Sunday, August 07, 2022

How to Succeed in the Introductory Finance Course (or any other one, for that matter)

I've probably taught the introductory finance course 25 or 30 times over my career, with well over 1000 students having passed through my classroom doors.  I would estimate that 20-30% of the students taking the class fail it each semester (and colleagues at other schools have a similar experience).  As a service to the students (and the profs who hate having to fail them), I thought I'd put down a few thoughts about what separates the successful students (the A and B ones) from the marginal ones (C students) and failing ones (the D and F students).  So, whether you're taking the course for the first time or the fifth, here are some "do's and don'ts."  It's important to stress that these aren't just strictly applicable to Intro Finance - they hold for a surprising number of courses.

  1.  First off, know how your instructor tests.  I don't mean multiple choice or essay - I mean approximately what % of his exams are problems vs. concepts.  Then make your plan of study appropriately - if 25% of your exams will be on concepts, put around that percentage of time toward concepts.  I often see students get 80%-90% of the "problem points" and less than 50% of the "concept points".  A point is a point, so don't neglect either type.
  2. Be active learners. 
    • For problems, this means actually solving problems.  Poor students just read the solution in the end of the chapter and think they understand the problem.  Whatever the problem is, work it first without referring to notes and solutions.   Then, and ONLY then, check the solution.   Then put the solution aside and (after a break), see if you can solve the problem (or one similar to it) without referring to notes.
    •  For concepts, this doesn't mean simply reading and rereading a chapter (or list of topics).  Give yourself quizzes (or have someone else give you quizzes).  Make up lists.  Put together a "Cheat sheet" from the chapter, and so on.
  3. Talk your way through problems:  One of the differences between good students and poor ones is that good students can explain what they're doing as they move through a problem.  So get in the habit of "talking" your way through a problem - explain WHY you are taking each step.  If you can't do this, you don't understand the problem. And if the teacher makes even a small tweak to the problem, you'll get it wrong.
  4. Use your professor's office hours.  When you work problems and get stumped, go see your prof during his office hours - and do it sooner rather than later.
  5. Keep a list of problems and concepts you have trouble with.  Whether it's during a lecture, while reading the text, or while doing problems, if there's something you don't understand, write it down in a list.  After you've reviewed, go through the list and get answers - whether from a classmate, the prof, or a tutor. 
  6. Don't try to second-guess the professor on exams. A lot of poor students end up in "will this be on the exam?" mode.  You're better off trying to figure out what the key concepts are, and make sure you can execute them.  To determine what these are, here are a few guidelines:
    • most texts have a list of critical concepts at the beginning of each chapter.
    • If a concept is mentioned in the margins of the text or highlighted (maybe in bold type), it's probably important.
    • If a concept is mentioned in the summary at the end of the chapter, it's probably important.
    • If your instructor says it's important, it probably is.
  7. Work more problems
  8. Start early - knowledge is usually cumulative.  So if you miss a concept early on, it will usually result in bigger problems later on.  So work on things regularly - an hour a day for 5 days is almost always better than 5 hours a the end in one sitting.  It's like the time value of money, but with studying - banking $100 a month for 10 years (120 payments) will give you a much bigger account balance than $12,000 because of the interest involved.  And the "time value of studying" is a lot greater than the time value of money.