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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Professors should alter syllabi to better aid students in learning material

Published: November 14, 2014
Section: Opinions

Under normal circumstances, it is incredibly easy to fall behind on coursework. When new material that will not be on the upcoming exam is introduced right before the exam, it is even more impossible to avoid.

I can’t speak for everyone’s study habits, but in my own experience, I tend to focus on the material that I’m going to be tested on. I’d hazard a guess that’s true for most students. If something is covered right before a midterm that won’t be on the midterm, but will be on the final exam, what sense does it make to do the work for it before the midterm? Studying new information takes away from the time and focus needed to master the old material.

I understand that to some extent it’s a scheduling issue. There are only so many times a class meets a semester, and often topics get glossed over or cut out completely for the sake of time. If the course isn’t moving at breakneck speed, it follows that the professor won’t be able to cover all of the bases. If it’s almost impossible to keep up with a full course load, does that mean that we’re learning the most we possibly can?

Of course not. I often find myself spending an inordinate amount of time catching up on one subject, which leads me to become further behind in my other classes. This is a good argument for better time management both on my part, and that of the administration.

Instead of introducing new material that won’t be tested on an exam right before the test, exams could be scheduled for a few days earlier. That might mean less time to study, but it would also prevent the confusion and scrambling to catch up afterward that comes with the introduction of new material. If exams aren’t going to be rescheduled, students could benefit from a few recapping days of some sort. Even if that meant that some material couldn’t be covered in the scope of the class because of time constraints, it’s a workable compromise. This way, students get a stronger grasp of the material that is covered.

Science and language classes are the worst offenders, and that’s probably because the syllabi in those courses rarely leave room to breathe. Those are also the types of classes that could most benefit from a review session before an exam due to the nature of the material.

Trying to learn new information unrelated to the exam right before an exam is usually more confusing than helpful because the focus of studying for a test should be on consolidating material that has already been learned rather than cramming in new content. From anecdotal evidence that I’ve heard from multiple sources (more than enough people to form a small army), what usually happens is that the new material is put aside until after the upcoming test. Once that’s over, even more material is introduced, and a vicious cycle of trying to catch up on information built on previous information begins. It’s not enough to simply study the newest material, because it’s often incomprehensible without understanding the information that was introduced before it. Given the fact that most Brandeis students take four or five classes a semester, the potential to fall behind at some point becomes a near certainty.

One remedy is to constantly stay on top of work, to manage time so efficiently that you never fall behind because of midterms or extracurricular activities. But that is not realistic. Only covering material that will be on the exam before that particular exam is a more feasible solution, however, and professors will be able to give new material the time and attention it deserves, if it’s introduced at a reasonable time.