17 Suggestions for Choosing Classes in College

Discussion-oriented classes in which you learn to articulate your perspective and respond to that of others are valuable not only for clarifying and refining your thinking, but also for developing essential tools for participating as a valued team member at work, in your avocations, and in the civic life of your community.
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After making suggestions to students about how to negotiate the freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, and senior year, I have been urged to write a piece on how to choose classes. My suggestions, in no particular order, follow.

1) Even while filling pre-requisites and requirements for your major as well as distribution requirements during your first first two years, each term -- if time permits -- take one class that expands your interests. In some cases, required distribution courses will be expanding your range of interests.

2) After you choose a major, continue to take one course a term that expands your interests or develops necessary skills that complement your major. Even after fulfilling basic graduation requirements, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) majors need to expose themselves to the humanities and social sciences; humanities majors need to take some basic sciences and social sciences; and students in the social sciences need to think about the humanities and science.

No matter what your major may be, you will need to develop tech skills. Every student needs to have a course in computer science and in economics, and every student needs to learn how to write lucidly and precisely and to learn to use evidence to make a well-structured argument. Take as many courses as possible that require extended written assignments.

Matt Barsamian, Cornell '04, observes: "I strongly agree with your admonition that students should step outside their comfort zone. I believe I dropped Introduction to Microeconomics three times as an undergraduate and never wound up taking it. I still regret not doing so. College is a rare opportunity where you can learn about just about anything and it is very very difficult to find the time and motivation to do so once you are working."

3) During your four years in college, take classes that cultivate new interests. Try a class or two in creative writing, music, art, and/or theatre. A basic survey course in these fields will give you an overview. Such classes will be an investment because they will prepare you for a lifetime of enjoyment.

In the humanities, where pre-requisites are less important, a more specialized class may be more challenging and ultimately have a higher yield in terms of introduction to a field. Thus what you learn from an in-depth class on Mozart will carry over into your understanding of Beethoven or Brahms, and what you learn about seventeenth century Dutch painting will help you understand the Italian Renaissance.

If you are not a scientist, take a class or two that enables you to understand such social and political issues as climate change, epidemics, population growth, genetic engineering and testing, and fossil fuels. At the very least you will be an informed citizen, but you may also have a chance in the future to shape policy on some of these issues within your community.

4) Speaking to other students about a professor or classes is a valuable source of information, but it is important to know how serious and responsible your sources are. Keep in mind that the best teachers offer courses that are often demanding. If you know that such a splendid class outside your major must get less of your attention in terms of effort and commitment, you might take it using the Pass/Fail option rather than miss the learning experience.

5) Sign up each term for as many courses as your school will allow and go to more classes the first week than you plan to take. After a few classes, you will have a good idea whether the class is for you. In addition, if need be, you can just go to larger classes without signing up. But where enrollment is limited, it is best to have your name on the initial list.

6) On the whole, when possible, take professors, not courses. Taking classes with engaged professors who love their subject and communicate their passion and in-depth understanding is part of the joy of learning. Such professors can brighten an entire semester as well as the entire college experience.

7) Find professors who are interested in their students and care about their students' growth. It may be reductive to say that some professors teach their subject, others teach their subject to individual students, but there is a good deal of truth in that distinction.

The professors who ask you about your plan of study, your goals, your outside activities, and seem to care about you as a human being will not only be those you can go to for advice, but those who could be a future reference. And thinking about who will be future references is important.

8) Remember, too, that no professor is the best professor for everyone. But in general, the best professors are those who expect you to come to every class prepared, take attendance, have high expectations, and give challenging assignments. The best professors not only treat student assignments carefully and expeditiously but also prepare each student to do the assignments successfully,

9) Take classes that emphasize concepts and how to apply them. Learning by rote is less important than learning how to think for yourself and to solve problems, a crucial quality for your future. Of course, some classes, like those in basic foreign language, do emphasize developing basic skills.

Learning how to think is a quality that develops in part from watching professors work through issues and synthesize on their feet when answering complex questions as well as understanding how they conceptualize assignments and exam questions. Most importantly, learning how to think involves solving problems and meeting challenges connected with papers and exams and, in STEM courses, complex conceptual and theoretical issues as well as interpreting the evidence from experiments.

Be aware that some problems are intractable and vague and courses that put everything in PowerPoint and neat packages are at times suspect. In your future career as a doctor, lawyer, government employee, or researcher, you will come upon problems that cannot be neatly solved or solved at all.

10) A current buzzword is "metacognition." What that means is knowing about knowing, or knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving. Thus, when writing a paper or pursuing a lab experiment or social science project, think about what you know, what you need to know, what you can't know and how to use that mix to solve intellectually challenging problems and paradoxes.

11) Take courses that stress integrative learning, that enable you to understand material beyond one course, and to transfer what you have learned in one area to another area.

If your course in Russian literature enables you to better understand Putin's aspirations and follies, you would be integrating your learning. Another example is reading di Lampedusa's masterwork, The Leopard, not only for its literary value but to better understand Italian and Sicilian history, politics, and class divisions as well as continuing economic tensions between Northern and Southern Italy. Using psychology, including psychoanalyses, to understand literary characters and their authors is another example of integrative learning. By combining science and economics, integrative learning can also help us understand the effects of climate change on future generations.

12) Take courses where the professor can put material in context, reference other fields, and has some knowledge of the world beyond the classroom. Reading the New York Times in print or on the internet is one way for you to keep up with the world at large, including environmental and sustainability issues that affect us all, as well as how our government functions and how we can change it.

Follow international news and have a map of the world or a globe in your room and relate what you learn and read to specific places.

13) Take courses that help make you aware of ethical and moral issues. You are preparing yourself for life and such awareness will not only make you a better citizen, family member, and employee but a better member of the campus community.

14) Learn to think about the experiential implications of what you are learning and how solving academic problems can carry over into other aspects of life. Conversely, find internships and campus activities that give you an experiential base for what you are learning. Depending on your field, this could take the form of working in a lab, as a museum guide (docent), for a university publication or on the campus newspaper. Find summer internships and positions that enable you to integrate your knowledge with your experience.

15) Supplement the classes in which you are enrolled with lectures by guest speakers, audits, and occasion visit to classes that you are hear are stimulating. A professor will generally welcome guests.

16) Take courses that require your participation. At best such courses become communities of inquiry, and communities require working together. Learning how to be part of a functioning group comes from small classes requiring participation.

In your career, you will need to work with people, and employers like people who can work in collaborative situations, who know the basics of teamwork, and who respond to the ideas of others even while sharing their own ideas.

17) Because of the Internet, we live in a global village with virtually instant availability of news (as well as social gossip) as events occur and develop. While we cannot know what future technology will bring us, we do know that students need to take courses to prepare for continuing internationalization. Language skills are important, even if English has become he educated world's lingua franca, that is, its common language. If you want to be part of globalization -- and you have no choice -- you might think about learning Chinese while in college, and if your focus will be the Americas, fluency in Spanish is necessary. Collaboration in research and business and social programs can depend on language fluency.


Discussion-oriented classes in which you learn to articulate your perspective and respond to that of others are valuable not only for clarifying and refining your thinking, but also for developing essential tools for participating as a valued team member at work, in your avocations, and in the civic life of your community. Indeed, the give and take of ideas is what separates democracy from other forms of government.

Author of the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century. He blogs on higher education and the media on The Huffington Post and has a book-in-progress on the undergraduate experience, tentatively titled The Joy and Practicality of Learning: Suggestions for Succeeding in College and Beyond. He can be reached at drs6@cornell.edu and followed on social media at twitter.com/danRSchwarz and facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes.

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