College Expectations: What Students Wish They Knew

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    There are a lot of myths and rumors about what colleges classes are like. People may tell you that college classes are ridiculously hard or boring, but that isn’t always the truth.  People may also tell you that the professors are harsh and aren’t approachable, but, again, that isn’t always the truth. Below are some guidelines regarding class structure and some things to expect when you start your first college classes. 

    The Typical Structure

    • The first deciding factor in what your class is like is whether or not your professor utilizes the textbook. Professors have the ability to choose whether they use the textbook for all of their lessons (using screenshots of the pdf in lecture, giving homework from it, assigning readings, or other methods), use it to occasionally supplement their teaching, or ignore it completely. 


    • Younger professors tend to stick to the textbook and use a more organized style while more experienced professors will write lectures and teach off the top of their head, but that’s not always true. 


    • A typical college course is divided into lecture and discussion or lecture and recitation. 
      • During lecture, your professor will discuss the material and write notes using some medium like the board, a PowerPoint, or an online note taking app. 

        • You’re responsible for writing down anything significant that they cover, while also paying attention to their commentary on the subject.  
        • Some professors are more generous and post their lecture notes or a lecture recording online for you to access in case you missed anything. 
        • You might be expected to read the chapter that they’re lecturing about before class. This is called “flipped classroom” style. 
        • Occasionally there is a participation and attendance grade in lecture, but more likely than not you can sit there and do whatever you want or not attend at all if you’re sick, comfortable with the material, or need a break. 
      • During discussion/recitation, your professor or a Teaching Aid (TA) will either guide you through some interactive material that corresponds to the type of course you’re taking or they’ll review lecture. 
        • If you’re taking a STEM course, the type of interactive material you see will probably be problem sets, usually done in groups.  
        • If you’re in social sciences or business, they tend to give you publications or historical documents to read and interpret during the class.  
        • In general education courses, TAs usually opt for just reviewing the content and taking questions because that easiest for them, especially with many people in the class.  
        • Professors tend to opt for giving interactive material and making their rounds to the groups to discuss and take questions. Professors may also cancel discussion entirely and continue lecturing if they’re behind. 
    • Regardless of who is leading discussion and what their style is, discussion can be a common place for giving tests or quizzes. This makes it important to attend and pay attention to, especially since TAs are students, and are often willing to take it easy on you and give practice problems that are just like the quizzes. Likewise, you may find that some of your discussions are just review sessions with nothing significant or graded and without an attendance sheet for participation. Discussion may not be mandatory and might not suit your needs. It depends on the course and how your professor decides to use the discussion time as it’s essentially just a flex time for whatever they deem fit.


    Extra Credit: there are all kinds of rumors about what college is like and extra credit is one of them. It all depends on the professor. Your professor might be very generous and willing to give extra credit for those who earn it or they might be completely unwilling to do so. A good guideline is to just never expect extra credit and do your best to make it so that you do well enough to pass without it, because it’s not guaranteed. However, if you’re struggling, your professor might be willing to help with or discuss extra credit opportunities.

    • Professors: again, there are plenty of rumors about college professors, but college professors are a hard group to generalize as there are so many types. 
      • Professors aren’t required to have teaching degrees like they are in high school, only degrees in the field they’re teaching. Some might have degrees in teaching or they might just be talented at teaching regardless, but don’t expect all of them to be very organized or good at conveying their thoughts.
      • It’s common to have professors that went to college internationally or are just immigrants. Either way, there is a good chance at some point in college you’ll have a professor with a moderate or heavy accent that makes them hard to understand. Just politely speak up if you don’t understand something. The rest of the class may struggle with it too and need them to repeat themselves. 
      • Professors can be any age, race, or gender. Your high school was probably full of middle-aged, clean-cut teachers. However, since professors don’t need a teaching degree, they can be anybody. You might be surprised with a few of your classes because your professors are only a few years older than you. Likewise, sometimes your professors just won’t be the type of clean-cut people that you expect. 
      • Professors can be some of the most dry, rude, and mean people you meet. Likewise, they can be some of the coolest, kindest people you meet. There really is no set image of what a professor is or looks like, so don’t assume your professors are all a certain way. They may make an effort to get to know you and help you out, or, especially in big lectures, they may not care who you are and how you’re doing. If you’re the type of person that needs to get to know your professor and you like to ask them questions and get help from them, their syllabus will have their office hours and location so you can get to know them regardless of the lecture size. This is especially good for getting letters of recommendation and having a contact person in the field, but is by no means required. 
      • Difficulty: If your GPA and SAT scores were appropriate for you to get accepted to a school, then chances are the coursework will be manageable for you. Some classes might be more difficult and some classes might be even easier than high school. You’ll know which courses are really difficult going into them because they have a campus-wide reputation. One of the most common examples is Organic Chemistry as it’s the first class people really struggle with. However, like most classes, they are manageable if you dedicate and manage your time accordingly. 
      • Grade breakdown: Most classes will look like the following 
        • Midterm 1: 15% 
        • Midterm 2: 15% 
        • Midterm 3: 15% 
        • Final: 30% 
        • Quizzes: 15% 
        • Homework: 10% 
    • This can vary based on the class, especially with social sciences where midterms can be essays, but for the most part they’re all similar. Your tests and big projects/assignments will make up at least 60% of your grade. Some classes will drop your lowest grades in each category to make your life easier. Many professors will be generous and drop your lowest quiz grade, homework grade, and even your lowest test grade if you’re lucky.
    • Curves: a lot of people freak out after their first test because at the end of the day, college is hard and you will make mistakes on exams. However, chances are, if you did bad on an exam you prepared well for, then everybody else will feel the same way. This means that the professor will have an unfavorable test distribution where the average is a C or worse, whereas it should normally be a B. This makes the professor look bad, since they have to report their testing statistics, so they’ll likely apply a curve to the test so that the average is around a B. Therefore, even if you think you did awful, if the test was hard, then you’ll probably end up getting a reasonable grade at the end of the course. Some professors teaching difficult courses will bump everybody’s grade up by at least a sign (B- to B or B+ to A-) if they haven’t curved the tests. 
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    Sean Fowler


    Aerospace Engineering at UMD, intending to specialize in aeronautics with a focus on aerospace structures and design.



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