5 Tips for Taking (Graduate) Classes
Once someone gets into grad school, one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome can be figuring out how to manage the classes. Their pace is faster, there's more content, and the expectations are higher than in undergrad. Successfully figuring out how to manage the classes can make the transition into grad school much easier, and it also helps increase the likelihood a student will get through their program on time.
Luckily, there are some fairly straightforward ways students can more successfully manage their classes. And while these are intended primarily for graduate-level courses, they can work well for any students taking classes.
1. Use a To-do List
Using a to-do list is one of my favorite tips for students. That's because it's a relatively simple tool that is vastly under-used but makes a huge difference in quality of life and how well you manage everything you need to get done. Many students try to remember the things they need to do using their memory, but we've all had experiences where we forget about something from time-to-time. It's also very hard to organize tasks effectively when they're floating around in our heads. By getting tasks down onto a to-do list, you can physically move them around, categorize them, prioritize them, set reminders, and so on.
When it comes to classes, they are very helpful for tracking assignments. Students who are taking classes that rely on syllabi know the struggle of having to constantly check to see what assignments are due and when. It can be relatively simple for one class, but gets really complicated when there are multiple. Especially when you need to try to plan ahead for big projects.
An easy way to remove all of this headache is to enter all of your assignments into a to-do list at the beginning of each term. It takes a short amount of time (maybe 20 minutes), and it puts everything all in one place. You can use labels or other things to help mark which class each assignment is for, you can schedule them for specific days, set reminders, and even prioritize which things are most important (e.g., a paper > reading an article > optional readings).
2. Read Efficiently
One of the most time-consuming parts of taking any class is reading through the materials. In fact, many students simply skip the readings because they think there isn't enough time to complete them. That may be true if you're trying to read through the materials 100% in their entirety. But the goal of reading for a class should be to get the relevant information that you need out of the readings, and to skip the rest.
How that's done depends on the format of the readings, and how well they're written. For books, the first sentence of every paragraph should ideally summarize what that paragraph will discuss, and the last sentence should summarize the relevant information (though that's not always the case). For research articles, the introduction gives some background and the discussion summarizes the findings and puts them in context. Though these are not always done perfectly, and it's entirely possible to miss some information by not reading things through 100% (e.g., not noticing the authors are making unjustified claims in the discussion section), generally professors have chosen high-quality readings that you can more reliably trust to have good summaries within them.
You can also read things out of order to help understand the materials more quickly, especially for research articles. For example, you may want to read the intro, then discussion, then methods/results (especially if you're still becoming familiar with methodology and analyses).
And when reading, try to highlight the good summarizing sentences you find (if you're able). This not only helps to solidify some of the information in your memory, but it's helpful to have for if/when you look back at it later (e.g., when studying for a test or comps).
3. Take Efficient Notes
Everyone has their own preferred style for taking notes. And ultimately there is no one right way to take notes. But notes are important (especially at the grad school level when you'll have to worry about comps at some point). That being said, you want to think through your strategy of taking notes to help figure out if it's efficient enough. When you're writing/typing notes, it's harder for you to also be listening to the professor, or reading things being presented. That means the longer you spend writing/typing, the more content you're likely to miss. Taking excessive notes is also unhelpful because the notes then become a chore to look through later.
Instead, you want to find a way to efficiently take notes. That can mean using shorthand, typing instead of writing (if you type faster), only getting down enough words to convey the point, and so on. Again, there's no one right way, so it will depend on you figuring out what works best for you. Just resist the urge to write down everything (or nothing) so you can push yourself to find a good balance.
4. Plan for Comps
This one is more specific to grad school, but the overall idea applies to undergrad as well. When working through assignments, readings, and notes, it's helpful to think of them in the context of having them ready for when you'll be studying for comps. That can be hard to determine if you're not at that stage yet, but that's ok. The idea is just to be thinking about how to prepare your materials so they can be helpful when you look back at them later. That means using annotations for articles (e.g., highlighting), having things organized (e.g, files in folders by class), keeping copies of notes that are easy to read through (e.g., typing notes, scanning them), and so on.
If you want to go the extra step, you can also use this as an incentive to consistently write summaries for yourself. After reading an article, write a few sentence detailing the important information. After a lecture, make a few bullet points with the main information conveyed in the lecture. That will not only help when referencing your notes later, but it helps push you to think about the content to identify the main points, and helps to solidify it in your memory.
Too many students remain silent when they are in class. Then those same students often complain about how boring the class is. But participating in class not only helps to keep you awake/engaged, but it also helps you understand the material better. It forces you to articulate your understanding, to explain things in depth to others, and it provides opportunities for the professor to clear up any misunderstandings you may have. Plus it helps to foster professional relationships.
Now, I understand that a lot of students feel anxious about participating in class. It's common to think that you have nothing to contribute, or to worry that the professor will realize you didn't do the readings (which you might have done if you had followed some of my tips above). But those fears shouldn't prevent participation! Everyone has a view worth sharing (no matter how much you think you're an exception to that). And the more you push yourself to do it, the more you'll realize that it's not as bad as you think and the easier it will get over time. In the end, you'll feel more relaxed in classes, you'll have a better attitude towards them, and that can help increase your motivation to do the readings and take the assignments seriously.
These are just a few tips to help with adjusting to the demands of grad school classes (though, again, these can also help with those in undergrad or even high school). There's certainly more that can help, and these exact strategies won't necessarily work well for everyone. My intent with this post is to prompt people to at least try these tips, and to start actively thinking about what will be most beneficial for them. Once you start to do that, it becomes much easier to find a system that works well for you!
Have suggestions for other tips that I didn't mention above? Want some extra information, like what tools I recommend for helping with some of these? Let me know in the comments!