AS THE start of the 2004-2005 academic year nears, students about to enter college and those returning should ask themselves, how do I make the best of this extraordinary opportunity?
No matter how you cut it, higher education is an expensive proposition, but clearly an excellent investment for those students who take full advantage of it.
Richard Light, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education interviewed 1,600 undergraduates from public, private, large, small, and community colleges during a 10-year period and reached some obvious conclusions. He also discovered a few surprises about how students can make the most of college.
Taking primarily from the Light study and ideas I have solicited from former students, I offer the following suggestions to college students, in no particular order.
One: Take as many classes as possible (required and elective) that have the characteristics that students in general say constitute the best classes.
A "best" class is one that requires a good deal of writing, since students feel more engaged when writing is required. Students want to strengthen their writing ability by a margin of three to one over other skills they seek to develop in college.
A "best" class has structured disagreement. Opposing viewpoints are welcomed. The class is small, 25 students or less. The professor provides plenty of feedback via short papers and quizzes. There are group homework assignments, where the students work together to solve problems.
A "best" class encourages everyone to speak up in class. Finally, it is a class that is highly organized. The professor states daily learning objectives and is clear in how she reaches them.
Two: Take classes from great teachers. Great teachers understand what constitutes "best" classes. They do not repeat what the students have read, but rather help students think about topics in the same way people in his field of study think.
They relate the subject matter to the outside world and find a way to make it relevant to students' personal experiences. Colleges give "best teacher" awards, so find out who has received them. Ask dorm advisors and other students their opinions about who are the best teachers.
Three: Get to know at least one professor a year, if not two. Take advantage of their office hours. Explore mutual interests in addition to course content. These professors will help make contacts for internships and jobs and will likely write recommendations if asked.
Be brave, take the first step. This is a particularly important suggestion in making the most of the college experience, although relatively few students do.
Four: Make connections with others outside the classroom who share your personal interests. If you are interested in urban studies and take such a class, try to get an internship with a low-income housing agency to better understand the issues.
Students who make such connections are more satisfied with their college years. Eighty percent of students say that a college experience that changed them profoundly occurred outside the classroom.
Since students often need help in clarifying their interests, I encourage students to go to their college career development office their freshman year and take a job assessment test. This office is an invaluable resource when seeking internships, summer employment, and career opportunities.
For those who say they must study all the time, it is worthwhile to note that in the Light study it was determined that a commitment of one or two activities a week, for as much as 20 hours per week, had little or no impact on grades. Activities include work, volunteering, playing a sport, joining a club, and getting involved with the arts.
Five: Come to campus with an open mind and an understanding that you will learn as much about life from your peers as you will from your professors.
Over the last three or four decades university campuses have changed from being primarily male and white to now being more than half female, and 25 percent students of color.
Students have said racial and ethnic diversity on their campus had a very positive impact on their college experience. Make a point of learning from others who are not like you.
Six: Seek help when you have a problem that you are having a hard time resolving, be it academic or personal. Guys, please take special note since females are better at asking for help.
In a study of 40 sophomores who were struggling, 20 who sought help from the counseling office, a teaching assistant, professor or advisor, all - without exception - were able to develop strategies to improve their situation. Those unable to share their problems remained unhappily isolated.
Seven: Utilize your adviser. They are not there simply to sign a study card. They can help with time management (a big problem for freshmen), selection of classes, suggest extracurricular activities, and solve difficulties. A good adviser will go online, search things out for you, go the extra step, and if he or she does not, I suggest you change advisers.
Eight: Go to class. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility. It is surprising how many students decide to skip class from time to time, a pattern that will have negative consequences not only in college, but also later in one's work life.
And last: Maintain a proper balance between academic life and social life.
As one of my former students aptly stated, "Making the most of college does not mean getting drunk, which is an all too frequent occurrence on many college campuses. It is important to have fun, but in the context of always remembering the larger purpose for being in college, and that is to learn and explore new avenues of thought."
Phineas Anderson is head of school at Maumee Valley Country Day School.
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