Choosing Classes in College

There are several factors students should use when choosing a college course which would greatly increase their ability to do well and to finish a degree in a timely fashion. Sadly in my years of teaching and advising at the college level, I have met few students who do all of this.

1. College Requirements.

What are the required courses that you have to take for a college degree? Most schools have a set number or types of courses that everyone must take. This isn’t a secret, you should have been given this information before you enrolled when you were applying to the school. If it is at all possible, take these classes your first two semesters of school. Get them out of way so you can be certain of your major and them focus on it.

2. Major Requirements.

These are not the same as college requirements though there may be some overlap. Don’t assume, get any information in writing and keep track of what classes you take, what they count toward, and your grades. I cannot even count the number of students whom I’ve talked with who think they are in their last semester only to “discover” they are missing one course or a few credit hours. If you keep track this shouldn’t be a problem.

3. Logical Links.

Think about not only requirements but how those required courses are connected. In general, lower number courses require less discipline specific knowledge than higher ones so if you haven’t had a 200 math class you are unlikely to be prepared for a 400 math class. Similarly taking a women’s medieval history course assumes you are familiar with medieval history. It is not the job of the professor to fill you on missing information; it is your job to come prepared for the current class. Sadly most colleges now are doing away with prerequisites (they just want bodies in the classrooms for funding) so you have to think before you sign up.

4. Intra-Discipline Links.

Some people find that taking a semester of all math classes, or all history classes, or all English classes helps them focus on the skill set they need to do well. I disagree. I think taking more than one course in any discipline runs the risk of overwhelming the student especially if there is any overlap in topic. The problem though is not simply topic but also professors. Taking two classes from the same professor is a great idea – you know they have the same expectations – but taking two related classes from different professor risks conflict of expectations and even interpretations. While ideally professors should be beyond the “my way or no way” that isn’t the reality for every professor.

5. Inter-Discipline Links.

Consider what skills you need in your major. Not all of those skills are just taught in that field and many fields are actually what we call inter-disciplinary in nature all ready. For example, if you are taking history and you are more interested in modern history, taking a statistics course will help your understand and create charts and information. Similarly if you are in any field where you have to write, an English composition course gives you practice in writing clearly and on a schedule. If you aren’t sure what might be related skills, ask a professor in your major for advice.

6. Interests.

There is nothing more killer in a course than boredom. A professor should be passionate about what she teaches but that can only reach those who share that passion or are heavily invested in their grades. To avoid boring classes, investigate the course. Never simply go by on-line or paper descriptions. Email the professor or talk to people who have taken the class before. If you can, get a copy of the syllabus before you sign up so you can see exactly what is going to be covered. Titles are often designed to entice students, they do not need to be honest about the contents of the course.

7. Ability.

Getting a syllabus is also a good way to access what skills you will need in that class. Be brutally honest with yourself. You hate reading and find it difficult, then why take history or English or literature when you know there will be a lot of reading? You know it takes you a long time to study and do assignments. Take the minimum number of courses then so you have more time to work on each one. Taking 18 credit hours because it costs the same as 12 means nothing if you flunk them and have to retake them when the tuition rates are sure to raise each year. Play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses but don’t overwhelm yourself with struggles.

Why would a student not take the time to choose a class wisely? Usually they say they don’t have time. Trust me, if you can go on a date, go out drinking, play Halo or WoW, you have the time to go through all these steps. Not doing so will result in too much work and too little time, boring classes and a decreases in self-motivation, as well as extending your semesters in college as you bounce between majors and retake classes to try and raise your GPA. That’s time that you can’t get back.