The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Balancing Speed and Substance in a College Career

Six principles for success in college

This blog entry was co-authored by Dr. Joan T. Bihun, an award-winning instructor at the University of Colorado Denver.

Ambition and optimism are not always virtues, especially among college students. Many students overload themselves, perhaps believing that if they can only get to class (in person or on line) they will do well in spite of not meeting requirements. Here is an example of a pretty common email we get at the end of the semester:

"I'm sorry the course papers have all been late this semester. I am a single mom taking 4 classes and working full time. Something I will never do again, haha. It has been a tough semester."

Some students understand that their grades will suffer—others seem to believe that course grades should reflect what they student would have accomplished had they had enough time.

Many students balance caring for a family with a 20-40 hour-a week job and a full time load of classes. As a result, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Being able to commit to a full time academic load and not be accountable to a family or job is a luxury for many students. And getting involved in extracurricular clubs and activities—which is correlated with engagement and success in college?  Forget about it!

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Here are some principles and pieces of advice we frequently offer to our students: 

1. It’s important to balance “getting out of college fast” with “getting the most out of college.”

Students are often under great pressure simply to get a college degree and get it as quickly as possible.  Some of that pressure is unavoidable—financial pressures, the need to hold a job, family responsibilities, etc. The average student loan debt looms just under $27,000. Students need to get their degree and then get back to work to pay for the experience. 

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But some of the pressure is self-inflicted:  Some students believe that they must graduate when their high-school buddies do. In psychology we talk about the social clock:  Society doesn’t expect you to still be an undergraduate college student if you are past your mid-20s, though that’s changing as people return to school for a variety of reasons.  Some students just tire of “still being in school.” We encourage students to loosen up their time frames if they can.

2. Set a goal for your academic career. 

Having a goal, of course, helps us with making a plan. If your goal is to get the most out of your college experience (meaning developing knowledge and skills, maximizing your opportunity for further study and jobs, etc.), here are some relevant questions:  What’s a reasonable course load to take?  What is your target date for graduation? Do you have some flexibility? Can you take classes on related topics during a single semester that could facilitate your learning and retention? Have you built in “spaces” in your schedule to make room for non-classroom opportunities (internships, research with professors, etc.)?

3. Moderate your expectations about time and effort. 

For example:  Take longer and do better. Think of college as a job with serious time commitments, rather than an activity that you can do when other pressures aren’t there. As part of treating college like a job, act responsibly. This includes:

4.  Keep up, and keep your professors in the loop.

We’ve had many students do this quite well. Even after being absent from class for a week or more at a time for work or family issues, they have been conscientious about letting us know the reasons for the frequent absences. They also inform us that they are keeping up with the reading and checking announcements and assignments posted on-line. They ask questions they have about the material. What they demonstrate is that despite their busy lives, they value their education and are willing to work. They may not end up with an A in the course; after all, most course grades are based on performance, not just good intensions, a sparkling personality, or output divided by time commitments. Just like most jobs, you get paid for what you produce. However, students can optimize their time and their grades by being on top of things.

5. ”Something’s gotta give!”   

Hans Seyle says that our reaction to all stressors comes in three stages:  After the initial Alarm Reaction (This course has tests!) comes a period of resistance (How many weeks of class left?).  Then comes the exhaustion stage, when we can reach a breaking point. We remind overcommitted students that they are human. Optimism and ambition need to be tempered with healthy doses of realism. It’s okay to realize that some compromises need to be made. Students need to realize that being overcommitted doesn’t change the rules--they need to compromise somewhere or do some restructuring of their lives. Maybe they can take a few personal days from work during finals to concentrate on their classes. Maybe they can drop one course now—not because they are quitters but because they’re being conscientious planners—rather than waiting until the end of the semester in the hope that tests will get easier.

6.  The bottom line is learning.  

We often leave students with this thought:  In the end, people (even employers!) aren’t going to be impressed with how quickly you got through college. They’ll be impressed by your critical thinking skills, impressive body of knowledge, your time management abilities, and your responsibility. 

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Joan T. Bihun received her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Wayne State University.  She is currently a senior instructor at the University of Colorado Denver. Last year she won a teaching award from the University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her interests include developing experiential learning components to college courses, and volunteering as a math and reading tutor in the public school system. She has served as an Advanced Placement Test reader for Psychology for the Educational Testing System (a lot more fun than it sounds!).

Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology(American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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