The University Network

How To Ace The Entry-Level Lecture Course

Entry-level lecture courses, such as “Introduction to Philosophy” or “General Psychology,” may sound simple. But don’t be fooled. Such courses are deceptively tricky and many students struggle to pass them. 

Historically, about 15 percent of students who take 100-level lecture courses at large public universities, where they are most common, get Ds or Fs or drop out before the semester is over, Carol A. Twigg, president of the nonprofit National Center for Academic Transformation, told the New York Times. “We lose so many students between the first and second years,” she said, “because they are not passing these courses.”

Largely, that’s because such courses are often packed with hundreds of students and cover an overwhelming amount of material, making it difficult for students to interact with professors and stay on top of their studies. Moreover, many entry-level lecture courses are designed to include only a midterm and a final exam, so students can’t rely on homework or participation to boost their grade, as is the norm in high schools. 

But, it’s not impossible to do well in these courses. These four tips will help you ace your next lecture course. 

1. Be a proactive learner

Setting up office hours with professors, arranging out-of-class study groups with peers or asking the teacher’s assistant for tutoring can all feel like daunting tasks. But, if you want to succeed in entry-level lecture courses, such actions may be necessary. 

“First-year students are frequently intimidated or uncertain about asking for help — in particular from their instructors,” says Joshua Colwell, a physics professor at the University of Central Florida. “But we all have office hours, and we’re all here to answer those questions.”

“So, if you’re a student and you’re not understanding the material …  the first thing you need to do is ask for help,” he adds. “And that help can be asked for from your instructor, a teacher’s assistant or other people in the class.” 

Coming from high school, students are used to attending class five days a week and regularly checking in with their teachers, Colwell explains. High school classes, which typically include only 20-30 students, are designed to encourage student engagement. 

In college, however, students are left to make their own decisions, especially in big lecture courses. No one is checking to ensure that students are engaged in their education. So, students must become proactive learners, Colwell urges. 

In addition to seeking out help from professors and peers, students need to be disciplined about setting up time outside of class to review and work on the course material, he adds. 

2. Take a different approach to testing

Although some professors are shying away from this, the traditional format for large-enrollment lecture courses is to base students’ grades entirely on a midterm and a final. Naturally, some innate test-takers thrive in this format. But for others who benefit from consistently completing homework and speaking up in class, this grading format does not favor them.

Colwell says there’s a common misconception about testing that many students share, and it would benefit them to approach testing in a different way. 

“They think the purpose of the class is to teach them how to pass a test,” he says. “In fact, the purpose of the class is to teach them new understanding, new material. And the purpose of the test is an assessment to determine whether or not they understand it. That subtle distinction makes quite a big difference. So, it’s not about preparing to pass a test. It’s really about understanding the material.”

For general tips on how to prepare effectively for midterms or finals, check out this article: The Daunting Task: How to Prepare For Finals Week

3. Refine your note-taking skills 

Traditionally, large lecture courses were all about note-taking. A student’s ability to excel in a class was reliant on how thorough and coherent his or her notes were. 

And the rules you’ve likely heard your entire life — to write notes that are complete, detailed, organized and clear — still apply to large lecture courses. 

However, in recent years, many professors are shying away from the traditional lecture format and switching to active teaching methods. Professors who follow the new method generally post class notes online. That way, students can focus less on jotting down everything they hear and more on engaging actively in the material. 

The classic model of a professor spouting out information and a student passing it onto a sheet of paper doesn’t really work, Colwell explains. “It’s not a really productive way of trying to get someone to understand something.”

This doesn’t mean you should leave your pen and paper in your dorm room, though. Instead, you should seize the opportunity to take careful, thoughtful notes. 

“When you have that sort of flash of understanding, jot that down,” Colwell says. “Because, we all have those moments where we’re like ‘oh, I get it,’ and then an hour later you’re like, ‘wait a minute, what was that again?’ So it’s trying to sort of capture that kernel of understanding.” 

For more general tips on note-taking, check out this article: 8 Note-Taking Tips for College Students.

4. Go to class, even if attendance is optional 

Throughout college, mostly in large lecture courses, you’ll have professors who make attendance optional. But, students who take this as an invitation to skip class whenever they want are making a big mistake. By making attendance optional, your professor is merely treating you like an adult capable of making your own decisions. 

And in a 300-person class, skipping class to sleep in or go get breakfast can be awfully tempting — especially if your professor posts the class notes online. But, know that you’ll miss vital information because of it. 

Nowadays, class time isn’t only about reciting a lecture. Professors commonly emphasize certain things or pose questions to the class designed to encourage critical thinking. 

As a physics professor, Colwell says he uses class time to conduct demonstrations that his students couldn’t do on their own. Class time, to Colwell, is an opportunity to get students to actively engage in the material they’re learning. 

“Also, just going to the class imposes some type of structure on a student’s studying,” he explains. For at least three hours a week — or whatever it is —  you’ll know your time will be dedicated towards thinking about the subject matter. 

Keys to success

For many students, especially those coming directly from high school, large-enrollment, entry-level lecture courses can initially seem like a cakewalk. With optional attendance, minimal homework and 300 other students to blend in with, it’s easy to assume you’ll be able to breeze by without much effort. 

But make no mistake. Those very characteristics are what make these courses so difficult. Large lecture courses are no invitation to sit back and relax. Passing them requires personal drive and adherence to these four tips.