How to Do Better than You Thought Possible
by Craig Allin
Success in any endeavor begins with motivation. The ads for America's best selling shoes used to say, "Just do it." Americans bought the shoes but most declined to get off the couch. College students aren't so different. How about you? It's easy not to do your assignments. There's always something else you might be doing. From time to time there may even be a good reason not to do your assignments. You're an adult; that's a decision for you to make. But often that "something else" is just killing time.
Many college students are world-class time wasters. I was a world-class time waster during my first year in college. My second year I picked out a study carrel in the library and began going there after breakfast. By devoting the time I had been blowing off to my class reading, I found I could finish all the reading for the week by Wednesday, leaving Thursday and Friday, and occasionally Saturday and Sunday, for projects and papers. Incidentally, this relatively small bit of self-imposed behavioral modification raised my GPA from about 2.9 to about 3.9.
Students often believe that they are destined to receive a particular grade ("I'm just a B student.") regardless of effort. This is a great excuse for not making the effort, but it's dead wrong. In college no one is enforcing study hours or requiring you to do your homework--unless you are.
Remind yourself why you are here. What are your professional aspirations? Why do you want a college degree? Why did you select a small college with professors instead of teaching assistants? with interactive classes of 25 instead of lectures to 600? with essay exams and papers instead of multiple-choice exams graded by machines? with an emphasis on life-long learning skills instead of vocational training geared to the first job? Why did you select this class? How does it contribute to your personal and professional goals? There's a certain convenience in saying, "I'm reading this book for Professor Allin," or "I'm writing this paper for Professor Allin." In truth, you are doing it for you. Remembering that can get you through a hard day--even a hard course.
Set aside regular times and places for your reading. Choose times when you are at peak alertness. Choose places free from distractions where you will be in the right frame of mind: a deserted classroom where you once had a good learning experience. Early in her first year at Cornell, a former student of mine earned the highest grade in my intro politics class. For the next three and a half years she studied in the same chair she had occupied in my class, even though she never took another politics course. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Get actively involved in your reading. Merely allowing your eyes to pass over the text generally results in minimal comprehension. There are a variety of techniques that might prove useful. If there is an abstract, read it first. If there is no abstract, look for a conclusion. Pre-read for general content; the first sentence in each paragraph is often the thesis sentence. (Try it out in this text.) Ask questions of the author: What's your main point? Can you prove that? Where did you get your evidence? Underline or highlight main points and key elements of information. Outline as you read. Brief each unit--chapter, essay, excerpt, case--before you go on to the next; record the main points and summarize the reasoning. The Writing Studio has some great downloads on reading and note taking.
Everything said above regarding reading applies to listening with one caveat: you can't control the time and place. The key to mastery of material presented in class is active involvement on your part. Merely warming a chair generally results in minimal comprehension. Various techniques are likely to prove useful. Check your distractions at the door; no one I know can really do two things at once. Master readings prior to the class for which they are assigned. Write down your questions, and don't be shy about raising them. If the professor lectures, ask yourself: What's the main point? What's the supporting evidence or argument? Record main points and key elements of information in your class notes. Brief each day's class notes before you go on to the next day's work; record the main points and summarize the reasoning. This process is likely to raise questions. If you can't find the answers, raise them in class. Repeating, the Writing Studio has some great downloads on reading and note taking.
Effective preparation begins the first day of the class. No one can master the materials of the course in one or two days prior to an examination. Mastery of examinations begins with active involvement in reading and listening. If you have been conscientious in your preparation, examination time will find you with an outline of the class to date. Your outline will contain briefs of everything you have read and a synopsis of each day's class organized in a way that facilitates your seeing the relationships between the two. You will have already summarized the course materials (underlined the texts and taken notes in class) and summarized your summaries (briefed the readings and each day's class notes). All that remains is to review your course outline and give attention to matters that seem unclear. If your examination depends in any significant degree on your remembering facts, relationships, formulas, concepts, etc., further data reduction is in order. Read your course outline and write down everything important that you don't already remember. Writing is active involvement; it facilitates understanding and remembering what you've read. Read everything you wrote down on the last pass; you'll discover you now know most of it. Write down everything (a lot less) that you still don't know, etc. Before you know it, you'll know everything, and smashing the examination will be a piece of cake. Do your final review during the hour before the exam; short term memory is more complete than long term memory. Check out the downloads at the Writing Studio.
Most examinations at Cornell are essay examinations. Let's be honest about essay exams. They measure at least three different things: (1) your mastery of the course materials; (2) your writing ability; and (3) your sophistication as a test taker. Legibility may be a fourth thing measured; no matter how brilliant you are, you're unlikely to get any credit for material your instructor can't decipher.
Read the instructions: It's a rare examination where some students don't penalize themselves by failure to read instructions. Common mistakes include answering more questions than required, writing two pages on the 10-point question and two sentences on the 100-point question, and continuing answers on pages where they may not be read.
Answer the question that was asked: By far the most common problem in essay exams is the irrelevant answer. You may be brilliant, but if you are brilliant on the wrong topic, you are unlikely to be rewarded. All rules have exceptions, but most professors use the English language with relative precision and are quite conscious of the word choices that go into exam questions. The words list, define, discuss, describe, differentiate, evaluate, compare, and summarize are not synonyms. They mean different things to exam writers; they require different kinds of responses from you.
Use a rifle, not a shotgun: Outline your answer before you write. Ask yourself, "Do I have a thesis sentence? Does it answer the question that was asked?" If the question has several parts, "Have I answered each part?" If the question has several parts, structure your answer in precisely the same way. You may believe that your essay addresses every component of the question somewhere, but the reader is far more likely to understand and give full credit to a response that puts your knowledge where the reader expects to find it. Even the "use a rifle" rule has an exception: if you're clueless, use the shotgun. Any weapon is preferable to firing blanks, and most professors will give you some credit for almost anything!
Be concise: Deliver the maximum amount of information in the minimum number of words. Make your point and move on. There are often second, third, and fourth points to be made. Don't get bogged down in reiterating the first one. Your outline really helps here. In fact, if you run short of time, just copying your outline into the test may get you a lot of the credit your essay would have received.
Be specific: Cite examples, evidence, authors and sources. Many essay exams call on you to reach conclusions or make judgments. The difference between a conclusion or judgment, on the one hand, and mere opinion or assertion, on the other hand, is whether you provide effective support in terms of argument, evidence and sources.
I will devote an extended period of time to the reading and criticism of your papers. This investment will result in a report to you discussing the strengths and weaknesses of your paper and calling attention to significant lapses of organization, grammar, punctuation, and style. You can ease my task and improve your paper grade by following the advice provided here.
1. Do not assume that the quality of your thinking can be separated from the quality of your writing. You cannot write a good paper unless you have something to say. If you cannot express your thoughts with clarity in your native tongue, chances are your thoughts are themselves unclear.
2. Begin your research and writing early. For most students getting started is the most difficult part. Big projects in particular appear formidable; breaking them down into a sensible series of smaller projects can help get you started. The alternative to an early start is a last minute rush. Rushed papers are almost universally poor papers. Good writing requires clear thinking, focused research, careful organization, and constant rewriting. In short, good writing takes time. You have the time you need, but only if you start early and budget its use.
3. Be scrupulous about documentation. Cornell's Learning Skills Center has published excellent handouts on citing sources used in writing paper. They contain essential information on why you must cite, what you must cite, how you may paraphrase, and how you must integrate quotations. If you don't have copies of these documents, get them from the LSC. The task of documentation may end with a complete reference list (bibliography) and accurate citations (parenthetical notes), but it begins with reading and research. Unless you are careful in documenting the notes you take in the research process, you will not have the information required for effective documentation of your text.
4. Use one of the approved manuals of style. See Guidance on Documentation.
5. Apply the principles of good documentation when citing on-line sources. See Documenting Internet Sources.
6. Develop a clear thesis for your paper, and state it plainly in the paper's introduction. Your introduction should provide the reader with a clear view of your intellectual destination and how you propose to get there. If you are unsure of the destination and/or the route, you are not yet ready to begin writing. Since a good introduction provides a synopsis of your outline, the text of a good paper will scrupulously fulfill the promise of the introduction. Downloads.
7. Work to produce effective paragraphs. Just as the paper as a whole requires a thesis, each paragraph within it requires a thesis sentence. Just as every paragraph in your paper should serve some function in support of your overall thesis, every sentence in your paragraph should serve some function in support of the thesis sentence. Downloads.
8. Write for the reader. The burden of communication is on the author. It is your job to make yourself understood to the reader. It is not the reader's job to decipher what you mean. The most common organizational problem I see in student papers is the chronology of research: I got interested in this, so I read some stuff. I learned this and that fact, and in the end I reached this conclusion. This approach flies in the face of admonitions #4 and 5 above. There is a big difference between writing out your notes and writing a paper; the difference is organization. Organization by the author produces clarity for the reader.
9. Don't try to outline, write and edit at the same time. Outline first. Make sure you have a list of the major points you intend to make and the order in which you want to make them. See my web pages on Getting from Topic & Bibliography to Recommendation & Contentions and A Good Argument Is a Hierarchy of Contentions. Write second. Focus on the substance. Let the language flow. Get your ideas down on paper, but don't be so foolish as to think that you are finished. After you have a text, turn your attention to editing it for organization, style, grammar, punctuation, usage, spelling, and documentation.
10. Make effective use of the traditional writing aids. Dictionary, thesaurus, grammar, and style manual should be consulted regularly while editing. (The volumes referenced in paragraph 4 above are style manuals.) If you own neither a grammar nor a manual of style, I strongly recommend that you purchase the amazingly concise combination volume, English Simplified (New York: Harper and Row) by Blanche Ellsworth and John A. Higgins. This 80 page wonder provides a quick reference guide to grammar, punctuation, mechanics, spelling, usage, and documentation (including a synopsis of both the APA and MLA standards for documentation). It is the semi-official grammar and style manual for this course. I often refer students to particular sections in my comments on their papers.
11. Take advantage of the technology. Good writing requires rewriting, and word processing facilitates rewriting. Modern word processing software will assist in word choice and spelling and virtually assure a clean and presentable paper. Word processing will also facilitate rewriting, which is sometimes required and always permitted.
12. Make effective use of human helpers. The staff of the Cole Library, and especially Tonnie Haas the Consulting Librarian for Social Sciences, can provide valuable assistance with sources. Mariah Steele and her staff at the Writing Studio can provide valuable assistance in enhancing your writing skills. Within the limits of my time and energy, I am available for consultation and draft reading. You can use your own talents as well. Read your paper carefully. Read it out loud, and listen to what you are saying. In conferences I often read back sections of student papers. The authors wince, cringe, laugh, and cry. The problems, it appears, are often readily apparent to the authors themselves. If only they had listened to what they were writing!
13. Proofread your text carefully. Don't blame your computer. You--and only you--are responsible for the paper you submit.
14. Improve the life of your professor. Humor me in my idiosyncrasies. When I ask you to submit your paper as an e-mail attachment, I expect to get one file in WordPerfect, Word, or Rich Text Format which, if printed, will produce the proper manuscript version of your text. See my web page on Submitting Assignments by E-Mail Attachment.
15. Study the comments I provide. "Anal retentive" is the most common phrase students use to describe the care with which I critique their prose. Believe it or not, the detailed feedback I provide is for your benefit, not mine. Contrary to what some students believe, there are widely accepted standards for good writing. My comments are based on those standards. Improving your writing in this course is improving your writing in general, and improving your writing ought to be a major goal during your college career. Reading my comments is like reading anything else. It's not sufficient to allow your eyes to pass over the words. Read my comments carefully and reread your paper in light of the comments. Think about how your paper can be improved.
16. Improve the Paper. Don't just think about improving your paper; do it! Whether or not you are required to rewrite your paper, locate each of the marked errors in grammar, punctuation, etc. and make the corrections recommended. Examine the whole paper for additional examples of the same errors. Where you make the same error repeatedly, I don't generally mark every instance. Don't limit your improvement to fixing the technical errors in grammar and punctuation. Reorganize, edit, and clarify your prose. Make this the best paper you have ever written.
As an author, I've had the opportunity to work with professional copy editors. They provide a service for me similar to the one I'm providing for you. The big difference is that I tell you why I make the recommendations I do. I find that the recommendations copy editors make are not always improvements. Often the quick fix is not the optimal fix, and they haven't the time to rewrite my text. I'm in the same situation when I read your papers. I can point out specific problems, but I haven't the time to rewrite your paper. If the quick fix I've suggested leaves you dissatisfied--often it should--look for a third approach that avoids the difficulties associated with your original text and with the quick fix.
17. Study your Mistakes and Make a To Do List. Most people make the same errors repeatedly, because they don't seem like errors to those making them. If your family says, "our dogs have ran away on several occasions," that's what you will say unless you (a) learn it's wrong and (b) break the habit. I can tell you it's wrong, but only you can break the habit. The best way I know to extinguish habitual writing errors is to write them down. Make a "to do" list of habitual errors. An entry might look like this: run--ran--have run (NOT have ran). Edit your prose with the list in hand. Consciously look for the things you know you do wrong, and fix them. Over time you will come to recognize your habitual errors when you make them--even before you make them. When that time comes, they won't be habitual errors any more.
18. Talk to Me. Most of the specific comments I make about your paper should be relatively clear if you take the time to study them. Some might not be. Even the clear comments are likely to provoke questions from enquiring minds. Ask them! Tell me how I'm doing. Everything I do is with the intention of helping you develop your intellectual resources. If what I'm doing is working, I need to know that. If it isn't, I need to know that too.