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Some Advice on Giving Advice

By Michael E. Orrison

There are always a lot of questions that need to be answered at the beginning of a course. When are office hours? What are the grading policies? How many exams will there be? Will late homework be accepted? We have all seen the answers to these sorts of questions form the bulk of a standard course syllabus, and most of us feel an obligation (and rightly so) to provide such information.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that there was a particularly helpful question that my students could have been asking me all along. That question might go something like, "As the instructor, what advice do you have for someone who wants to be successful in this course?" It is no secret that I want all of my students to succeed in my courses, so why wouldn t I want to share such advice?

So, in preparing for a course I was about to teach, I decided to create a list of suggestions for how to be successful in the course. The whole process started well enough with advice that I thought was pretty straightforward: start your homework early, make sure to read the book, and don't hesitate to ask questions in class.

It didn't take long, though, for the process to become bogged down. Aside from a handful of generic bits of advice (like starting homework early), I began to wonder if the advice I might give would be too specific. Did it simply reflect who I was when I was a student? Would the majority of my students find it helpful? Moreover, I was the instructor, not some trusted roommate who had recently taken the course. Would my students really believe me? Would I have believed the instructor when I was a student?

I then realized that the entire list would be much more effective, and much easier to construct, if the advice were coming from former students of the course instead of me. After all, as far as my students were concerned, the comments of former students would come with built in weight and legitimacy. Moreover, if I were able to gather advice from former students, then I would almost certainly be able to pass on great tips that I would have never thought of myself.

So I gave the class my generic list at the beginning of the course, but on the last day of class I asked them, "What advice do you have for future students of this course?" The results were amazing. The bits of advice were genuinely sincere and reflective, and although each of my original suggestions appeared somewhere in the collection, there were indeed some great additional suggestions or phrasings that I would not have (and could not have) come up with on my own.

Nowadays, I ask all of my classes to provide advice for future students, and I make sure to share what I feel are the most important tips with those future students. I am confident that it is working because of the large number of my students that are, for example, actually starting their homework early, reading the book, and asking questions in class. Of course, not only do these activities help my students be successful in my course, but they also end up saving me time as well!

Time spent: 15-30 minutes to read, filter, and type up selected student advice.

Time saved: 30-60 minutes to create and type up your own advice, and an estimated 2-10 hours per course associated with the consequences of students not following that advice.


Advice from Former Students for "Math 55"
Harvey Mudd College
Prof. Michael Orrison

  • Read everything!
  • Read the book! It is essential.
  • He's not kidding-read the book,and don't skim. It's an awesome book.
  • Do the reading right after class and look at the homework problems. A lot of time the problems need to sit for a couple of days before you see the solution.
  • You can't do homework for this class last minute.
  • Start homework early! Don't wait until the night before. Some problems require a lot of thinking.
  • Look at the homework assignments a couple of days in advance and let the problems sink in. Discrete is easier if you ve been thinking about the problems before you actually attempt them.
  • Do the special problems early in the semester.
  • Always have people you can talk to about discrete.
  • I've found that working through all of the problems on your own is essential for really understanding the material. However, once you finish the problems, or if you can't, go talk to your classmates. You will find far more errors working with them than on your own, and learning how to talk and communicate math ideas clearly helps you learn the ideas and is a great side benefit from this course.
  • Don't hesitate to ask Prof. O. for help on your assignments if you need it. He won't chase you away.
  • Take advantage of rewrites.
  • LaTeX is very nice, but it may not be for you. Don't feel pressured into using it.
  • Learn the definitions.
  • Going to every single class will make your life much easier.
  • This course has a lot of material that comes up again later in the semester, so it's important to get the concepts early on.
  • Understand the big picture and how everything is related.

Copyright © 2005-2006 Michael Orrison