becoming a master student.

I often tell my students that the course that changed my life was Introduction to Sociology. Today I realized that I’ve been lying to them, or to myself, all this time. The class that truly changed my life was Human Development 100.

One of the first lessons in college teaching is realizing that you were probably not a typical student. Despite the handful who come to your office hours begging you to bump their grade up a smidge so that they can get that A- instead of an B+, there are many more who are satisfied to be passing your class. While you might have started your final research paper the very day that the professor handed out the assignment, most of your students won’t start it until the week – or night – before it’s due. Although you found the course reading intuitive and fascinating, others struggle to get through it, let alone understand (and retain) it.

I think that, as professors, we have a tendency to assume that these attitudes and behaviors stem from our students’ personalities. They’re lazy. They’re not focused. They just don’t care.* I certainly do. And, as I get further away from my first year of college, I forget to counter this disheartening chorus with: I was once like that, too.

My struggles in school began long before college. It became clear very early on that although I was smart and “a pleasure to have in class,” I just wasn’t good at school. My parents tried to help, but they were incredibly busy trying to make ends meet and, the truth was, neither of them had been all that good at school either.  I skated by (barely) on my talent alone – making up with attendance, participation, and passable test performance what was lacking because I “failed to complete assignments.” When it came time for college applications, the school counselor didn’t even set up a meeting with me. Although my mom might have hoped I’d go to college, no one really thought I actually would.

My friends graduated and moved away, into dorms and sororities. I graduated and started working in restaurants full time.  Less than a year after graduating, I was bored. So bored. I decided to register for nursing classes at the community college. The admissions counselor told me that, in addition to my course load, I would need to take an extra one-credit class.** I never thought to ask why.

That one credit class was Human Development 101 and the book – Becoming a Master Student – is one that I still have today.

The book, and the class, was just what I needed. We talked about time management and I learned the value of trying to “Be Here Now.” The professor taught us how to take notes and encouraged us to consider our learning styles in deciding how to study, where to sit, and even what courses to take.  Most importantly, the class helped me take what I knew were my strengths at work and translate them into skills that could play into successes in school. Without the class, there is no way that I would have made it past that first quarter. In other words, without that class, I never would have been sitting in Introduction to Sociology a year later and deciding that I was going to someday stand in front of it.

I’ve talked up the class to lots of people through the years. I’ve encouraged students who were struggling with basic college skills to buy the book and use it as a workbook,  I’ve asked Notre Dame to consider adding a similar, optional class to our offerings, and I often share small tidbits with others. But it wasn’t until today, when I met someone who teaches a similar class at a local technical college and I said out loud, “that class changed my life,” that I realized how important it really was.***

I wonder what resources your institutions have – or that you wish they had – that you can refer students to who might have the ability, but who don’t seem to have the skills or means to realize their potential.

*We’re not unusual in that sense – the fundamental attribution error is well-documented – and of course we don’t always fall victim to this bias, especially social scientists.

**A lot of campuses offer a similar course (although it’s not always required and much more common among technical and community colleges than four-year schools). I wish that we did.

***Such a class isn’t a cure-all, of course. I succeeded, in large part, because of vast privilege on a number of dimensions. That said, we could serve many of our students better if we remembered how much of what is “easy” or “natural” for us – those of us who might have been good at school – might not be intuitive for others.

4 thoughts on “becoming a master student.”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I am always surprised at how hard it to “learn how to learn.” My students get stumped all the time on fairly simple issues – things that are easily resolvable by using the Help function in a program, or google, or even asking another student.

    The book you mention, and the course, sounds like a great way to address learned helplessness among student (and adults!). I am happy that it began your path into the profession and I hope other students will benefit from it in similarly profound ways.

    Great post.


  2. Yeah Jessica, it’s nice to get a personal story out here. I think people shy away from resources like “this is how to study” courses and career services office stuff on how to interview and write resumes, because we see these as institutional basics that everyone is supposed to already grasp. So even when it comes to the decision to self-select into such a resource, a lot of people would probably prefer to feel like they’re better than the need for remedial training.

    But how-to guides aren’t for dummies, and they’re really useful. That goes for style books re: writing, career resource centers re: not sending out embarrassing resumes, and study skills sections of or dedicated courses re: not bombing college even if you’re smart because you’re an awful student. I’ve been there!


  3. I’m just seeing this, but I wanted to add:
    – another thank you for posting this; despite that we ought to know better, many sociologists teach as if all students were equally prepared
    – something we can all do, and I try to do, even if no course is offered, is to talk explicitly in our classes about college norms and give tips that the less-advantaged students might not know about. On the first day of any class I’m teaching, I always discuss the correlation between class background and comfort with institutions and perceived authorities (citing Lareau), and then encourage the students who wouldn’t normally do it to come to my office hours or otherwise engage me (sometimes I also require one office hours meeting, just to get the less-comfortable students over that hump).
    – I agree that these sorts of teaching-how-to-learn courses are valuable and probably ought to be offered more. Even for the privileged kids, in order to explicitly socialize them into college learning (even the best-off students can use some coaching about norms and expectations).


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