Study Suggestions and Advice

Early on in my career as a professor, I developed study suggestions and advice for engineering students who feel overwhelmed by their coursework. People often feel demoralized from by their educational experience. This is, in part, due to negative classroom experiences or “difficult” courses. In my experience, I can say that the more positive one’s outlook often the better their experience (since our attitude has a direct affect our experiences). I have some tips for students who find a course is difficult and don’t know what to do.

‘Difficult Courses’

There’s nothing wrong in finding a course hard. Those things that challenge us make us stronger and our (possibly excruciating) experience may be well worth it in the end. A difficult course can be good because it pushes us to achieve more than we would have done by ourselves. A course that is difficult can also have negative effects if it is (by nature) dysfunctional. For example, if course expectations are set significantly beyond what is reasonable for students of the class and without giving proper guidance and support, students may often feel like they don’t belong in an associated profession even though this is not true. Another negative experience possibly occurs when a course has no formal pre-requisite, but seems to significantly favor people who have a specific background that is not required.

Either way, if you find yourself taking a course that is difficult all you can do is try your best and focus your energy on performing well. Try not to take your negative experiences personally. Almost every instructor I have known has good intentions and would like to reward those who apply themselves and work hard. Have faith that hard work will be rewarded (maybe not immediately, but this is definitely true long-term) and don’t get down on your instructor (this is for your own sake because it’s hard to learn from someone you don’t feel good about).

Now, if you’re taking a difficult course and I’m teaching it, here are some specific suggestions I have for you.

Study Suggestions
  • Do the homework. Many courses I teach have a theoretical component that people find challenging. One focus of the courses is to help you get confident with the associated analysis. Although, the lectures provide you with an overview of the concepts introduced, it is necessary to actually do (note: this does not mean look at the solutions of someone else) the problems.
  • Review the basics. There are many subtleties in a course. You can only truly understand them once you’ve mastered the mathematical basics such as calculus and algebra. Although you have had the math courses necessary, it is often apparent that some people are still unprepared. If you are one of these people, I will suggest that you review certain topics in detail (ask me if you want to know what you should review). For a course on signals and systems, for example, this would include: transformations of the independent variable, periodic signals, even and odd signals, the complex exponential function, Euler’s relation, the basics of integration, the basics of sums (including sums of infinite sequences). Also, try the Shaum’s series if you are having problems with a good reference.
  • Keep up with the lectures. The material in a course is often cumulative. This means that it is important you understand the material of the previous lectures to truly comprehend the present one. You can keep up with the course by reviewing lecture material after each class. This can be done by reviewing class notes (if you take them), reading relevant sections of the text book and doing the homework prior to the associated tutorials/recitations.
Potential Concerns and My Suggestions

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of students regarding their concerns about courses, school, success, and life in general. Some issues are very common. I list a number of specific questions I’ve heard below (in no particular order) and my suggestions to address the associated concerns.

  • Concern: I am doing badly in your course (and others) because I have insomnia.
    • My Suggestion: If you are having sleep problems I would suggest trying one or more of the following:
      1. get weekly massages (if you can’t afford professional ones, then get a significant other/parent to help you out)
      2. have a ritual each night before going to bed to psychologically induce sleep
      3. meditate (this can be as simple as closing your eyes, counting back from 10 to 1 while breathing slowly)
      4. drink warm milk before bed
      5. try to reduce stress in your life by procrastinating less (if you have this problem), organizing yourself better (if necessary), and not placing your self-esteem and worth in your performance at school (if you’re not doing as well as you like
  • Concern: I want to learn more in class, but I’m scared to ask questions.
    • My Suggestion: This may sound a bit harsh, but GET OVER IT and stop being so self-conscious! Some of the brightest people I know ask “stupid” questions. You won’t gain if you don’t put yourself out. In my class, I don’t discourage questions. I try and promote a positive learning environment — I will NEVER be sarcastic and demeaning if you have a sincere question. Feel free to stop me if you need clarification on any subject we discuss. If it’s inappropriate or beyond the scope of the course, I’ll try and cover it in the tutorials or suggest that you make an appointment with me after class to discuss it
  • Concern: I can’t follow the pace of the lectures because I miss a lot of the mathematical subtleties when the proofs are done on the board.
    • My suggestion: Believe me, I’m going sloooooow. I find that a small percentage of students feel this way and they don’t understand what to do. An effective solution is not for me to slow down even further because this has the effect of degrading the learning experience of the other students. Specific advice follows:
      • It is possible that there’s too many unfamiliar concepts being thrown at you all at once. You must invest time to review the fundamentals (which you are expected to know and have definitely seen before). If you do that and still are having problems, then I think that your review may have to be more thorough. I know that given your time constraints that the investment may not be immediately important/feasible for you. However, what I’m suggesting will have many positive long-term effects.
      • It may be that lecture-style teaching does not suit the way you learn. Then try to keep up with the lectures through self-study (i.e., by reviewing your class notes, by reading the text on your own after every class and by attempting the problems regularly). Pretty soon, you may start to feel more comfortable in class.
      • Don’t take notes. If you can’t both write and listen, then just listen, and borrown notes from a friend. Please note, that I think it’s always a better idea to take notes (as long as you can keep up). One way you can compromise is to pair up with a friend and alternate the responsibility of taking notes every class while the other listens.
  • Concern: I am demoralized and cynical about my Engineering program.
    • My suggestion: I find that often the source of this problem is that students feel that they are not doing/learning as well as they (or their parents, in some cases) had hoped in University. This could be because they feel that they don’t understand the point of the material they learn, the testing procedures are unfair, their classmates are too competitive, or they themselves are just not very bright. Often this leads to fear and procrastination and thus a greater decline in performance and the cycle continues with the quality of learning (and possibly grades) spiraling lower and lower.
    • I think that most people feel this way about some aspect of their life from time to time. It is debatable what the solution is, but one thing is for certain: your cynicism and possible procrastination is not helping the problem. I would ask you to experiment with trying to be more positive about your education. You have a lot to offer and you have an excellent opportunity to learn in arguably one of the nation’s top Universities! Also, accept the fact that you’re a student of life and it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you try and learn from them. Overall, I think that the most successful people (no matter what their situation) realize one very important fact: you can’t control your environment, but you can control your reaction to situations.
    • Most people who “struggle” or are unhappy through school feel (or are often labelled by others as) stupid or lazy. In my years of talking with students, I have very rarely met anyone who is suffering in school because of these two characteristics. At the core, the problem is usually something completely different.