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Tips for Success in College: How to Study Effectively


19Aug 2007

It seems like colleges start earlier and earlier each year — but in the Midwest, at least, a number of colleges and universities started this past week or will this coming week (I know many schools back East and on the West Coast start after Labor Day). And with the beginning of the fall semester comes the transition for thousands of students from high school to college. Currently, I am working with a number of families and I have several friends who have students in this life stage.

Given that I went to college for ten years (four years bachelors, two years masters, and four years of doctoral coursework) and that I have taught undergraduate and graduate level courses, I think I am pretty qualified to talk about those behaviors that lead to success in the classroom. So let’s look at habits and choices which lead to academic success in college.

1. Go to class (and show up at least five minutes early). This is a no-brainer, but many students who are transitioning from high school are looking forward to the “freedom” of college — that they don’t “have to” go to class and no one is checking up on them. Successful students go to class. And showing up early does a number of things — it allows some for something to go wrong and still get to class on time, it shows the teacher class is important to you and you want to hear everything they have to say, it provides the opportunity to interact with other students and build some friendships, and it prevents you from coming in late to class, interrupting the instructor and irritating them (not good if you are on the bubble at the end of the semester between a C/B or B/A).

2. Stay awake in class and pay attention. Going to class and sleeping is little better (and for irritating the instructor, its worse) than not going to class. So this means you either need to get enough sleep (a major challenge for many college students) or loading yourself with enough caffeine to stay awake. Take a hint from an instructor — what the professor says in class is what is important to them about the topic and is much more likely to be on the exam. Plus, if you use the words and language the instructor does, you are more likely to get points on an exam.

3. Keep current in your reading. Besides not going to class regularly (especially those 8 a.m. “gen ed” classes), getting behind in your reading assignments is probably the next big error students make. A professor’s lectures are usually focused on the reading for the day — so to get the maximum benefit of the lecture, it is helpful to have some idea what she or he is talking about. In high school you may have been able to coast and just get the material from the lectures; in college, trying to learn without doing the reading is asking for trouble [trust me, you can believe me now or you can believe me after you get your first D or F in your life on an exam.]

4. Review your class notes at least once a week. (For those students who are really serious about learning, review and correct/clarify your notes after each class.) Exams will cover and emphasize material covered in class. Keeping familiar with the information and reviewing it periodically will make it significantly easier to remember for tests (as opposed to cramming 20 pages of notes the night before the exam). This habit is probably the one that will be new to most students, and also which will be most helpful. Many tests in college are not just “regurgitate the material”; they ask you to think about and synthesize the concepts. So to be able to do this, you have to know the basic information “cold”. For example, instructors are no longer going to ask you to “cite the four major political events leading up to the Civil War” but they may ask you to “compare the major political events which led to the Civil War with parallel political issues in our culture today.” If you have trouble remembering the facts, you will struggle with coming up with an answer that makes sense.

5. Take care of yourself — physically, socially and emotionally. Sleep deprivation + eating mainly junk food (with no fruits or vegetables) + no exercise = foggy thinking, poor memory and a high likelihood of getting sick or depressed. Studying all the time (or playing computer games by yourself for hours) and never hanging out with friends leads to not having friends, being viewed as weird, and loneliness — increasing the potential (significantly) for you dropping out of school. You don’t have a mom around anymore (hopefully!) — telling you to go to bed, fixing vegetables at every meal, and making you turn off the computer and go outside. If you don’t take care of you, no one will.

6. Study in ways that maximize your time and effort. Research demonstrates that most people’s core attention span and ability to focus is between 10 minutes and 20-25 minutes after they started studying. The first 10 minutes is sort of “warm up” where you are getting into the material. The next 10-15 minutes are high intensity concentration. Then your ability to concentrate and learn wanes. Usually, after 30 minutes on a subject (e.g. reading history), your learning impact is low and you are wasting time. To maximize your study time, it is best to break your study sessions into 30 minute segments. Study subject A (history) for the first 30 minutes. Then switch not only subjects but the type of task (e.g. do math problems) for the next 30 minutes. Take a 5 minute (not 15, 30 or 60 minute) break — get up, walk around, get a drink, go to the bathroom. Then do two more subjects, for 30 minutes each. THEN take a longer break — go get some exercise, eat a meal, hang out with friends. This approach to studying will help you accomplish a lot more than studying the same subject for 60, 90 or 120 minutes at a time.

So, there you have it. If you want to do well academically in college, go to class, pay attention, keep up in your reading, review your notes, take care of yourself physically, and study in short segments. As a professional learner, if you do practice these six habits, I guarantee you will maximize your opportunity for success (I would feel dishonest in guaranteeing pure “success”).

p.s. I do have other tips for taking tests which I can share later in the semester.

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