Burn Rate

Things You Shouldn't Assume

I’ve found that students make certain assumptions about classes. Some of these are based on their experiences in high school. Some of these are based on an…optimistic set of expectations. Some are based on delusion. Here’s a quick list of assumptions you should never make:

The Professor Will Follow The Textbook/Syllabus

I took a particularly challenging course where more than a few of my peers would skip class and then ask me or other people what we covered in the textbook. Unfortunately for them, the professor followed the textbook in the same way most people follow IKEA instructions. They ended up having to reconstruct what the professor covered from messy notes and hazy recollections. Guess who did well in that class? Not them!

This is especially true for higher level courses. Higher level courses have less supervision and are taught by tenured faculty, who tend to march to their own drum. It’s a known fact that no professor 100% agrees with the textbook. Maybe if they wrote the book, but even then they take liberties. Besides most textbooks aren’t meant to be used cover to cover. It’s completely expected that a professor will emphasize certain topics over others.

If you’re lucky enough to get a syllabus, which is rare in higher level courses, do not assume it will be followed. Professors teach what they want to teach. That’s it.

The Professor’s Slides Will Make Sense

I’ve definitely made this mistake. You skip a few lectures, telling yourself the slides are posted on classes, only to discover the slides are three photos of a circuit board and a reminder that the test is on Thursday. Just because the professor posted slides doesn’t mean they’re useful.

The Test Will Be Well Written

Nobody teaches you how to write tests. There’s no required PhD class called Test Writing 101.

I bet that the majority of tests are written a day or two before the exam. Ever wonder why that Algebra final was so damn hard? Or why the test has random typos? Or why the questions appear to be slightly altered homework problems? Your professor probably wrote it at the last second because they were busy filling out some grant proposal, or parenting their kids, or doing some research. Or just procrastinating. Professors are human after all.

Remember that the professor’s baseline is themselves, an expert in the field with decades of experience. When they estimate whether or not a test it is easy, it’s like Mike Tyson estimating the boxing skill of an elementary schooler. It shouldn’t be a surprise if a test is mindbogglingly hard or stupifyingly easy. From 500 feet up, it’s all the same.

And no, professors won’t try their tests on other students as a baseline.

The Test Will Actually Be Cumulative

A side effect of tests not being written in optimal situations is that the test will reflect what’s on your professor’s mind. That will often be what they last taught.

Of course you should still review previous material and study the entire curriculum. But it’s fairly common for tests to be end material heavy. End material is most likely more interesting to the professor. It’s more advanced and likely involves the central theme of the class. There’s definitely some classes, albeit more in math than in CS, such as Calculus III or Theory of Probability that have a central punchline: Stokes’, Greens and Gauss for Calculus III and Central Limit Theory/Law of Large Numbers for Theory of Probability.

Students can shoot themselves in the foot because they assume that they know the end material since it was just taught and besides, the professor only spent like a day on Stokes’, he spent a whole week on vectors.

Don’t take this as an excuse to not study the whole curriculum. Just remember to polish up the end material.

The Class Will Be Like Last Year

Professors are wild unhinged beasts. Would you assume a tiger follows a pattern? Then why a professor?

AP Credit Means I’m Prepared

AP credit can mean anything from a little to nothing. If most professors had their say, AP credit wouldn’t count for most subjects. The issue with distributing credit on a curved test is that you’re not really checking if a student knows the topic: you’re just checking where they are on a bell curve. Don’t assume you know the subject just because you got a 5.

Grades Will Follow A Rubric

If your professor gives a rubric, it’s quite possible they’ll follow it. It’s also quite possible they won’t. I definitely know professors who assign grades in a more…loose manner. This can work to your advantage and to your detriment.

Always verify that your tests and homework were properly graded. These aren’t always graded by your professor (almost never in the case of homework) and sometimes your professor can have a different view than the grader.

The Professor Said It Was Easy So It Will Be Easy

Again, the professor is saying something is easy from the perspective of an expert with decades of experience. Don’t assume that they know what easy means for you.

Teaching Is Your Professor’s Main Focus

Professors are first and foremost researchers. They went to school for research, they get paid to research, they love to research. Some professors will absolutely treat teaching as a priority. Others will not. There’s nothing you can do to change that.

This is the biggest difference from high school. In high school your teachers main job is to teach. Some may not teach very well, making them bad teachers. There are professors who do not teach well but are excellent professors because they do good research.

Unless a professor is an utterly fantastic or utterly terrible teacher, no attention will be paid towards their teaching.

Note that I’m talking about tenure track faculty. Clinical faculty do have teaching as their main focus. There’s definitely some excellent clinical faculty who are great teachers.

Try not to take sub-par teaching too seriously. Generally the professor doesn’t mean to teach poorly. They simply have their actual job to do.

Professors Are Different Than You

Professors may seem like these perpetually stoic authority figures who go home and silently think in the dark about their field of research. But actually they only do that part of the time. Otherwise they’re pretty normal people.

People ask me about emailing professors, talking to them during office hours, etc, and they always seem to be coming from a place of fear, or at least overwhelming caution towards the professor. Like if you don’t address every professor as “professor” or “doctor” they will start cackling and devour you, the naive little undergrad who dared to call them by their first name. That’s not really true. Oh sure some professors do want you to call them professor. But other professors don’t care if you call them Nicholas, Nick or Nicky1. And plenty of professors have a sense of humor.

The other big difference between high school and college is that your professors are not that far away from being your colleagues or even your friends. It’s not impossible to imagine that in a few years you’ll be a postdoc or assistant professor at NYU. Or that you’ll keep in touch with a professor after graduation and socialize with them. Remember that professors were originally like you and me: nerds who liked studying a particular subject.

I’m not saying you should befriend every professor, or that there aren’t some professors who prefer a more rigid set of boundaries between student and teacher. Just remember that professors are human and try to treat them as such, instead of an academic robot who lectures and grades your work.

  1. Please double check before calling a professor Nicky. 

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