Class Shopping

By Adela Penagos, Ph, President

I have been blessed with many rewarding academic advising and teaching experiences since coming to the US. Although I only officially learned about “shopping week” during my time as Associate Dean of Academic Advising at Harvard, I embraced this concept on my own as an undergraduate student with tremendous success. During the “shopping” window, students can sample various courses for one or two weeks at the very beginning of each term (depending on the institution’s drop/add period) to determine which courses best fit with their academic interests and learning styles. Furthermore, students can determine how the work for each course can be managed to achieve a balanced life.

How do you pick a winning schedule?

1)   Select courses that are good for you.

To achieve this goal, you will need a great deal of self-knowledge. It is important to be aware of the class style that helps you thrive. Ask yourself: Do I prefer small classes or big lectures? Do I want to be held accountable for class attendance and class participation? Do I like to be graded on tests, papers, problem sets, or a combination of all methods of assessment? While shopping courses, take note of the professors’ teaching style. There isn’t anything more painful than ending up in a course that does not suit your learning style; realize that you are unlikely to change a faculty’s teaching techniques, particularly if they are tenured or ladder faculty–no matter how candid you are on your evaluation at the end of the term.

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2)   Balance required and elective courses.

Almost every college I have visited during my college tours has had a version of a core curriculum, a set of courses all students must take to graduate. However, you are not expected to take these required classes during your first year in college. Remember, you are going to be at your new institution at least for eight semesters. Spread out your requirements! This approach will allow you to create a diversified schedule (in terms of subject matter, meeting times, and degree of difficulty) and keep your interest alive. As a result, you will have the opportunity to change the scheduling style you had in high school; take courses to explore your intended major or concentration field; and perhaps even discover a new skill or passion. Keep in mind that all of us thrive when doing well. Hence, do not underestimate the importance of picking some of the courses that are your forte.

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3)   Pay attention to the syllabus.

As I am sure you are fully aware, “the devil is in the details.” This adage could not be more accurate than when referring to the course syllabus. This document lays out all the expectations that your instructor or professor has for you. If the syllabus for one course requires a lot of reading, you might benefit from not only taking courses requiring the same amount or type of work (unless your are a speed reader or have photographic memory) because it could prove to be too much for you. In general, a combination of courses that measure your different abilities will be ideal. More importantly, look at all syllabi simultaneously to figure out when the major projects, papers, or tests will take place. Having a clear picture of deadlines on a calendar always gives my students the best possible light to determine how their term will play out and what are the commitments they can undertake in a reasonable week. 

We Understand the Importance of Maximizing Your College Options

As I advise the students I work with, both as an independent consultant and first year adviser at Boston College, I guide them in the adoption of the valuable course shopping principle. While being a successful class shopper requires much more work on your part during the first weeks of the term, where you are also trying to sample many other aspects of college life, it pays dividends. You will be able to take ownership of your schedule and avoid 10 to 16 weeks of struggle. Being happy with how we spend our time on a daily basis helps us face our days with much more optimism. Enjoy your classes this term!