The ongoing, daily work for college students is the requisite student “grind” that higher education can bring. The semester is an endless cycle of attending lectures, completing readings, turning in homework, studying for exams, and other things that are the core of being a college student. It’s easy to get away from, or even be unsure of, what you should be doing on a daily basis in order to be successful. But there are some common themes that students must attend to regardless of their college, major, or year in school. It’s the ongoing, daily work that comprises the bulk of college, so being able to master that repeated process will help to enhance your grades throughout the term.
Use Your Planner To Stay Organized
It’s hard to describe the usefulness of a planner until you have tried it. Imagine being able to know exactly what is coming and when for every day of the week, month, and semester. Some students might argue that all of this is already in their Blackboard or Canvas account, but there are a couple of drawbacks to relying only on that. First, not all Professors are willing to use those systems, or if they do they may not post all of the information you need to be fully aware of what you should be working on. Also, an advantage of keeping your own planner is that it forces you to mentally process all of your responsibilities, which helps you to remember them and enhances your overall awareness of work demands. Whether it’s a planner or simple calendar, using one will give you a sense of self-responsibility and control over your academic life if you take action yourself.
Key things for using a planner or calendar:
- A planner or calendar has the clear strength of aligning dates of the month with days of the week, so use this to your advantage. To say that you have a test on the 16th means nothing until you look at the actual days of the week. The 16th could be this coming Monday, or even two days from now, which makes much more sense and can carry a sense of urgency. Now you can see you must study for a test that is coming in three days, or get moving on that group project that is due in two weeks from today.
- Put your planner or calendar in an obvious place that forces you to look at it. And I mean make sure that it’s really “in your face” so you can’t avoid or forget to look at it. So many times I’ve heard students say that they started the term using a planner, but then it just fell by the wayside. That’s because they didn’t make sure that it was part of their daily life routines. It wound up in a drawer, slipped under a bed, or they forgot it on their desk at home after their last visit. A planner has to be with you, travel with you, and it has to be your organizational companion no matter what you are doing.
- Try to develop the habit of looking at your planner first thing in the morning, preferably before classes start. Review and plan out what you must do today, and look ahead for the rest of the week. Do you have to finish assigned reading between classes today? Is there homework due tomorrow? You can augment your planner by making a simple to do list out of blank paper, then cross off the tasks that you completed. When it gets full, just grab more blank paper and start a new list. It’s possible to use your phone or computer for the same type of list, but the rule is that you must use it. If you find that you work better with paper lists, then use that method.
Stay On Top Of Writing Assignments
In addition to exams, students will need to complete different types of written assignments in college. These can come in a broad variety, ranging from brief discussion or forum posts to lab reports, term papers, essays, and many others. A required class at all colleges is a first-year writing class. This can be called English Composition I, Writing And Rhetoric I, Freshman Writing Seminar, or may go by another name. Not only is this course a requirement to graduate, it can be an important as a prerequisite for later courses such as Philosophy, English Literature, Psychology, or even Art History.
Some of the common writing formats that Professors can assign include:
- Many college courses have online student forums where both Professors and students can post questions or make comments. A common learning exercise is that the Professor will post some questions that students must respond to as part of course participation. These questions are usually fairly simple, but students will be evaluated on whether they’re relating their comments to what they learned in the class. In other words, when you respond to discussion questions, always relate them back to what you learned in the reading, lecture, or other course information. Everything in college is a “learning check,” so show what you learned in your posts.
- Students are often asked to write a short paper with their reaction to an assigned reading, current event, art performance, or other element of a course. This type of paper has a great deal of latitude since there is no right or wrong answer, it’s a personal reaction, so whether you loved or hated a performance both are equally correct. However, the key again is to tie your reaction in to what you learned in class. For example, if the reaction paper is on an artistic work, you should discuss the styles used, the artist, history of the piece, or other information covered in class or in the reading.
- Position papers are similar to reaction papers, except that they are asking you to adopt a concrete view on a topic. For example, if you feel that one side versus another on a governmental, environmental, or social issue is correct, then that is the position you would adopt for the paper. Only this time you are arguing that one position is correct over other possible views on the subject. Again, the key is tying what you write in to what you learned in class, supporting your claims or reasons for the position with evidence from the course readings, or otherwise demonstrating that you can apply the information from the class.
- Term papers can also come in a broad variety of formats, and typically they involve the student doing some outside research then incorporating it in to the finished product. These tend to be longer than the other papers mentioned, and can often run eight to 15 pages long. The classic “research report” format is a type of term paper, where students need to have multiple scholarly references, a bibliography, and a written portion essentially summarizing the topic and its parts.
Be Smart, Ask A Lot Of Questions
A lot of students feel reluctant to ask questions, whether in class or during office hours with Professors. Their hesitancy is usually just an obstacle for them, because in reality the smartest people actually ask a lot of questions to help understand a situation more fully. Experts in various fields seek to define things, to understand, and to gain enough information to conceptualize problems. In fact, classic research show that even experts spend most of their time trying to gain information before they take action to solve a problem. These studies showed that they spent most of their time at the problem-definition phase, gathering more information about the situation before they attempted a solution. Trying to act without enough information, including for college students, is a sure way to reach an incorrect conclusion that usually means doing poorly on the task at hand.
Ways that students can behave like “experts” in their studies:
If a Professor isn’t clear during lecture, ask questions to clarify, since if you let it go it can hurt your grade and the quality of your work. If you need help ask for it, seek it out since no one will come after you to see if you understand. And if you get a bad grade on a test or assignment, look to see what you missed then ask the Professor exactly why.
If you don’t know where to begin asking questions, start gathering information by using the basic “5 W’s:” Who? What? Where? When? And Why? This can often help elicit general information, but you can go beyond that. You can also ask open-ended and closed-ended questions to gain more specific information.
Open-ended questions are broad and may not have a single answer, they are meant to elicit a more descriptive response and require more explanation. For example, asking “how do I solve this equation?” is an open ended question, and the answer will require a more elaborate answer than just a simple yes or no.
Closed-ended questions have a specific answer, such as if you ask “what are the names of the moons of Jupiter?” There’s a specific, usually invariable answer to the question, and this type of question is good for when you need a precise solution.
If you plan to go to office hours to get help from a Professor, make a list of your questions in advance so that you can walk away in the end with the answers that you need. Very often we forget what we want to ask in the moment, the “mind going blank” phenomenon, so making a list in advance can help you to get the most out of your office visit.
Be Clear About What The Professor Wants
It’s impossible to complete tasks for a class, let alone earn a good grade, if you aren’t clear about what the Professor is asking for. In some cases they will be very explicit about expectations when they explain something in class, but at other times they may be incredibly vague. Some Professors may say they take exam questions directly from the assigned readings that matches their lectures, while others may ramble on about unrelated topics so you have no idea what to study for a test. For papers, some Professors will stipulate what sections they want included, such as an introduction, body paragraphs, conclusions, or references. While others will simply say “write a three page essay” leaving the student to come up with their own format. Either way, trying to just “wing it” without knowing what the Professor is looking for usually just results in a bad grade.
When trying to focus on what the Professor wants, consider the following:
For exams, look for anything the Professor may have posted in your Canvas or Blackboard account for the class. Study guides are usually helpful, but many students have said after a test that the exam questions didn’t follow the study guide at all, so don’t have 100% faith in them. Check the syllabus for the chapters covered since the last exam, since this will define the information that you will be responsible for. Use the study guide as a supplement, but cover the information in the chapters just to be sure.
Read the prompt or instruction sheets for all written assignments. Many Professors will include multi-part instructions or supplemental materials, such as a summary of how they want references formatted, a grading rubric, or links to source materials. It’s always critical to read the prompt for a written assignment first, rather than just sit down to write a paper based on what the Professor mentioned in class. Very often they will only give a cursory overview of written assignments during lecture since they know that they detailed the requirements elsewhere.
For projects, also look at the instructions, and make it a priority to determine whether it is an individual or group project. The latter can take much longer since it’s often harder to get members of a group to work to effective together than to work alone. Determine what the parts of the project will include, and most often there will be background research to do, a written portion to turn in, and even a presentation that may require that slides be done.
Professor Disorganization Usually Means Student Crisis
Some assignments can take an incredibly long time to complete. Too often papers due at the end of the term can be eight to twelve pages long, and may require a dozen references. Despite how time consuming big papers or projects can be, some Professors will procrastinate or forget to give out the instructions early for such large projects. They put it off, and may wait until a week before it is due to assign it which is far too little time to do a good job. There many are excellent Professors out there who are wonderful lecturers, but are otherwise disorganized or forgetful with other aspects of their work. A key rule for college is “Professor disorganization usually means a student crisis,” since if they wait to give out an assignment or announce a test you may have too little time to prepare.
Preventing a crisis from Professor delays:
- Start asking early about big projects, papers, and exams. Early means during the second week of the term, go meet with them during office hours to talk about any projects, papers, or anything else that requires independent work on your part for later in the term. Explain that you have other classes, plus responsibilities like a part-time job, so you want to start early because you want to do well in their class. No Professor would discount a student who wants to work hard, your work ethic will typically impress them.
Even if the Professor doesn’t want to be specific about dates or instructions, ask for a general idea. Should you be doing library research? If so, how many sources will be needed? Most Professors will be able to tell you whether you’ll need five or twenty sources, even early on. The same is true for a general idea about the project or paper, will it be merely an in-depth summary of a topic? Or will it be one where you need to support a thesis or hypothesis? Any information that gives you a general idea of what you should be doing can be useful, and can guide your efforts to work ahead.
As you do your independent research or study for a test, check in with the Professor often. Meet with the Professor every ten days or so to discuss your efforts and to gain more information if available, which can help to refine your efforts. Some Professors forget that students need time to work on bigger projects because they have other responsibilities, so meeting with them may inspire them to talk with the class about the project or coming exam earlier than they had planned.
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.