Students: Don’t make these 10 mistakes

I’ve been teaching college classes for about fifteen years, but in all that time I’ve been a part-timer.  What that means is that I’ve never really had a strong affiliation with any one school, but at the same time I’ve never had distractions like conducting research or providing service to the school (read that as ‘belonging to boring committee’).  This has left me with plenty of time to focus on teaching and helping students succeed.

The following ten items are things that I have seen over and over again, and while I have worked very hard to be a fair and even-handed instructor, sometimes the way students handle themselves make it hard for me to want to help.  In an ideal world students would be guaranteed a fair shake in all things, but you need to acknowledge the fact that this is not an ideal world.  Students are at the mercy of their instructor’s moods and pet peeves, and there is nothing to be done about that.

What you can do, however, is avoid making the biggest mistakes.  Avoid doing the following, and you will have a better chance of succeeding in just about any class.


Email in anger.  There may be a number of frustrating things that happen throughout the term that send you into a rage.  Assignment directions may be confusing, you might not get feedback on things in a timely manner, and you may even be graded unfairly.  Whatever happens, however, do not let your emotions show in your written communications.  The first reason is that it is simply unprofessional, and written messages are too easily forwarded on to others for you to allow anything that shows you in a bad light to be spread around to your advisor, the dean, or other faculty.  Secondly, it is too easy for your instructor to say no to you, especially in online communications.  Instead of venting, calling names, and threatening to sue, you will have much better success by stating the facts, asking for a help, and being polite.  Keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to get a good grade, and sometimes you have to be a bit of a salesperson to do that.


Whine about your grade.  Just don’t do it.  Instead of telling your instructor how unfair the grading was or how useless the assignment directions were, ask for help.  Express a genuine interest in succeeding in the class and ask to be able to re-do the work or take the test over.  Some faculty are more particular about deadlines and being firm on grades, but many will be happy to let you re-submit an assignment if you ask to do so in the spirit of trying harder and intending to learn.  If life circumstances have contributed to your situation, it may be worth mentioning this to get a bit of sympathy for your case, but don’t push it.  Faculty hear excuses all the time, and even a legitimate excuse such as an illness or trouble at work can easily come across as a ‘dog ate my homework’ attempt to get out of a bad grade.  If you have an excuse, simply state what happened briefly and ask for some flexibility.  If your instructor doesn’t bite, thank them for their consideration and find other ways to succeed in the class.

Submit an assignment without your name on it.  Many people assume that if the file name they submit electronically includes their last name or if they’re submitting their work through an online dropbox then this means the instructor clearly knows who the work is coming from.  Sometimes faculty download a batch of class assignments and grade them all at once, and sometimes they even print your work out so they can read it comfortably on the bus or over a cup of coffee on their porch.  It is absolutely necessary for you to place your name somewhere – preferably at the top – on every document you submit for class. Besides, it is a commonly accepted matter of professionalism to include your name on a paper.

Change the margins and line spacing on a paper to make it seem bigger.  This is ugly, obvious, and makes your paper hard to read.  Word processors make it trivial to figure out how many words you’ve written, so messing with the formatting just makes it look like you’re trying to pull something hinky.  And it won’t work.

Ask for an extension after the assignment is due.  Whether or not an instructor chooses to accept late work is a personal choice, and it is worthwhile to find out at the beginning of the term if yours will do so.  Even if they say they won’t, it doesn’t hurt to ask if you find yourself in a tough position.  However, your request for an extension has to come before the assignment is due, and preferably a few days before.  If you wait until after the deadline all you’re doing is letting the instructor know that you’re lazy and want a break.  If you do it before the deadline then you’re demonstrating that you’re proactive and want to do well in the class despite whatever issue it is that is preventing you from getting the work in on time.  Also, have a reason.  Again, if life circumstances are getting in the way it’s worth it to mention this, but simply state the facts and move on.  Don’t expect sympathy.  Hope for it, but don’t expect it.

Wait until the last week of the class to worry about your grade.  The evaluation of student performance in any university class is a negotiation.  Throughout the term your work is being graded as part of a batch alongside your classmates’ work, and it is not your instructor’s job to look for every opportunity she can find to improve your grade.  If a paper is missing or a test was graded incorrectly, your instructor is not going to be the one to figure it out.  Throughout the term you should be monitoring your grades carefully, and when something doesn’t look right or if an assignment is missing you are the one responsible for bringing this up.   If there is a flat-out error there should be no problem with changing the grade, but even if there is something that you disagree on it is worthwhile to make your case.  Just don’t do it at the last minute when your instructor is facing a pile of final projects to grade and a ton of paperwork to complete.

Ask your instructor for help with your computer.  Even in technology courses your faculty are typically not the best resource to call on when your computer starts acting weird.  They don’t have the time to give your problems the attention you deserve, and therefore you may end up frustrating both your instructor and yourself pretty thoroughly before coming to a solution.  Your school has IT resources that you should learn about right away, so find the help desk number and call it.  Keep in mind though that if your computer problems are preventing you from doing your work you should definitely notify your instructor to make them aware of the situation.

Complain about all the writing / reading you have to do.  This is especially true for online courses, where the best way for an instructor to measure your performance is through written assignments, and the easiest way to get information into your head (although not always the best way) is to assign reading from a textbook or from articles.  Whether the class is online or offline, the written word gives you a chance to really demonstrate what you’ve learned.  You can tie together ideas, refer to things that have happened in class, and generally show off how big your brain is.  It’s also a good way for an instructor to tell if you didn’t get it.  Complaining about how much you have to do is futile, since no instructor is going to eliminate assignments just because you think there’s too much of it.  Further, your instructor is not going to have any sympathy because for any assignment you have to write, he has to read 20-30 submissions and try to grade them fairly.

Explain your rights as a consumer to your instructor.  It’s true that higher education is a kind of consumerism, since you are paying tuition in order to receive something in return.  What you’re paying for is not a grade or a good time, however.  You’re paying for a seat in a learning experience, and nobody in the university outside of the admissions office believes that ‘the customer is always right’ applies to teaching.  Don’t get me wrong – you do have the right to be treated fairly and to receive good instruction.  You do not, however, get to choose the terms under which that good instruction takes place.  Education is not entertainment, and there are many, many ways in which it can take place.  The tuition you pay supports an organization that works very hard to create knowledge and to find the right ways to deliver that knowledge to you. Students have to trust that organization to know what it’s doing.  You have the right to drop out and move on to another school, but you don’t have the right to demand that anyone change the way they run their class.

Copy and paste.  Of course I don’t have a problem with you using the copy and paste functionality of your computer to move text around.  What you absolutely should not do is use copy and paste as a means for writing your paper.  It is really, really easy to fluff up your paper by copying ideas from external sources, and it’s not too hard to make yourself feel better about this by re-arranging a few words so that things aren’t entirely word-for-word.  It doesn’t matter, because doing this will cause you problems.  There are four things you need to know:

  1. Your instructor can copy and paste too, and they will often copy passages from your paper and paste them into Google, quickly popping up your source and proving you to be a cheater.
  2. It’s not hard at all for an instructor to tell the difference between your style of writing and that of a professional writer.  Try grading a few hundred pages a term and you’ll also find that it’s easy to tell when a paper says something the student clearly would not say themselves.
  3. Copying and pasting text typically includes formatting marks, and when an instructor sees a paper changing fonts, colors, and text sizes mid-stream it might as well be title “This Paper Is Plagiarized.”
  4. The consequences are too great.  Remember that ‘academic integrity policy’ that was mentioned in the syllabus?  Faculty are trained very carefully in how to respond to instances of plagiarism and cheating, and many will jump at the chance to put that policy to work.  If you get a zero on the assignment, you’re getting off easy.  It’s not uncommon for students to fail a class entirely and even be booted from the school for plagiarism.  Wouldn’t be better to just do the best you can and accept the B or C if you aren’t totally comfortable with the material?

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