Class Participation in Graduate School

In college, students are responsible for their own education. Most professors spend a considerable amount of time preparing lessons, activities, and assignments for classes, but the responsibility for embracing and learning the material lies on students. Students who take responsibility for their own education—who come to class on time and avoid absences, pay attention and participate in class, and complete assignments with integrity—are not only more likely to enjoy their classes but  may also be more likely to succeed in the classroom and in future academic endeavors. The following are ideas for taking responsibility for your own education.  


Come to Class and Arrive on Time

Arriving to class on time and avoiding absences are two easy things you can do to take responsibility for your own education. Clearly, the more you are in class, the less you will miss, and the more you will learn. Following are three central rules for attending class and arriving on time:

1. Arrive a few minutes before the start of class. Be prepared (books and materials on the desk, ready to go) by the time the teacher starts class.

2. Do not ask questions that are not pertinent to that day’s lecture or materials during class. Ask questions about unrelated material, upcoming assignments (unrelated to current material), missed work, or other personal needs at the end of class, after class, or during office hours. 

3. If you miss a class, check your syllabus to see what you likely missed and then talk to a classmate to get assignments, class notes, and other missed information. If the syllabus and your classmate don’t offer the information you need, visit your professor during his or her office hours. Do not use everyone’s class time to figure out what you missed or to catch up on missed materials. More importantly, do your best to avoid absences and to attend every single class. Teachers use class time to teach material to students. Typically, there is no amount of reading and “catching up” that can make up for the information that is taught to students during class. Assume all class sessions are important and there is never an ideal time to miss class.

Pay Attention and Participate in Class

Contrary to popular belief, class time is not a time to sit back, relax, and allow your professors to fill your brain with fascinating material. Class time is a time for you, as a student, to actively listen to your teacher and classmates; engage with the teacher, your classmates, and the material; and squeeze the most you can out of the precious few moments you spend with an expert in the field—your teacher. The following are suggestions for developing the skills to pay attention and participate in class:

1. Put away your cellphone, computer, and any other electronic devices. If you must use your computer to take notes, turn off the wireless internet feature. Unless your class involves electronic or online work, those contraptions will only serve to distract you from the work at hand. Strive to stay focused on what your teacher and classmates are saying and refuse the temptation to communicate with the outside world during class

2. Sit close to the front of the room, raise your hand often, and take notes. The more active you are, the more likely you will be to engage with the material. Avoid the temptation (and believe me, it will be strong on certain days) to sit back and “listen” without participating. The simple actions of raising your hand, moving your eyes from person to person as the teacher and your classmates talk, and exercising your voice will help keep your brain awake, alert, and interested.

3. Listen to the words coming out of your teacher’s mouth. In many classes, you will be required to copy down notes and listen to your teacher. If this is the case in any of your classes, ask your teacher to make his or her notes available online. Then, in class, give the majority of your attention to your teacher. Take notes based on the lecture and then correlate those notes with printouts of the notes your teacher puts online and the notes you take while reading and completing your homework.

4. Think critically in and out of class. Do so especially while participating in class and while doing your homework. Much graduate school curricula depends on critical thinking—use class time and homework assignments as opportunities for improving your ability to think critically, and then offer your thoughts to make class discourse more rich, meaningful, and vibrant.      

5. Be prepared for class. This will be discussed in more detail in the next section. For now, know the degree to which you engage with your homework correlates to the degree to which you can effectively participate in class. Do not waste your teachers’ and classmates’ time by coming to class poorly prepared.

Complete Assignments with Integrity and Prepare for Each Class  

Teachers use in-class assignments, reading assignments, and homework to give students additional time to work with class material. Completing your assignments with rigor and integrity is one of the best (if not only) ways to comprehend class material and to be prepared for class. The following is a list of ways to complete your assignments with integrity and to prepare for class:

1. Read and comprehend the class syllabus. Make sure you have a clear idea of what is expected of you during the semester. Write down important dates (assignment due dates, etc.) on a calendar and plan your work accordingly.  

2. Set aside a realistic amount of time for completing assignments and do not procrastinate. You will likely be incredibly busy during school—therefore, it is very important to get a head start on all of your assignments and to follow a realistic plan for getting them done. As soon as you receive an assignment, schedule your work.

3. Take notes while reading for class. Look for answers to the “big five” while reading: who, what, where, when, and how, and take notes of answers for each. In addition, do some critical thinking of the readings prior to class. Then, while in class, strive to learn something new from your classmates and to offer interesting insights you derived from doing your homework.

4. Complete all of your assignments, even if you don’t understand them. Homework is designed to teach you something—simply by working with it, even if you don’t fully understand it, you will learn something.

5. If you don’t understand your assignments, or feel as though you are falling behind, meet with a tutor or your professor and ask for assistance. You are not expected to already know everything in graduate school; rather, you are expected to take responsibility for learning. If you’re lost, confused, and falling behind, ask for help immediately.   

6. Work with a tutor on difficult assignments or materials with which you struggle. If you continue to struggle, consider meeting with your college or university’s disabilities center to see if you have an undiagnosed learning disability. Learning disabilities, whether slight, moderate, or severe, can have a huge impact on students’ education and can often times be easily dealt with if diagnosed correctly.


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Annie Rose Stathes holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Political Science, both from the University of Colorado, Denver. She is currently an Instructor of Writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado

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