10 Questions to Ask Yourself the First Week of Classes

Decisions in the first week of college courses can affect your grades at the end of the semester.

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The first week of the college semester is a very stressful and busy time. But no matter how crazy things get, all students should take a few minutes to assess the classes they're taking to make sure they've made the right choices. Bad choices can net you a whole semester of intense boredom, pain, and suffering—not to mention wasting all that good money you spent on tuition. But how to decide?

After the very first class, ask yourself these 10 questions about what you've just witnessed:

1. Is the teacher good? Even after the first class (or the first couple of classes if the first class is just an intro), you should be able to tell if the prof knows his or her stuff and can present the material in a clear, organized, and coherent way. Another thing to look for is whether the lecture has a point. A good teacher will center each class around one or two main topics; a loser will wander aimlessly through lots of unrelated detail, just dumping whatever he or she knows about the topic.

2. Is the teacher interesting? Look, college isn't Second City, so don't expect your calculus professor to have you rolling in the aisles with laughter. Still, your teacher should provide you with some entertainment value by running the class in a way that holds your attention (at least most of the time), that makes the material real (or at least sort of relevant), and that displays some enthusiasm. Bonuses here could be an interesting use of media in the class, stimulating readings and assignments, and provocative discussion sessions.

3. Does the teacher care that the students learn? Signs that the teacher cares include a willingness to take questions, an awareness of how the students are receiving the material, and respect in addressing students. Red flags are professors who make snide remarks that indicate disdain for students, who ignore or leave no room for questions, and (in the worst case) who make fun of students in class. If the professor is already this nasty in the first week, you can bet that things are going to get real mean once the professor's negative attitudes about students are—inevitably—confirmed by the results of the first test.

4. Is the course too hard (or too easy)? Sure, most college courses, especially first-year courses, are designed to introduce students to new subjects and new ways of thinking. But if you can't understand anything that's going on in the first few classes, this is a sign that you are in over your head—something that'll only get worse as the class gets deeper into the material. On the other hand, if you've already had the material—or if the course is such a joke that even Bozo would be at the head of the class—well, why waste your time?

Extra Pointer. It's especially important to be alert in subjects that are taught on a number of different levels (e.g., foreign languages) or that offer different versions for majors and nonmajors (e.g., math, chemistry, physics, and statistics). It's quite common for students to overestimate how much Spanish they really know or how good they are at calculus (their 4s on AP tests notwithstanding).

5. Does the course presuppose stuff I don't know? Pay close attention should the professor or the course syllabus announce that you must have a particular skill (say, know differential calculus or be able to use AutoCAD) or have taken prerequisite(s) before taking this course (for example, two semesters of university chemistry). Students who lack the skills or haven't taken the prerequisites are likely to find themselves playing catch-up from Day 1, without ever really succeeding.

6. Does the course have too much work? The course syllabus should give you a pretty clear sense of how much reading, writing, and testing the course requires. There's nothing wrong with courses that are challenging, and learning to write well is one of the most important things you can accomplish in college. But you need to balance the requirements of this course against all your other commitments. If one course is so excessive it eats up all your waking hours, then unless that course is superimportant for your major or your lifelong dream, you should bail and look elsewhere.

7. Would another course be a better choice for this requirementor this major? Colleges often give a wide variety of choices for the general education requirements. Don't feel obligated to take the most popular ones or the only ones you've heard of. So, too, for the requirements for your major. Often there is a different—and better—professor teaching the same required course that same semester or at least in the next semester.

4-Star Tip. Beware of what professors call "service courses"—low-level intro courses in a field, meant for the college population as a whole, that satisfy some distribution area but will not count toward the major. Take one of these, decide to major, and you'll have to take an intro course (or two) all over again. If in doubt, consult the online catalog, ask the undergraduate adviser in that department, or talk to the prof after class.

8. Do you really want to learn this stuff? Sometimes, after looking over the syllabus and hearing the professor tell what he or she plans to do in the course, it's pretty clear to you that this isn't what you bargained for when you signed up. Like the student who signed up for Critical Reasoning thinking she'd finally stop falling for her boyfriend's lines—and found herself doing truth tables and working to master modus tollendo ponens all semester long.

9. Do you feel you can learn from this professor? Every professor has a different teaching style, and some approaches might suit you better than others. Even if the professor got top ratings at ratemyprofessor.com and all your friends loved the course, it can still be taught in a way that doesn't match your learning style. Don't be a lemming.

10. Do you like the class? In a good class, you should have some feeling of intellectual excitement and, yes, enjoyment from the very beginning. If this feeling is absent at the start, it'll only get worse by the 30th lecture. Don't disregard your initial impression. If you don't like what you're seeing, drop this class and add another.

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