6 Tips for Succeeding in Small and Large College Classrooms

6 Tips for Succeeding in Small and Large College Classrooms
portrait of Veronica Freeman
By Veronica Freeman

Published on July 13, 2021

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Many incoming college students develop anxiety about the unknown, fearing new challenges such as performing at a high intellectual level, standing out in large classes, and balancing heavier workloads compared with those in high school.

Knowing what to expect from a course and figuring out how to perform well in a class can mean the difference between dropping out or graduating. But different types of college classes call for different tools needed to succeed.

How to Succeed in a Large Lecture-Based Class

Like many students who left home to attend college, I found college exciting, intriguing, and fun. I particularly enjoyed my lecture-based classes. Not only did I barely need to show up, but the professor didn't care if I did or not — I was just another face in the crowd.

The truth, however, is that even when I did show up to class, I didn't fully participate. I skimmed the reading materials, never asked questions, and slouched in my seat, glancing up only occasionally while browsing Facebook. As a result, I failed the final and took the lowest grade possible that allowed me to pass the class.

Many students share similar experiences. Here are a few tips on how to succeed in those large lecture-based classes so you don't end up with the same regrets.

As an English major, I never imagined I'd have a hard time completing class readings — until I enrolled in a biology lecture. I found it nearly impossible to read about plant life cycles. The only reason I managed to earn an A was because I'd made a rule for myself: always read in 30-minute sessions and highlight the most interesting parts of the text as I went.

Most lectures are structured so that the material serves as a preface for each lesson, meaning you'd likely get lost if you didn't finish the readings ahead of time. If you're not a fan of a lecture's readings, the best way to approach them is to set a manageable time limit for your reading sessions and work to identify information you find intriguing or surprising.

Attending lecture-based classes can be challenging. Not only is it difficult to pay attention with a laptop in front of you, but knowing that attendance is usually not mandatory can make it even harder to find the motivation to go.

When I began attending my classes regularly my sophomore year, something interesting happened. There were days I'd come into my 200-person lecture hall and I would be just one of 20 or so students who showed up. This ultimately allowed the professor to get to know me, and me them.

After that, I began to make a habit of sitting near the front in my lectures. While I wasn't comfortable enough to sit in the front row, I made sure to sit within the first six rows in the center aisle. Sitting closer helped me better focus on the instructor and what they were teaching me.

At the end of my anthropology lecture, I asked the student sitting next to me — a senior at the time — how she was doing so well in the class. Her response was to always ask a question. By asking a question about the readings, you're showing the professor that not only did you do the reading, but you're willing to learn through active engagement.

How to Succeed in a Small Discussion-Based Class

When I started grad school, I worked as a teaching assistant for an introductory English course. The sections I taught were all capped at just 25 students. During that time, I learned from several of my students how intimidating a small college class could be — and how they learned to do well regardless.

Transitioning from a lecture-based class in which the professor doesn't even know your name to a small discussion-based class that requires regular attendance and active participation can overwhelm students. Here are some tips for thriving in a small classroom environment.

While you should complete all readings for smaller classes, it's important to remember that you're not expected to be a subject-matter expert. All discussion-based classes require participation, and reading and engaging in conversations about the material is one way to show professors that you're serious about learning and doing well in the class.

Even if you have trouble understanding or interpreting a reading, you can actively participate by asking questions and gleaning insight from others.

Don't stress yourself out thinking you need to memorize all the course material or know all the answers. Both the class and its readings are meant to teach you, stir up thoughts, and spark new ideas and conversations.

In college, I noticed a lot of students wasting class time on social media. Some regularly checked Instagram or Facebook, whereas others rolled into class, pulled out their laptops, and spent the hour browsing Amazon.

In smaller classes, you typically have less freedom to let your mind wander since you're expected to participate. We all have off days, so if you feel you need a small mental break, go ahead and take it. Just make sure you don't spend all of class surfing the web and distracting yourself.

It's always uncomfortable when a professor calls on a student to discuss an assigned reading and instead of owning up to their lack of preparedness, the student spends five minutes floundering or pretending to know what the reading was about.

It's OK to say something like "I didn't get through the entire reading, but I can comment on the part that I did read" or "I'm sorry, but I didn't do the assignment, so I can't contribute to the conversation today." In many cases, a professor prefers honesty, so long as you don't make a habit out of not completing assignments.

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