Advice for Student Success

This is a running list of advice I have for college students to enable them make the most of school (and a lot of this advice is also good for your career):

Habits to Enable You to Learn

  • Put away your phone and do not surf on your computer when it is time to do your work.
  • Attend class: Every session. Be on time and stay for the entire class. It’s easy to think, “I can come late,” or, “I can skip today,” but if you create a habit of always going to class, it will likely spill over into you spending the regular and concerted effort you need to to do well. Students who cut corners on attendance may often cut corners in other habits needed for academic success.
  • Make a detailed schedule: Don’t just set aside time to do “work,” but list what topics and what tasks you will do when. This can help keep you accountable and ensure you have enough time set aside that your work requires.
  • Ask family/friends to keep you accountable: Have your accountability partner call you to make sure you are studying when you are supposed to.
  • Start homework early and do a little each day: Start a weekly homework one week before it is due. The first day, just spend 15 minutes reading the assignment. The next day, spend maybe 30 minutes working a little on a few problems. Each day, spend more time on the work, but by spreading out the time you spend on the homework, you will give your mind time to process the work both when you’re focused on the work and throughout your day.
  • Spend at least a week studying for an exam: In high school, you might have been able to cram for an exam the night before. For many students in college, that no longer works very well.

Study Habits

  • Do all the reading: Yes, we’re all busy, and yes, many students think you can get what you need by listening to the lectures, but reading and learning from what you are reading is vital for you to learn and do in college. Of all the learning activities that happen college, reading is the most like what you will do in the real world. You will read lots of stuff at work: reports, white papers, articles, etc. Your boss will not tell you that you have to read or what you have to read. There will be no (or a very limited number) of videos, podcasts, etc. telling you what you need to know. There will seldom ever be a teacher. It is up to you in your workplace to learn what you need to from reading.
  • Read in phases: Don’t just read in once through. Read a book “multiple” times by first reading the summary, then the table of contents, then the preface, then the introductory paragraphs of each chapter, then the topic sentences of each section, and then, finally, do a detailed reading. The classic book on how to read is Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book, which this advice mirrors. Gregory Koukl also has a great article on how to read more effectively that follows Adler and Van Doren’s advice.
  • Ask questions as you read: Don’t just read a book for information. Ask questions of what you are reading: is this really true, what are the implications if this is true, what are the arguments for and against this position, etc. Adler and Van Doren and Koukl (see the links in the above bullet point) talk a lot about this kind of reading.
  • Write down your questions as you read: As our short-term memory only holds 3-7 items, if you do not write down all your questions as you read, you will forget most of the questions you have. If you are afraid you will be writing down questions you will eventually answer, don’t wory about that. If you answer a question, just put a check mark by it on your list. But, by making the list, you will keep track of all your questions and prevent yourself from thinking you have no (or few) questions when you really do have a lot.
  • Create notes that put concepts into your own words: Part of the purpose of notetaking is to give you a summary you can look over to refresh your mind as to the concepts you’ve read. But, if that were the only purpose, you could just make a copy of the table of contents and call those your notes. What really makes notetaking an effective learning tool is if you recast the ideas of the author you’re reading into your own words and then write those down. Doing both the rewording and handwriting is more effective than only one alone.
  • How to interact with solutions to problems: Whether it’s the solution from an exam or a solution to a homework problem, don’t just read the solution. It’s really easy for all of us to say, after we’ve read the solution, “of course, that makes sense.” But, in our heart of hearts, we might not truly understand the solution. To really discover whether you understand the solution and to have that solution take root in your mind, you need to redo the problem. Wait a day or so after reading the solution (to let the answer leave your short-term memory) to try the problem again from scratch. You’ll discover whether you really understood the solution you read the day before. If the problem is a multiple choice problem, you also need to ask not only why is the right answer right but why are all the wrong answers wrong.

Interacting with Instructors

  • Be conservative in how you address your instructors: Different instructors have different preferences in how they would like to be addressed. If you do not know how your instructor would like to be addressed, use the person’s title and last name (e.g., “Dr. Jones”).
  • Use a formal message format: Open with a salutation and close with a valediction. That is, write something like:

    Dear Dr. Jones:

    … body of your message …

    Jane Doe

  • Use complete sentences in all written correspondence: Texting abbreviations and non-standard English can be difficult to understand.
  • Provide context and specificity in your messages: If you are asking for your instructor to give you an extension on an assignment, it is clearer if you write, “May I have an extension on Homework 1 until Mon. Dec 8 at 11:59 pm?” versus, “Can I turn it in on Monday?”
  • Read correspondence carefully and address all items: If your instructor is asking you to do something or provide him/her some information, fulfill all the requests being made. If you do not understand everything your instructor is asking you to do, just ask for clarification. Do not just ignore a request you do not understand. If you do, you will be wasting your and your instructor’s time because your instructor won’t be able to act on your message if you do not do all the tasks or include all the information you’re being asked to give.
  • Reply to instructors in a timely manner: Emails should be replied to within a day.

Classroom Etiquette

Because of COVID-19 and our experience of online learning, we have gotten used to muting/turning off our video and multi-tasking during class time. Those habits do not work well in an in-person setting.

  • Arrive on-time and stay until the end of class: Of course, if you need to use the restroom or have a one-time urgent matter, please feel free to excuse yourself. However, it is disrespectful to regularly arrive late or to regularly leave early. If you cannot regularly make the class time due to your work schedule or other recurring issue, either change your schedule or take the course at another time/term.
  • Do not talk while another person is talking: Whether it is your instructor or your classmates, it is disrespectful to talk while another person is talking. Very brief whispers to your neighbor are probably okay, but straight-out talking in multiple sentences at normal volume to your neighbor it not.
  • Please raise your hand if you have a question: Sometimes, the instructor wants everyone to shout out answers to questions or to interrupt the presentation with questions. (This can often happen in seminars.) If you are not sure what the protocol is, please raise your hand.
  • Focus on what is happening in class: Turn off your phone. Distractions (email, text, surfing, etc.) not only prevent you from learning and can distract your classmates, they are disrespectful to whomever is presenting.

Finally, remember that college is a transition from being “spoon-fed” your learning and being “self-fed” in your learning. The teacher has a role in college and will do what he/she can to help you, but you cannot rely on the teacher to tell you everything you need to learn and do to be successful in your class. This is not only because of limitations in time but because in college you are learning over the four years how to learn—how to be in-charge of your own learning.

(Last updated February 14, 2024.)