“With the midterm fast approaching I am growing increasingly concerned about my progress in the class. I am not fully grasping the concepts of the religions we have studied and I am afraid I will not do well on the midterm. The readings are difficult and I am not getting an accurate comprehension of them. Do you have any suggestions of how to break the book down on my own to help improve my grade?“
I thanked the conscientious student for writing and praised them for wanting to improve their understanding of the material as well as their course performance. Then I answered:
Have the study questions in front of you when you’re reading the selection for class. In my experience, this is the ONLY way to “break the book down on [one’s] own.”
a) Before I read something, I go over the study questions to give me some idea of what the reading is (supposed to be) about. My first reading aims for a general understanding, along with how it compares with the study questions with which I’ve acquainted myself.
b) I ALWAYS read philosophical material at least TWICE: the first for understanding things generally, the second for some thoughtful analysis.
My first philosophy professor insisted on this. If we said we didn’t understand the material, he asked us, “Did you read it twice?” If we said no, he was done with us. If we said yes, he’d start in on other ground work: did we have the questions in front of us as we read? Did we try to write out the answers to the questions for ourselves? Etc.
c) If we said yes to all of these questions and we still didn’t understand, then he’d go over it with us carefully in class. Very rarely did everyone do everything they possibly could and still no one understood the material.
Item “c” points to the issue of understanding readings down on one’s own vs. gaining an understanding of the readings in connection with weekly class discussions. Discussions can and sometimes do go off course, but with this preparation you will understand the material better at the end of a class than you did at the beginning of it.
In addition to carefully preparing every week on one’s own and participating in the class discussions to better understand the material, I recommend a third strategy: find classmates outside of class and talk about what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. Can’t do it face to face? Use the Blackboard discussion board.
If all of this sounds like an awful lot of work, congratulations – we’re on the same page. There is only so much time, and (I have no doubt) some students will insist it is far too unrealistic to expect to accomplish these tasks in the amount of time available. I’d respond, “Probably … but where there’s a will, there’s a way.” (I’m full of clichés …)