I’m often asked for basic recommendations about what students should be doing in college that will help them to improve their performance. And for as many times as I’m asked for these, I’m just as often surprised by the number of students who aren’t aware of exactly what they should be doing to succeed in college-level academics. I’m asked questions like “how long should I be working each week on my classes?” or about other fundamentals like “should I be reading my text books?” In addition to these questions, I’ve directly seen other problem areas that students may not even recognize as issues. Among so many key things that students should be concerned with or doing in college, I’ve discussed 15 things below that can be viewed as “rules” for college. These rules comprise fundamentals of college work across many different issues, and if a student can do all of these things well to some degree, they should be able to see some level of improvement in their grades.
1.) Know How You Are Being Graded
Many students say they absolutely love a course or a professor, but when midterm grades are posted they are shocked to find that they have a low grade in that class than they thought. They may have even gotten A’s on the first exam or two, which leaves them more puzzled and more than a bit discouraged. They have typically made the beginner’s mistake of not being clear on how they are being graded in a particular class which translates in to low marks even for a class they love. Every class in college is different in terms of how many exams, papers, or other assignments students must complete and what weight they are given toward the overall grade. Professors get to design their own class grading system, and some may assign weights of 25% or 30% of the total course grade to individual exams. But this isn’t always the case, since one exam can comprise 40% or more of the class grade for one professor, but only 10% for another. Some classes have homework that comprises 50% of the class grade and others may weight a final term paper at 35% of the grade, making it more significant than the exams. Without being clear on what tasks are significant portions of the overall class grade, students can over-value some assignments and under-value others, resulting in a poor class grade. Students need to check the syllabus for each class to see how the grade is broken down to understand which tasks will count the most so they can demonstrate what they’ve learned and reap the benefits of knowing which course activities count the most.
- For any college level course, the syllabus is a critical too for understanding how to do well, especially the grade breakdown section. Typically professors will explicitly state what percentage of the grade activities are worth, and this can guide students as to where to focus their efforts.
- The frequency of graded tasks is also important to know. Classes that have multiple and frequent ways to earn points tend to bring more stability to an ongoing course grade than fewer, high point value tasks that represent much more student effort to be prepared. For example, classes with five exams will allow a student to focus on less information when preparing for exams while classes with only two tests may cover 8-10 chapters and present a high risk situation to the student’s grade.
- The kinds of graded activities are important too. Classes with many objective measures like multiple choice tests give point scoring chances on more straightforward information like class notes and text readings while more subjectively graded tasks like essays may prove harder for students to succeed at. Also some classes can have unusual graded assignments, such as doing a community engagement activity, attending a museum, volunteer hours, personal journals, or others.
2.) Stay On Top Of Your Work
Probably the most common problem that students encounter in college and often complain about is procrastination. Many students say they find themselves putting off work until later because it’s so easy to do in the self-driven environment of college. While seemingly harmless, procrastination can lead to many negative things. Once students begin to procrastinate, it is usually not for just one class, it is typically for multiple classes and this causes the work to build up. As they see a progressively larger amount of work that they have to do, students say this causes them to procrastinate even more or to eventually “avoid” the work because the thought of having to much work to do just makes them feel stressed. Many say that they start to worry about the unfinished work, with some even becoming so anxious that they will even tell “white lies” to their parents about how things are going with classes. For some students, putting off the work can become so stressful that they begin to lose sleep at night. What I often see that goes with procrastination are things like interference, where outside things can impinge on the student’s ability to get work done (e.g., from friends or social activities) and also ordinary forgetting to do the work and meet deadlines. Once procrastination or avoiding the work hits full force, it can set students back and lead to bad grades for the term.
- Procrastination is the ordinary putting things off until later, but “avoiding” is when a student has put things off so long that they start to feel overwhelmed by just the thought of trying to catch up so they don’t even try. Students say they can go in to “avoidance mode” and just stop dealing with all class activities, such as reading, homework, or preparing for exams which leads to bad grades. The step prior to this catastrophic avoidance mode is always procrastination.
- For students trying to catch up, know that professors will sometimes negotiate deadlines on certain kinds of assignments, like paper or project due dates. Talking with a professor to see if a deadline can be pushed back on a paper that is due occurs very often among college students, and the same is true for some projects (except for group projects). Since negotiating deadlines with a professor can actually happen it might be worth a conversation with a professor to see if it is possible. It’s worth a try.
- Getting out of environments that interfere with work efforts can increase outcomes quickly and simply. Many students will take certain kinds of work to the library, student center, or other places that they feel help can them be productive. For other tasks, some students feel that they do best with them at home, such as writing papers. A key insight to student productivity is to do tasks in the environment where they seem to get done. Math problems might be better done at the library while writing works best at home. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, it is whatever works for the student.
3.) Get To Know The Person Giving You A Grade
Higher education is a cooperative learning process where students and professors collaborate to share knowledge. It is the role of the student to learn, the role of the professor to teach, and then the student’s learning is evaluated by measurement methods designed by the professor. These measurement “instruments” can be exams, written assignments, or many other methods, but they are all designed (or at least selected) by the professor. In order to understand how they will be evaluated and to receive feedback from the “measurer,” students need to talk with professors at many points during the semester. Talking with professors prior to exams can help the student to increase the outcomes of their preparation efforts by understanding what kind of test to prepare for and to help narrow down the course information to what is important. Coordinating and getting feedback on papers and projects is also critical to make sure the student is on track with meeting the requirements of the assignment which tends to improve the outcome and maximize the points earned. Not talking with the professor and getting feedback on their class efforts is a key mistake that many students make, and they wind up just studying their class notes for an exam or just “wing it” for a paper which often results in a low grade. Many professors will give guidance for exams in the form of study guides, practice questions, or even practice exams. Or they may give clearly written instructions for papers, including all of the components they wish to see in them. But none of these are a good substitute for a direct conversation with the person giving the student the grade since they may add valuable input that maximizes student efforts to show that learning has taken place.
- Getting to know the professor or TA can be very important for subjectively graded assignments like essays, papers, and certain projects. The person giving the grade is the only one that can state what they are looking for. For example, they may feel that stating terms, definitions, and concepts in a paper is what merits earning points, and talking with them ahead of time might clarify these expectations for the paper or project.
- For more objective measures like multiple choice tests, a conversation about the priority of the material to guide study efforts can be very helpful. Some tests simply require studying and memorizing the assigned information, yet the person designing the test may feel that certain parts of the information are more important than others. By getting guidance on the priority of the information, students can better hone in on what is “test worthy” in the eyes of the person who is asking the questions.
- For graded assignments due at the end of the semester, talking with the professor at critical junctures while working on the paper or project ahead of time can show them that you are serious about it, incorporating their feedback, and doing your best to fulfill their instructions which can maximize the grade given. Not talking with the professor while working on a bigger project is like not talking to the home owner while building their house: Even the builder’s best efforts may not make them happy since it’s their expectations that must be met.
4.) Don’t Underestimate How Long Things Will Take
One of the simple facts about not only college, but also life in general, is that things can often take longer than one thinks, sometimes much longer. For college classes, there is a general rule to help students predict how long work will actually take each week: For every one hour spent in class expect two to three hours outside of class doing related work. So for a class that meets three times per week for 50 minutes (roughly three hours each week) an additional nine hours will be spent completing the required readings, homework, or other assigned work, not even counting time to prepare for exams or to write papers. Since this is a general rule, some classes will require less but some can require much more. Classes like Biology or Chemistry can have very complex readings so it may take much longer to trudge through them. Written assignments can also take much longer than expected, and some students say that they may know the subject they want to write about yet get stuck for some reason. A chosen topic may have little research material available at the library which causes the student to have to start over again with a new one, and then writing may be slow going in order to incorporate the required multiple references. Not underestimating how long work will take each week is both a matter of having a general idea of how much time will be spent but also of adjusting general expectations for high-volume classes. But the final rule, however, is that students must spend the time to get all work for a course done, no matter how long it takes.
- Most students don’t realize that using the general calculation of up to three hours outside of class to do related work, then adding that to time spent attending classes, that this means that one college class will take 12 hours per week. Multiply that by the standard minimum full-time across colleges of 12 credit and this means that 36 to 48 hours per week will be needed, which is why colleges classify it as “full-time” since it’s like a full-time job.
- Certain classes may take even longer than 9 to 12 hours per week if there is a lot of memorization, homework, or if the reading goes slowly. Biology, Chemistry, Calculus, Physics, and similar classes may take more work than easier classes since the readings may have to be covered more than once to make sense and supportive tutoring must be counted in to the total hours spent each week.
- Students sometimes find that laboratories for certain classes can be very time consuming as well. Some labs actually have their own separate syllabus, exams, quizzes, and required preparation so these can all add to the time spent on them each week. Very often one credit labs or classes can be quite a bit of work for their low credit value.
5.) Define, Prioritize, Then Execute
One of the fundamental errors I see in students is when they are not 100% certain about what they must do to complete an academic task. Many will know that they have an exam coming but are not sure of when, what information will be covered, or even the kind of test (e.g., essay or multiple choice). Knowing as many details as possible about any situation is the first step toward being able to effectively deal with it, and I reiterate over and over to my students that experts work to define a problem first before they try to solve it. By transforming vague unknown factors in to more concrete, well-defined ones, students are much more effectively able to deal with a task. Knowing an exam will cover chapters 1-4, that it will be an essay format, or knowing that a paper must be 8 pages long and must have specific sections all give the student critical information that guides their efforts. After academic tasks are better defined, it will allow a student to prioritize them, since these tasks can now be seen in terms of which will be more difficult, take longer, or need to be started far in advance because of necessary library research time even before the writing phase can begin. Defining and prioritizing the tasks allows students to evaluate and then set up their work, so planning and sequencing become valuable academic skills. Once defined and prioritized, it’s time for the student to execute on their plan to deal with the multiple tasks. Execution means to act, and students can’t act effectively without knowing what they must do and where to begin. Putting in the time to prepare for exams, review study guides, research or draft papers, or even to get feedback from professors about their efforts are all kinds of execution on the tasks that they’ve better defined to know what to do and prioritized to see where to start.
- By defining the details of upcoming tasks, students can more accurately estimate how much time they will take and how difficult they will be. Aspects to be considered should include the length, difficulty, due date, number of references needed, and currently available information on the topic a topic that they might choose. For tests, the number of chapters, test format (e.g., essay vs. multiple choice), and complexity of the information need to be defined in order to know what preparing for an exam will entail. Sometimes the details of a paper, project, or test are in the course syllabus but if not the student should talk with the professor.
- On any given day during the semester, not all things are equally important, and being able to prioritize can help students hone in on what to deal with first. Sometimes a sub-part of a larger project can become a high priority because of the sequence of events that must follow. For example, a student can’t write the body of a paper without an outline or write about a topic in depth if there is they haven’t checked first to see if there is available research on that topic. It’s a common beginner’s mistake for a student to pick a topic they “love” then later realize that there is no literature at the library then they simply get stuck.
- Acting or “executing” on any plan can often be the hardest part. Students often report that getting started on a paper, project, or studying for an exam can be their downfall and say that procrastination can get in the way. Other students find that additional obstacles to executing can show up at the end of a paper or project. For example, some students can become overly self-critical or worried about the end product, to the degree that they won’t let anyone proof read a paper and may not even turn it in out of fear of getting a bad grade.
6.) Follow-Up On All Things
One of the amazing things I’ve noticed from working directly with college students is that so many just turn in assignments or take a test and then are content with just waiting to see how things turn out in terms of the grade they received. Some found out much later that a professor never received an assignment that the student thought was turned in, or they found out they got a low grade on an earlier exam only after they took the next test. Following-up on assignments turned in not only ensures that the professor received it but gives the student critical feedback on their efforts. Many classes will use homework as practice for exams, like in math classes, and doing poorly on the homework usually means a student is not ready for a test. Homework and exams early in a term serve not only the function of giving students feedback on their efforts and understanding of course information, but also work as a compass that shows them where they must make their efforts in the future. If grades on early homework and exams are low, students need to follow-up with the professor and find out why. Meeting with the professor is always the most effective route to gaining direct feedback about their work, yet so many students dread meeting with professors. Many say they feel like they should only meet with a professor “if there’s a problem” or that it makes them feel “like they are stupid.” These perceptions only hurt the student and overlook the value of immediate feedback from the person who is evaluating their efforts.
- One of the things college students seem to believe is that “I did that so it is done,” like taking tests or turning in papers, but then they don’t follow-up to see what happened. I’ve seen far too many times where a student ended up getting a bad grade on a test or paper but they never knew it until much later. Grades are a key source of feedback from professors to students about their understanding and mastery of the information and required course tasks, and it’s far easier to correct one’s mistakes for the next exam or assignment if they know what they are ahead of time.
- It is a key life lesson is to not just trust any critical issue to “the system” and believe it will simply do it’s part. Technology breaks down and people make mistakes, and following up on their actions is important. In some cases a student may feel that they turned in homework, a paper, or another assignment and the professor never received it. This can be especially problematic when a student must turn it in through the school’s online system, and some student’s make the mistake of trying to send in assignments from their personal email and not their school account. Some professors are actually not permitted by the school to use non-college emails and can receive assignments only from the online system. Double checking to make sure that homework or assignments were received is important to ensuring that students are given credit for their work.
7.) Look Ahead To See What’s Coming
One of the fundamental mistakes students make is not being clear on all the tasks and assignments that are just around the corner or happening even right now. The workload in college can vary during the semester and if not monitored closely it can quickly build up to an insurmountable level. But experienced students know that there are ways to track and stay on top of things for each semester. Each class has a syllabus in which many professors will give important dates so they can know when exams are happening, projects will be due, or when other significant events are coming. The syllabus may also give important information about the format of the class, such as whether it will only have a few exams or be a constant flow of smaller assignments that are due. Not all professors, however, give dates in a syllabus so the burden is then put on the student to at least get estimates of when things will happen. Talking with a professor about when exams might happen or when papers will be due can gain important information so the key events for one class can then be matched to test dates and paper deadlines for other classes. For example, will an exam for their class be at midterm or the week before? Exams for different classes tend to converge to form a midterm exam week or final exam week, but not always. Some exams can actually happen outside of that traditional timeframe, and knowing ahead of time when term papers are due during a busy finals week can show a student they need to start it in advance. Knowing what work is coming in advance can help students to be more effective in their course work, eliminate stressful surprises, and ultimately make their lives easier by being aware of multiple competing demands that will need to be dealt with at once.
- The academic semester is comprised of a constant series of tasks, expectations, parameters and deadlines. Looking ahead to see what these tasks and expectations are will benefit students so they are not caught off guard and surprised by exams or papers due that they felt like they “came out of nowhere.” Usually, dates for exams and when papers or projects are due are stated in the course syllabus, but if not students can talk with the professor.
- A particular weakness for some students is that they settle for the information given to them, such as a syllabus where a professor has been vague in their expectations, has not stated the dates of upcoming exams, or when assignments are due. Too many students feel that is enough information for them to do well in the class, but often it is not. Students must talk with the professor and elicit the information that they need to understand exactly what to expect and what they must do.
- In the absence of even a general idea of when tests will be or papers due, it is possible to estimate dates for some tasks. For example, if a class only has two tests, a common format is that one will be a mid-term exam and the second a final, so this would be a reasonable estimate of when the two test will come. Estimating has an element of uncertainty to it, so talking with professors to confirm any estimates made is best.
8.) Be Willing To Pay The Price
Being in college is certainly not easy, and earning a college degree brings great rewards because not every one can do it. Earning a degree shows not only that a student has mastered a certain body of knowledge but also that they can get things done- that they know how to learn, to persist, and how to make strong efforts. But the fundamental reality of college degrees is that they are earned. It takes a great deal of time and effort to complete college, and that is the price students must pay: Putting in the time and effort to successfully complete the classes and to earn the credential. On every college diploma it says “with all the rights, honors, and privileges” that comes with being awarded a degree, which a student earns through their hard work. Paying the price to do well and ultimately complete college also means sacrifice. Putting one’s life on hold to complete their education, not having enjoyments that others might have at that time, and spending countless hours reading, studying, and doing all things necessary to succeed in classes. But the reward at the end can be life changing, and joining the ranks of degree holders can mean entering a new strata of existence in both financial and social terms. No one ever regrets finishing college and earning a degree, it’s a life changing accomplishment, but there are so many students who attend college that weren’t willing to pay the price of time and effort. They want something but aren’t willing to work for it, don’t want to make the effort, and so do poorly in their classes or even just leave school completely. It is a student’s conscious decision to make the sacrifice and pay the price of the time and effort to earn the rewards that can lead them to a new level in life.
- College is a great deal of work, and even a minimum full-time schedule amounts to the same hours as a full-time job. But some students will fill their lives with non-work activities that simply take away from the time needed to do the work or replace their course work as their top concern. Sports teams, fraternal involvements, social or leadership groups, and many other things can become a student’s leading concern which can lead to problems. Allocating enough time in a student’s schedule to dedicate to course work should be the top priority, since completing a degree is the reason for attending.
- College degrees represent an opportunity to change one’s life, but degrees are earned through the hard work that the student makes to complete the required credits to graduate. There is no inherent right for any student to have a degree, it is an attainment that they make through their effort. An antiquated saying by Ivy League graduates is that they “took their degree” from their college, and this is true. Students must take the degree from the college through their hard work, it will not be handed to them just for attending.
- The price paid for college is the student’s time and effort, and college is a substantial commitment in terms of the years it can take and the work involved. To verify that it is worth doing, students should talk to a variety of college graduates to ask them if they feel finishing college was a good move for their life. While opinions about their field of study may vary, no one regrets having a college degree, and 50 years of data show that it is indeed life changing for most.
9.) Use Existing Resources To Your Advantage
For college students there is clearly a “managerial” aspect of learning, which sometimes doesn’t occur to them. Attending classes, taking notes, and doing required readings are all fundamentals of every class but there are secondary efforts that need to be made to keep grades strong and to ensure progress. Being able to effectively identify and use available resources to enhance grades is also a key function for students. For all classes, knowing professor office hours so work efforts can be coordinated with them, using a calendar or planner to track assignments and deadlines, and understanding how to access online course readings like journal articles are all common to each class and term. For some classes, students may need additional instruction or support, so being familiar with a college’s tutoring center or writing center may be essential. Students often complain that they don’t like to use resources like tutoring, writing help, or even talking with the professor because it makes them feel incompetent. In fact, many students have told me that they feel getting help in some way should be a last resort or only a reaction to having a low grade in a class. Revising one’s view of professors, tutors, or other supportive services to being resources that should be used in concert to enhance overall classroom efforts is often needed for students to overcome their reluctance about using them. Using these resources to a student’s advantage is a normal part of the managerial aspect of college in which students must identify sources of help and then use them to attain good grades.
- A key resource for students is their online student account system, such as Black Board, Moodle, Web Advisor, and others. This will be important for accessing class information, correspondence with professors, and even be linked with online homework. Depending on the system, students might even use it for scheduling appointments with advisors, enrolling for classes, viewing unofficial transcripts and much more. Learning how to use this system will be important for all students, especially since the college may require that all homework and emails with professors be done through that system and not the student’s personal email.
- Most colleges offer many free resources to students, ranging from tutoring or academic help to career services that can offer them evaluation to see what majors fit them. Some colleges even have free medical services or counseling to currently enrolled students. Identifying and using key campus resources can be a smart move since those are currently available and accessible to the student usually at no cost (or a nominal fee).
- Looking beyond the campus to see what might be available is a way to expand the student’s resource base to help them stay motivated, feel supported, or help them in many other ways. Family and friends are a great source of support, while other non-campus services like private tutors might be available very near campus or a short distance away. Also, online resources can be a great help to students, and there are learning related sites that can help fill in the gaps for supports that students need but are not offered locally.
10.) Choose The Right Playing Field
The role of environment for humans has been well studied for many years and it’s effects have been found to be incredibly powerful. I’ve seen the role of environment for college have strong effects as well, and these can occur at different levels. At a broader level, the effects of environment can include the likelihood of doing well in their classes, and the U.S. Department of Education has documented differential graduation rates for students based on college size and type. At the smaller level, environment can be a big factor in how much work students can get done while in school, and it’s effects can often be used to one’s advantage. Student productivity is not equal at all times in all places, or even across tasks, and some students notice that they do different kinds of work better in one place versus another. For example, they may write papers better at their dorm or apartment, but have to make it to the library if they want to get a lot of reading or math homework done. Others say they may use a student lounge, empty classroom, coffee shop, or a variety of other places where they know they will be able to get certain kinds of work done. This familiarity with how they work in different environments helps them to choose the right place to work, depending what they need to do, to maximize their efforts. All students are different, and what works for one may not work for another. But the common theme for students who want to get a lot done is that they pick the right place to work, the right environment, since picking the wrong place can lead to distraction, frustration, or ultimately putting off doing the work.
- Choice of college is one of the key factors for student success in higher education. In fact, for many students, it is the largest factor that either supports their success or leads to their undoing. Students may love the idea of attending a certain college, but that does not mean that the school’s characteristics are a good match for them to succeed. Small colleges can give more individualized attention and are higher on the important “student engagement” factor, while larger colleges tend to be more impersonal and require the student have a very high level of self-initiative.
- At a smaller level, a campus environment plays a strong role in student productivity. Productivity can be different across environments and for different subjects, and students need to have more than one choice of places where they can work in order to keep their productivity high. Some students will vary their choice of environments to stay productive and may work at their dorm, apartment, library, student center, empty classrooms, lounges, or many other areas to keep themselves working and moving forward.
- Counter-productive environments tend to be noisy, distracting, or even over-stimulating to some students. Urban environments with much activity, large campus settings, or even the wrong living arrangements can be very harmful to student productivity and academic outcomes. Every students is different, so finding the right kinds of work environments to fit them will be an important aspect of student productivity.
11.) Get Things In To Your Head
For higher education, there is both an art and science to effective learning, and there’s been a lot of research in the last 50 years on how humans learn and how we remember Yet there is even a greater amount of speculative information on “study skills” or “college success” out there that is either baseless or, as students constantly tell me, just not helpful. Many of the students that I worked who were forced to take study skills a course by their college said they were both valueless and boring. The simplified but true definition of learning, in my opinion, is that it is the acquisition of knowledge, and this perspective puts students on the same level as all great thinkers throughout history. Whether they realize it or not, all students have the same mind as Aristotle, Plato, Newton, and DaVinci. It is the human mind, and it is capable of many great things. But to acquire knowledge, especially in a short time frame like during a semester or quarter, precise effort is needed and that is where “studying” comes in. Studying only means one thing: To create memories. And these are the memories that can be used to score well on exams. Studying is an activity that helps one to acquire knowledge, to cultivate one’s mind and to learn just like the great thinkers did. The creation of these memories, though, can’t happen in one short burst, like in a few hours the day before an exam. Research shows that memories need time to strengthen and congeal, and a great analogy for effective studying in college is a simple one: The way that weight lifters go to the gym to build muscle. They know that it will take time, and they break each muscle group in to specific sets of repetitions, with short breaks in between. Then the next day they work on a different muscle group and let the first one rest since they know trying to over-work one group for fast results is only counterproductive. But overall they persist, keep going back to the gym, and finally achieve the results they want. The same is true for studying. Cramming to get the information in to one’s head only creates weak memories that will not be reliable and show up during an exam. But by working with the same information repeatedly over time via different “exercises,” with rests in between and over the course of days, the strongest memories will be created that can translate in to points scored at test time.
- Learning can be a very solitary process: It is the information, the student, and efforts to learn the specified content. There is no secret to learning, it is about the student acquiring the required knowledge, which can take many encounters with the information over and over until they have learned it. Multiple encounters with the same information tend to create strong remembering of that information, and those memories can translate in to points at test time.
- Studying essentially means creating memories, memories that can be used to score well on exams. Each student will have their own way of creating these memories, and some will highlight as they read, take notes on what they read, re-write their class notes, make flash cards, and much more. The course content may also dictate how learning the information is to be approached. Classes with a great deal of factual information, like Biology or Art History, simply require that the student memorize objective information. Other classes require the remembering of processes, like math classes, so practice and application might be the best route to remember the methods. Evolving their own way of creating memories is the only practical definition of “having good study skills.”
- Knowing what doesn’t work is equally important to knowing what does when it comes to learning information. Waiting until the last minute, pulling all-nighters or cramming, or other last minute actions that occur all at once simply do not create the strong memories needed to do well on exams. Studying takes time and effort, and must be ongoing in order to lay the foundation for a later test preparation phase. Students often feel that a last minute review of their notes will be enough to do well on college level exams, but this is usually not the case.
12.) Master The Processes
One of the problems I’ve noticed in both post-secondary and higher education is that there is often an over-focus on academic content, leaving process to be something that a student must learn on their own. Course content includes factual information, such as terms, concepts, theories, methods, and other information that comprises what students should learn during a class. But class-related processes, such as writing different kinds of papers, designing and finishing projects, or even properly studying for exams are too often left to the student to figure out. To make matters even more complex, there is a second level of processes that are important for college that students may not have mastered prior to getting there. Being able to accurately assess situations, make predictions about outcomes, and then determine what they must do is a key skill. Planning work times, devising a structure for projects or papers, as well as anticipating events or problems are important skills as well. There are multiple processes that students encounter in college that are equally important to the content they are learning. Dealing with competing demands, prioritizing and sequencing, as well as work productivity are all part of these various processes that students must become proficient at in order to effectively deal with their work load. But many students can have problems with even basic process-related skills, like being able to articulate their thoughts in to the written word or to plan written assignments so they meet specified requirements. Just when students are sharpening these often fledgling skills they may also be hit with variations and must quickly learn even more formats, such for reaction papers, position papers, analyses, online journals, and scientific reports. While the over-reliance on content that post-secondary education brings can build a valuable knowledge base for college, it is the various process skills that are needed to do well in courses, and when faced with the need for these students sometimes see the glaring gaps in their abilities.
- Students must evolve their own methods to deal with academic processes. Staying organized, for example, will necessarily require some kind of planning method to know when exams are as well as when projects are due. This means the student must make choices between methods to track these, as well as the pros and cons of each. Electronic calendars can be convenient but may not be always accessible to the student when they need them, where paper-based planners can be carried in their book bag to note things or change dates based on professor announcements. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method, and students should choose one that fits their own academic lives.
- Planning papers or projects should occur only after the scope and instructons of the assignment is well understood. Some professors will describe a paper or project directly in the syllabus, while others do not. Many students get stuck on what to include in a paper or project so they cannot get started. In the absence of a specific assignment “prompt,” students should talk with professors to better define what they must do. With practice, students will be able to create their own structure for written assignments, term paper, and projects but asking for help while learning different formats is the best way to create a good end product.
- When encountering new formats of writing, such as reaction or position papers, talking with the professor to clarify exactly what they want or to get examples can help remove the block that students often encounter when trying to get started. Even students with good writing skills can get stuck when dealing with a new format they have never had to use, and a simple explanation from the professor can help to quickly overcome that.
13.) Make The Key Decisions
In sports, a player is said to have made a “key play” if they take the right action at the right time, and for college it is no different. A semester brings a series of key decisions to be made, often every day, that can lead a student to making key plays at the right time or suffer the outcomes from a lack of action that always leads to problems. Even seemingly ordinary decisions, like going to class or doing homework, can be crucial for students especially when they can easily find reasons not to. Other key decisions can be to stay on top of required readings, to start early to prepare for exams, or even to talk with professors in advance for papers or projects to get an idea of how to complete those tasks well. Outside the classroom other key decisions are when to play and when to work, when to work alone or ask for help, or even what classes to take or major to declare. Many students can become paralyzed when they must declare a major, often lamenting the “road not taken” when trying to decide between career pathways, so get they stuck on this key decision. But for students, making decisions that are aligned with their priorities and values in life is a key skill that cannot be overlooked. If a student values doing well in classes, they must consciously decide to take the right actions at the right time, and choices to work when necessary are the “key plays” that later pay off in good grades.
- During the active semester, college is a constant series of critical decisions, bringing moment to moment “key plays” that can lead them to a pathway of good grades or leave them forever stuck in procrastinating, avoiding work, and not working up to their potential. Deciding when to work and when to play, when to begin efforts to tackle papers or study for exams, and when to choose finishing required course reading over social time are examples of those daily key decisions that students must make that lead them upward to ward success or downward to problems during the semester.
- One of the most common mistakes for students, yet a key play for the whole term, is that they may not attend the first class during a semester. Usually the professor will hand out the course syllabus and explain the format for their class during the first meeting, both of which are critical pieces of information that set the tone for the rest of the semester. An essential key play is to always attend the first class for any course, since this first meeting period may give students the insights and essential framework to guide their efforts for the rest of the semester.
- There is a very personal and “command decision” aspect to making key decisions, which is most often left to the student alone. Choosing a major is one of those command decisions, since picking a field of study is so deeply personal that it is almost like choosing whom to marry. Since none of use can know the future, the best one can do is to research majors, their curricula, and career pathways then make the best decision one can. Keep in mind that many people major in something in college then do something completely different as a job later in life. Personally I know engineers that became photographers, lawyers that became social workers, and a physicist that decided to go to medical school. Picking a major in college means choosing a field of study, and while that can be linked with post-college life, it is not necessarily one’s destiny.
14.) Constantly Learn From Others
There is such a push for college “preparedness” in the U.S. even before students ever step foot on to a campus, but I’ve actually seen this work against students in some ways. Many of them feel that they already have the skills and knowledge to seamlessly perform well in college level classes, and when they don’t they begin to feel badly about themselves. Students often forget that the purpose of college is to acquire new skills and knowledge that they didn’t have before. While learning course information is important, a great deal of their growth and new learning about how to excel in their classes will come from others. Interacting with professors, classmates, and other college staff gives students an opportunity to see the skills of others in action, often through many different venues. How they communicate or learn information, their work habits, how they tackle problems, and how they handle challenges all present new models of thinking and working that students can absorb and incorporate in to their own ways. Learning by watching others, or Observational Learning, is a well documented phenomenon and can allow students to learn by seeing how others perform the same tasks. Learning by observing also allows students to compare their own actions against those outside models in order to catch their own mistakes, make revisions to their current efforts, or even to adopt entirely new ways that increase their effectiveness. By carefully and precisely watching people who have the skills they want to acquire then emulating them, acting like them, students can begin to acquire new skills. No one is expected to have the knowledge or skills that will be gained during college prior to entering, and it can be a very humbling experience for a person to realize what they don’t know. But constantly learning from others can help speed the acquisition of new skills and knowledge that students can use to do well across all of their classes.
- In many ways, the traditional beliefs about “college preparedness” can lead students and parents to be over confident about the likelihood of higher education success. The reality is that college will draw more heavily upon other skills and factors than what lead students to succeed in high school because it is a completely different environment. Self-reliance, independent learning, resiliency, motivation, and perseverance are all more strongly tapped in the higher education environment than in the high school setting since college is 100% student-driven.
- Because college is intended for increased learning, students will be presented with many new situations or tasks very quickly, so the ability to learn from watching others and observing how they do things will be an important element to doing well on many tasks. If they don’t constantly from others, learn students can quickly become discouraged when they realize that their current skills don’t measure up to the requirements of the new tasks. That is when they can start to put off the work, avoid it, and begin to have chronic problems in college academics.
15.) Own Your Strengths And Weaknesses
We all like to think that we only have strengths, but as humans, we are imperfect creatures so along with strengths we can have weaknesses as well. The intensity and rigor of full-time college course work can quickly show us the areas in which we need to improve, and certain classes can bring our weaknesses to the front, sometimes in a big way. Being able to “play to one’s strengths” is a common strategy that students use, and they will often take classes that they find interesting or they’re good at. But this can result in students accumulating a lot of credits on one area and not addressing the other courses they need to see graduation. In higher education, taking classes only in student strength areas becomes an unsustainable strategy, since the breadth and depth requirements of general education classes or even supporting but required classes for a major can hit one’s weaknesses directly. There is no dishonor in having weak areas, and they can represent an opportunity to grow, learn new skills, and a chance to work with others to improve them. Some students may be good at math and science but have a hard time with interpreting themes in plays or poems for a Drama class. Other students may be good at writing or art, but have a terrible time with science classes and the labs that come with them. The primary reason for general education curricula and other supporting classes is to make a student a more well-rounded learner and person, but new learning sometimes requires the identification of weak areas and specific efforts to improve them. Academic venues like tutoring and working with professors can help these course-specific weaknesses, but there are others not related to course content. Being reluctant to talk with professors, not seeking help when they need it, feeling that the educational system is “unfair,” or even spotty class attendance are other kinds of weaknesses that students can have. None of us are perfect, but to improve their weaknesses and ultimately grades students need to take full ownership of not only their strengths but their weaknesses as well. Student weaknesses represent an opportunity for change, for students to become more than they were before, but cannot be addressed until they are acknowledged and “owned” by the student as something that must be dealt with.
- College performance is 100% up to the student, and higher education is often the first experience that highlights this full level of self-responsibility to students. However, when it comes to “owning” or accepting their own weaknesses in light of bad performance they can often have trouble accepting their shortcomings. Even when they do acknowledge their weaknesses, they may have many problems with the follow through improving on them. For example, if a student knows they need extra help in math, they may not seek math tutoring or keep appointments even if the help is available.
- A common manifestation in both students and parents of this unwillingness to accept student weaknesses is “not owning the problem.” Students can come up with their own reasons why it was someone else’s fault, and many parents in their efforts to solve their student’s college issues can do the same. They blame the college, professors, or seek a “hired gun” to make their student succeed at all costs. In this situation, neither students nor parents want to accept responsibility for their own role in the situation. In many cases the student may have done very well in high school and both they and their parents focused on “big name” schools or programs, both becoming overly enamored that the student was attending there despite the fact that they were utterly failing academically. For higher education, including the planning and college choice phases, final decisions always lie with the student and their parents. No college, guidance counselor, or other person can “cause” the student to succeed or step in to rescue them. College is the student’s and parent’s journey, as are the victories and problems that come with it.
- Even the greatest apparent strengths in a student can become weaknesses in different situations. Some students can be very confident, outgoing, and charming which can make them popular with others, but the nature of college academics it is a very solitary effort if one wants to succeed. Studying, reading, test preparation, writing, and other key activities for college are usually done alone, so even the most outgoing students may find themselves hurt by their “strength” of sociability since they will gravitate toward social events, hanging out with friends, and other things that can be counterproductive to academic work.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A. is an Educational Consultant based in Pittsburgh, Pa. He holds a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology, and has been helping students to reach graduation since 2001. Jeff specializes in helping to uncover and address the reasons why students do poorly in college, and has helped many students to achieve their higher education goals. He is also credentialed as a college Advisor, and works at the national level to help students across the U.S.