’re probably not alone!  “Let me see if I’ve got this right…”  “Are you asking if…?” “Wait, back up a minute—what did we decide was the answer to that last question?” “What does that have to do with what we were just talking about?” are all ways that you can help to keep the conversation on a useful track.

·      Disagree.  Just because your instructor or your more vocal classmates seem to have similar or strongly held opinions about something doesn’t mean they are right.  If you aren’t convinced, you aren’t necessarily wrong.  And even if your objections are misguided, explaining your reasons for thinking as you do gives others in the class the opportunity to present a clearer (and perhaps more convincing) interpretation. 

How to Prepare for Papers and Exams
Taking meaningful notes in a lecture/discussion class is hard.  The format does not lend itself to outlines or bullet points.  Still, helpful ideas and information may come up in class that you won’t be able to recall unless you keep some record of discussion.
     Try to jot down major themes and key questions that emerge from class discussion and note the passages from the reading that get discussed in detail.  Include enough information to help you remember later why particular passages were worthy of attention in class and how those passages connect the day’s reading to the broader concerns of the course.  
     Use the inside covers of novels or other lengthy works to note down the page numbers of significant plot developments, character descriptions, or other vital passages that you may want to locate again. 
     Above all, look for ways to connect the information that emerges from class discussion with your own reading of the text.   What passages or incidents strike you as significant that get little discussion?  Did a lot of class time get devoted to scenes or issues that struck you as secondary?  How might you connect the material that interested you particularly to the things that came up in class discussion?   

Damage Control
If you are floundering in a course (missing classes, coming to class without doing the reading, handing papers in late or not at all, missing exams), the sooner you discuss the situation with your instructor the better.  If the circumstances that have produced your floundering are not likely to change, it is probably best to drop the course.  If for some reason you can’t, it may seem futile to go to the instructor, but it is not.  Instructors dislike having to track down students, follow up on missing assignments, and ensure that the course requirements are clear.  By taking the initiative to contact your instructors, you spare them that work, which they appreciate.
If unusual personal circumstances are the cause, your instructors may be reluctant to hear details about your situation.  Whatever their concerns for you personally, instructors need to be fair to other students who may be struggling with similar burdens but prefer to keep such matters private.  Moreover, most instructors are uncomfortable in a counseling role for which they have no training.  Try to explain your difficulty in broad terms and focus on the accommodations you seek in order to complete the course requirements. 
In general, the more alacrity and responsibility you display in confronting problems in a course, the more likely the instructor is to give you the benefit of the doubt.