5 Ways to Understand Course Concepts

By Katy-Anne Binstead on January 15, 2020

Have you ever had a time where you started a new college course and you looked at the syllabus and materials, just to figure out that you had absolutely no idea about any of the course concepts? I sure have, I came across that issue in my first graduate literature class. The problem was, this was a required course and so I had to figure something out pretty quickly. Here are a couple of ideas that I have used before:

1. Search Wikipedia

Wikipedia is not an academic source and should not be used as research, however, it can give a basic overview and there are links at the bottom of the articles that you can click on to read more about a topic. This idea works for some things and not others. For instance, when my class includes literary works that I have not read in the reading list, I can go to Wikipedia and search for that particular text to get a basic overview of the story.

2. Chat with the professor

Some professors are more willing to chat than others, but the ones that are willing to email back and forth over a concept you don’t understand can be a very valuable asset to your learning. Professors are there to facilitate learning and that’s what they are being paid for. Good professors who are passionate about their subjects are often willing to engage in conversation with an interested student. I personally find email to be great for this because not only can the professor respond when it is convenient for them, but you also have their words in writing so that you can refer to them again in studying the course concepts.

3. Textbooks

Many professors, if asked, are happy to give a list of introductory resources you can purchase or read online that will help with a basic knowledge of your subject. These textbooks and resources may not be appropriate to use in your academic work, but they will give a great overview of your topic.

4. Dictionaries

A current dictionary that is specific to your discipline (eg. literature, sociology, psychology) is a great resource to help define words or terms that you may be unsure about. The entries in these kinds of dictionaries are usually far more detailed than a regular dictionary definition. They also tend to give common abbreviations that might be used in your course.

5. Engage with other students

Chances are, other students are feeling the same way that you are and they have no idea what they are talking about either. This is why discussion is crucial and often part of the course requirements. Hashing out the concepts with other students will help everyone learn.

It might end up being a bit of extra work, but understanding the core concepts is fundamental to being a successful student.

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