Help me be the best student I can be
January 5, 2011 8:03 AM   Subscribe

How do I become a good college student?

After yet another unsuccessful semester at my small liberal arts college, I've come to realize that I need to do better. In high school, I was able to coast on my intelligence without really mastering the skills my peers seem to posses: time management, good study habits, etc. Now, in my second year of college, I find myself severely underprepared to handle the increased workload. I backload work and then panic as the deadline approaches. As a result, papers are turned in late, exams are flunked, etc. Additionally, I don't even feel like I know how to be college student, if that makes sense. For example, it didn't occur to me until literally yesterday that I should start going to office hours. Another example: I was shocked when a dean told me that because being a full time student was like having a full-time job, I should expect to spend 40 hours per week on schoolwork outside of the classroom. I estimate that I spent maybe 10 hours per week doing work. As you can see, I need to make some big changes. I've received some good advice so far:

*Never skip class
*40 hours is how much I should expect to spend on work every week
*the Pomodoro technique is a good way to approach tasks that seems insurmountable
*Studying in groups is a good way to sustain motivation

So, Mefis, what advice, tricks, and tips would you give to a clueless undergraduate student? Don't take for granted that I know anything about being a good student (because I really don't)!
posted by el chupa nibre to Education (41 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
An addendum to never skip class is be in class ON TIME.

Some more advice:

Participate in class - ask questions, answer the teachers questions (to the best of your ability), interact with your peers.

Do your reading assignments (seems like a no-brainer but it needs reiteration)

Eat healthy and sleep enough. You'll need the energy between the partying and the studying.

Make friends with people who are good students. They'll keep you motivated.
posted by p1nkdaisy at 8:11 AM on January 5, 2011

Try and spend a moment every day being thankful for the opportunity to learn.

This worked for me at college, and still now in my work and other ambitions. When something seems like a chore, remember how lucky you are to have the opportunity to choose to do it, and it helps motivate you to give it your all.

Good luck!
posted by greenish at 8:14 AM on January 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Like you, I coasted through high school. Developing good study habits is not difficult, you just need to stay on top of it.
My suggestions are as followed:
1.) Get a calendar setup with all dates for assignments, readings, papers and any other due dates. This makes it easy to put things in perspective in terms of available time and prioritizing tasks. I worked full time while enrolled in uni full time (16 credit hours).
2.) Take good notes. After class, retype your notes as it helps solidify what you just learned and it has the added bonus of making your notes searchable. I can't recommend One Note by Microsoft enough.
3.) Expect to spend 40 hours studying. I took night classes and the occassional Saturday course. I would get out of class aroud 9pm and study at least until midnight 1 am. I also spent every Saturday and Sunday at least 8 hours or more.
4.) Make time for yourself to have some social life. My friends were night owls so I would see them occassionally after studying some nights, but sometimes Friday nights were dedicated to more studying after work.
5.) Stay on top of your work and ask questions to your professor if you become stumped on a research paper or assignment.

Good luck! You can do it, you just need to focus and dedicate yourself to the work.
posted by handbanana at 8:17 AM on January 5, 2011

Something that's really helped me is going to the library to do my reading and written assignments. I bring only what I need in - when reading, that's books and pen and peber, if I have to write a paper or presentation, I use SelfControl to make sure I don't spend my time goofing off (set to 30 or 45 min. intervals, à la the "Pomodoro" method).

This way, there are no distractions, it's quiet, and it's very inspiring to see all of the other students studying. And then when I'm home I don't constantly have to feel guilty that I'm not studying.
posted by coraline at 8:18 AM on January 5, 2011

Keep a planner. And don't just put your schoolwork due dates in there--schedule time for each component of getting your schoolwork done. So say, if you have a paper due next month, put the due date in your planner, but also schedule dates by which you need to have your outline done, your rough draft done, your final draft, etc. If your university has a Writing Center, schedule multiple appointments per assignment to keep yourself on track and refine your work.

If you need to finish the first 100 pages of a book by a Friday, split those 100 pages into chunks and schedule time throughout the week to read them--by Tuesday have 30 pages read, by Thursday, have 75 pages read, and by Friday, finish all 100 pages (and maybe read a bit ahead if you can, to give yourself a cushion).

Take advantage of your university's resources. I mentioned the Writing Center, but I'm sure there are other free resources at your disposal as well. My school also had free math and science tutoring. We also had a Learning Center, which cost extra, but they worked with students who had extra trouble with their schoolwork, and especially with things like time management. It may be worth the extra cost, if it means you'll pass your classes.
posted by litnerd at 8:18 AM on January 5, 2011

Do the reading before class, then do it again after class. If you are in the type of class where there are sample problems, do them all. Take notes, then retype your notes.
posted by jeather at 8:19 AM on January 5, 2011

i wouldn't say 40 hrs, but i'd say 1-2 hrs per credit hour, so a 3 credit class needs probably 3-6 hrs of study time a week... but that really depends on the course and the material...

my advice is make sure you have good sleeping habits, it's amazing how sleep can effect your every day life... not saying you have to go to bed early, my college schedule was bedtime at 1am, wake at 9ish...

actually read the text books, i'm a college professor now and often give questions out of the book (that are answered in the book) and am amazed how many students don't read what is assigned to them.

Look at your class schedule and plan your meals accordingly... in undergrad, i had a 630-915 class in the evening... well, if i ate right before class, i'd often have a hard time staying awake in that class... so i ate earlier, and then gave my body some rest before class to stay awake...

find out from students who have had certain professors before,and find out how they test, teach, etc... use that to your advantage when studying...
posted by fozzie33 at 8:24 AM on January 5, 2011

A couple of things from this adjunct, having watched my crowd of students this past semester:

1) Don't skip class. Reading the text is not going to make up for attending class, in most cases.

2) Ask questions, preferably in class! Make damned good and sure you understand the material. Chances are, your classmates might be in the dark too, and will appreciate someone putting their hand up in class and asking for clarification. If you're too shy to do that, go to office hours.

3) Plan out essays and projects well in advance, and hit the library sooner rather than later. I used to photocopy or scan the relevant passages from the books I needed. Believe me, it's better than realizing at 10 pm on the night before something is due that you don't have the book you need!

4) Do your homework! Read the assigned chapters, or (as it was in my class) listen to the music tracks assigned. There are some things you just can't cram for.

5) Learn to take effective notes. Profs organize their lectures same as if you were writing an essay, with main point and supporting details. Learn to recognize the main points when the prof is speaking, and mark those with a "main point" bullet or something. All supporting commentary goes down in "sub-bullet" form, whether indented from the main point or whatever. This makes sorting out your studying at the end of the course WAY easier, because you can focus on the broad themes, and understand how the details fit in to that big picture.

6) Resist the temptation to talk or even think about the course in terms of "this is boring". That will just make you tune out psychologically. Think instead in terms of "what am I getting for my money, here?" This will make you more engaged, because suddenly it's something with a direct impact on you! If you realize the course really isn't doing it for you, time to either speak to the prof about ways to maximize your benefit from the course, or switch courses.
posted by LN at 8:24 AM on January 5, 2011

IAAP, although IA(probably)NYP.

1. Do the reading and bring the books to class. You want to note what the instructor emphasizes in the reading.
2. When you get a paper assignment, start working on it immediately (or as close to immediately as you can). You want to schedule yourself enough time to write the paper, let it sit for a bit, and then come back to revise. If possible, find a friend who can provide a second opinion.
3. When I was studying for finals and, later, my doctoral exams, I drew up hour-by-hour calendars and stuck to them. I usually started studying for my finals about two weeks before the exam (typing up and rereading notes, rereading assignments, etc.).
4. If you find surfing the net to be a dangerous temptation during class, then don't use a laptop to take notes.
5. Definitely come to office hours when you've got questions.
6. If you have questions, do not wait until the last second to ask them.
7. A clue: if the instructor starts numbering and/or writing things on the board, you're being cued to take notes :)
posted by thomas j wise at 8:30 AM on January 5, 2011

Take good notes; this was crucial for me. My notes were all in outline form, which was well-suited for most lectures.

The trick is not to write everything the professor says, just sum up. Like with any good outline, use indentation to make it easier to read and organize your thoughts later when you're studying.

I drew a star in the margin next to anything that seemed especially important, or if the professor specifically said it would be on the test. If the professor used humor to explain a concept, I summarized the joke in my notes, because humor is a great way to help remember stuff.

Don't get hung up on details. A big-picture understanding of basic concepts is usually more important than nitty-gritty explanations of systems you don't have a handle on the basic gist of.

If you encounter a vocab term or a word that's new to you, define it right there in your notes. Just do it on one line, no need to fill up the page with wasted words. These definitions tended to be pretty important in my classes, so I underlined them with a black pen so my eyes would be drawn to them at study time. If you're in a history/humanities class, this also works with years and titles of works of art.

I wrote my notes by hand on lined paper. Nowadays lots of students use laptops but I'd probably recommend the old-fashioned way still. The slowness of handwriting makes you more deliberate about what you write down. You may find your notes will be more succinct, which makes studying much, much easier. Keep it simple and brief, and don't fall into the trap of thinking more notes are better.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:30 AM on January 5, 2011

I dont think "going to class" can be emphasized enough. Additionally I would add paying attention in class and taking some sort of notes in class.
The fact of the matter is that the professor is going to cover everything you need to know in class, so there wont be any surprises. Also more times than not they give you tips or a heads up to what will be on the exam or even what would be a good idea for a paper. And you have the weekly reminder to study for that test or get started on that exam. You can even count that class time toward your 40 hours. Dont forget to make s notes on what you dont understand and drop by office hours to ask. I didnt utilize office hours until my senior year (seriously) and it makes a big difference. You can get to know the professor and get some of the more complicated material cleared up.
Other than that i think it was good advice to get a planner and also dont procrastinate. Get started on that paper the day its assigned ...even if its just spening 15 minutes to think about it and brainstorm some ideas.
Good Luck...
posted by Busmick at 8:30 AM on January 5, 2011

One major thing that I see a lot of students completely overlook is professors' office hours. Every professor has a few hours per week when they're available for one-on-one help, and if those times won't fit your schedule, they'll almost always work with you to set up a special appointment. Do this! The professor knows the material better than any of your fellow students or even the TA, and most of them are happy to help.

I had a professor this past semester who graded essays really harshly--he would mark off points if you didn't include the points he thought you should have included, while completely ignoring the merits of the points you did make. For the next paper we wrote, I went to his office and talked to him about it and we ended up having a sort of discussion about my topic. Afterward I had a pretty good idea about what aspects he considered to be important, and that led to my paper being "good" in his eyes (I still think that's kind of a crappy way to grade essays, but I digress).

It also has the (huge) benefit of showing the professor that you care about the class and doing well. Another one of my professors last semester had vaguely mentioned extra credit opportunities during one of my prior visits, so near the end of the semester I asked him for an extra credit assignment. He was happy to give me one and I ended up getting an A in there, when I should have had no possibility of it considering my grades.

I can't believe I just wrote that much about something so simple, but it's important. Really, seek help from your professors.
posted by DMan at 8:33 AM on January 5, 2011

Call your university's counseling center and see if they have support groups, coaching and what-not for study skills. You're presumably paying a metric crap-ton of money to go to a private college where you get individual attention and support. This is a good time to get some value for your money!
posted by craichead at 8:35 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I forgot to add one more thing about good note-taking... rephrase as much as you can. Don't just write the same sentences the professor spoke. If you force yourself to interpret everything into your own words before writing it, you'll train your mind to focus on the concepts instead of just the words. Especially important with definitions; it's easy to hear a professor's definition or read it in the textbook, but until you can define a word in your own terms you won't really understand what it means.

If you hit a mental block while trying to rephrase something for your notes, that's your cue to raise your hand and ask for clarification. You need to make sure you "get" it when taking notes during lecture, or it's going to become a lot harder to "get" it later.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:36 AM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

In addition to what's already been said. . .

Talk to the professor. Visit them during their office hours. They are not working against you; unless it's a bizarre situation, the professor wants you to do well, and wants you to learn. It's not you vs. them, and with maybe one exception, I feel like every professor I've visited has at least tried to make sometime easier for me to understand, or provided more context. There have even been occasions where I didn't have a question about the material per se, but just wanted more information about something, and the professors have been very helpful.

Similarly, meeting with professors at the beginning of the semester if you don't understand course expectations, or how they grade, has been instrumental for me. I know that sounds very "Will this be on the test?!" but something like, "Why is this one paper weighted so heavily compared to the others? Seriously? The midterm is only 10% of the final grade? What format will the tests be? What information is most important from this chapter?" can help orient you to the professor's take on the material, and how best to prepare for exams, papers, etc.

Get to know your class syllabus really well. Make copies. Transfer the information to a planner or online system. Make sure you're aware of changes. Look over it weekly, minimum. I've had professors not announce in class something on the syllabus, and "I didn't know" isn't a great excuse.

As a non-traditional (that is, old) undergrad, I think one of the biggest differences between me and the 21 year olds in my class is that I really, really appreciate this opportunity. Not that you don't, but to me, this experience was not a given, and I'm working very hard for it. I've made sacrifices in my personal and professional life to go to school. I feel very lucky to be a student, and that motivates me to work hard.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 8:38 AM on January 5, 2011

Take a look at Study Hacks, it has some incredible tips and is aimed at people exactly like you. I show it to all my students and the feedback I receive is overwhelmingly positive.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 8:39 AM on January 5, 2011

The rule is actually an hour or two for every hour in class. Obviously that's adjusted as needed, I took volleyball and didn't have to do anything outside of class for that. I say that because you shouldn't stress yourself out about not spending enough time just because of some arbitrary number.

Start working on things early. Professors are much more likely to help if you ask questions early rather than a day or two before something is due. Part of that is because they know you're working early and aren't just trying to luck into a good grade at the end, part of it is because most other people will be asking at the end.

Is there a time when you're not in class and your friends are? I did a lot of my paper writing early in the morning because I was awake and other people weren't. I got things done without cutting into social time.

Have a good relationship with your professors. I got extra credit points once when I shouldn't have because the professor liked me and even though I brought the postcard to class instead of mailing it like the extra assignment was for she decided that was good enough.

Participate in class, don't just be there. I got to do an assignment over once because the level of work on the assignment showed that I didn't really understand the material at all but my participation in class showed that I understood it very well. That wouldn't have happened if I was just in class.

Write the papers well, even if they're slightly off topic. I got a C once on what should have been an F paper because I missed the topic (I went broad and the professor wanted specific). A paper that wasn't as good would have just gotten the F. Bit obviously being on topic and having a well written paper is the way to go.

Take notes in a way that makes sense to you. I used a system that involved 2 or 3 different colors of pens. Black would be for super relevant stuff where there was no doubt that it needed to be there. Blue was for slightly relevant or clarifying stuff, and red was for stupid things that I thought of while I was writing that was tangently related. They all helped, and if I needed to cram before the test I could ignore certain colors.

Despite what people will tell you, and I know I'm going to get ripped a new one for this, sometimes due dates need to be a suggestion instead of a deadline. Things happen, and hopefully you have the penalty for turning things in late already. If you have the choice to turn in a paper on time or one that will be a better grade even after the penalty late, it might be worth it to turn in the paper late.

Take classes with good professors. I skipped a few classes on topic in my major I would have loved if anyone else had been teaching it. I also took a few classes I normally wouldn't have because of who was teaching it. Both worked out really well.

Finally, use a planner that you'll actually check. Every year I'd buy one and it would work for a month or two, then I'd stop. Sometimes it was discouragement after having to scratch things out, sometimes I just forgot to write stuff in. I finally started using Sandy (which is no dead) because it would send emails reminding me about when things were due. Find a system that works for you and stick with it.
posted by theichibun at 8:39 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

- Do the readings for the class before the lecture on that subject so that you'll have more context to understand it and will be able to discuss it. If the professor publishes his/her slides before the class, download them and at least scan them beforehand.

- Talk. Make a vow to say something during each class period (if discussion is allowed). The professor/instructor should know who you are by the end of the semester. Don't sit in the back, don't read your laptop or text during class. Don't stress about asking a dumb question, you're there to learn, not be cool. If you don't understand something, go to the prof's office hours or find the TA. That's what they're there for. But make sure that you're prepared and have actually done the readings and tried to do the work before asking for help.

- Organize, organize, organize. Keep separate notebooks or sections of notebooks for each class. Similarly make separate folders both in the documents folder on your computer and in your email. You should always know where to find any specific artifact from a class.

- Use a calendar and put everything in it at the beginning of the semester. Due dates. Exam dates. Drop/Add dates. Everything

- Peers. Study with people from class. This forces you to study and helps you pick up stuff that you missed in class but other people caught. Especially if it's a cognitively challenging class like calculus, you can work through problems as a group.

- Sleep. If you're doing all-nighters, then you're doing it wrong. A good night's sleep before a tests will help you better than any frenzied last minute cramming.
posted by octothorpe at 8:40 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

First of all, that you are even asking this question shows that you will improve and succeed. So good for you there. I also "coasted on my intelligence," and though my grades in college did not suffer and I managed to graduate with honors, I can in no way claim to have been "the best college student I could be."

You don't say what your major or field is, but one of my regrets is staying narrowly focused within mine (History and Literature) when there was so much other stuff going on around me. I basically dismissed three-quarters--or more--of the course offerings, preferring to stay in my familiar/comfort zones. I know now, twenty-five plus years after graduation that I was much more suited to say, linguistics, classics, folk&myth as it was known at my school than what I was doing, but no one advised me to branch out. Also I began at seventeen, which I know think a pretty preposterous age for making any decisions that automatically close doors behind you.

So my advice would be:

Listen to and seek out your advisers (I thought I knew everything and didn't deign to consult them and was probably kind of rude at any mandatory consultation session. I'm sorry.)

Office Hours--YES! And I am not an all-caps person, whatever that may be. Cultivate as many out of class conversations/ongoing dialogues with professors who inspire you. It doesn't make you a toady, not at all. Don't be shy about it. It may not seem like it, but to these career academics such motivation and interest on the part of undergraduates is among the most rewarding experiences they have. (Remember--you are taking their class for the first time, but more likely than not they have delivered all those lectures before, in one form or another.

Play a sport, either collegiate or intramural or whatever. Exercise helps in more ways than one. Also you will meet students in very different majors.

Make sure your "40 hours" do not preclude your taking advantage of all the cultural stuff that goes on. Yeah, I know things are really different now for you yunguns and you can watch whatever you want whenever you want to, but it is my understanding that colleges still screen movies regularly, the student musicians perform this and that, there might even be plays for crying out loud! Pick something, decide to go, and use it as a deadline to get something or other done. It will work.

Write to your parents, if you are on good terms with them. Keep them apprised of what you are doing, what engages you. Writing to them (or siblings, or friends from home) will both help you focus on what you are doing and why and, probably more importantly, make the recipient(s) happy.

Best of luck and good wishes.

P.S. Think seriously about taking time abroad if it is available and appropriate for your studies. Most students, especially those of us who rush to college straight out of high school, are more than ready for a break by Junior Year. I spent the first semester of my Senior year away and it was just a little late, but it was still a good thing to do. Start exploring those options now.
posted by emhutchinson at 8:46 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was pretty much in the same boat as you in my first few semesters of college. What really caused me to snap out of it was a change in mindset.

In high school, since I was living with my parents and had close supervision from teachers, it felt like there would be consequences if I slacked off too much (so I slacked off just enough). In college, there were no more consequences. The rules seemed arbitrary and had no teeth. The first semester in my sophomore year, I had one class that by rights I should have failed (I did not even know what building the class met in for half the semester) where I got a B (probably due to a professor's mistake), and another that I thought I should have aced (I had the highest score on the final out of ~1000 students) where I got a D (because I had missed a lot of "study sessions" that I found out belatedly weren't optional, plus a fudge factor). That was my wake-up call.

So I decided to treat college as a game. I decided to play by their rules and see if I could win.

I went from a 1.9 to a 3.5 the next semester.

The only implementation-level advice I can offer is sit in the front row in class. For some reason, this worked for me.
posted by adamrice at 9:11 AM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Lots of good advice here. (IAAP)

A few things I'll reiterate/emphasize:
- Go to every single class, sit in the front, and stay engaged. There's a very clear correlation in my classes between students who sit in the back and those who do poorly.

- Yes yes yes to office hours.

- Writing is rewriting. It takes people an amazingly long time to figure this out. No matter how smart you are, your first draft of a paper can use a lot of work; you just don't get everything organized properly the first time through. For a big (end of semester) paper, plan on doing a couple of rewrites, which means leaving yourself time to do the draft and think on it for a while.

- The planner is key. Treat school like a job - schedule yourself specific times to work on assignments, and goals/deliverables for those times (I'll read X pages, or complete this lab report, or whatever)

- A little studying secret I share with my students: when prepping for exams, try to reverse-engineer the test. In other words, what's the purpose of an exam? It's (usually) not to trick you or to be evil, but to find out whether you learned the material the instructor thought was important. So, what did he/she think was important? I bet they talked about it a lot, and had you read about it. List these topics. How would they evaluate this? It'll have to be in a format that makes for relatively easy grading. Now that you've figured out all of this, try to write the test you would give if you were the instructor. If you've been keeping up with the class, you'll probably be pretty close on 2/3 of the exam. Taking that test will give you a lot of preparation for the real one.
posted by chbrooks at 9:29 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Recopying my notes immediately after class was the key for me. I initially started doing it because I wanted them to look neat and tidy, but that often ended up being the only studying I needed to do for a lot of my classes. And I agree that longhand is the way to go for note-taking.
posted by something something at 9:39 AM on January 5, 2011

I was, and probably still am by many people's definitions, a horrible student. Not to say I don't get good grades, but I certainly don't spend huge amounts of time outside class working, do all the reading (unless it's a literature class, because, duh), sit in front, or have study groups. I only go to office hours when I want to chat with the professor or when I'm having serious trouble with the concepts. But things that I resisted for years that I believe to have helped my student-ness immensely are:

1) Get enough sleep. Seriously. So many other things stem from sleeping too late.
2) Keep track of all assignments, due dates, tests, and have it all on a calendar (I just have a separate calendar on my Google calendar - paper doesn't really work for me).
3) Know how much everything's worth, but don't use that as an excuse not to do low credit assignments unless there is a serious time conflict with a different, higher credit assignment.
4) Go to class. If you suck at going to class, take classes with friends, online classes, or classes at a time/place of the day where you will definitely be awake and out and feel stupid not going. I cannot emphasize enough how much this helps. In fact, once I learned to consistently go to class and take rudimentary notes, that's probably how I stopped treading water in college. Reading the book by yourself is only about 33% of the value. In fact, just living with a roommate that knows when you're supposed to be in class is usually enough shame to motivate me a little.
5) If you can, have some sort of "work space" that is just for doing your homework. I do nothing else at my desk except for schoolwork. If I want to dick around on the internet or whatever, I go to the couch, so the desk space is not tainted by memories of non-working. This puts me in the mindset to work every time I sit down there.
6) Do any extra credit you can.

Another thing that works for me that may not work for everyone is breaking down tasks and assigning estimated time values to their components. For example, I recently had a 9000 word paper due, so I broke it down into an outline, then chunks of 300 words. I then estimated how many hours it would take to do a rough draft at 300 words an hour (slower than I actually write). Then I schedule all of those hours into the days available. That way, if I get behind, I know I need to either reschedule my whole week (if I'm really behind) or put in a little extra time one day (if I'm a little behind). If I get ahead, I give myself the option of continuing through the scheduled work time and getting either further ahead, or taking a break and watching tv or something. The main benefit of this is that I don't worry about large assignments when I'm not working on them, because I know that they have been properly scheduled and will be taken care of. Otherwise, I would fret about a huge assignment, save it until the last day, then have no idea where to start. Plus, all that time leading up to it was ruined because I was worrying about the thing I hadn't even started yet, so I couldn't even savor slacking off.
posted by wending my way at 9:40 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go to class, and participate (don't just sit in the back checking Facebook). Class can be great facetime with instructors and professors - you might need them later for recommendations, advice, and help, and it'll be easier if they remember interacting with you.

Seconding what everyone said about using a planner and sticking to it. Don't just write the deadlines and due dates; also write reminder notes AHEAD of time, like "paper due next Friday" and "registration starts on Monday." You don't want to find out from your planner that something is due today! Look at your planner on Sunday to plan out the week ahead of you.

Schedule in your social life. Make sure you get away from the desk and out with other people. If this is really hard for you to justify ("I have so much to do - I can't waste time hanging out watching TV"), then rationalize it internally by thinking of it as networking. The friends you make may be the ones to hook you up with opportunities later.

Get sleep! Don't listen to any of that "you can sleep when you're dead" bullshit. The caffeine culture of who can stay up latest, look at me I'm drinking x-treme energy drinks, etc. is posing bullshit.
posted by cadge at 9:40 AM on January 5, 2011

Go to class. Go to class. Go to class. Stay awake and say something and form a study group and be early, yes, but GO TO CLASS.

The second you realize you are going to do something the professor won't like (such as be late to class,) email them immediately. My sister only got to stay in a class at all once because of this rule (she got lost on the way to school and would have been dropped, but because she emailed right then, the prof let her do a make-up.)

Treat every instructor like you want a letter of recommendation to Harvard out of them. Make a point of going to faculty/student coffee sessions, know where your department chair's office is. For upper-level classes, use some of your spare time to read your professor's latest academic journal entries.

Have something to talk about at office hours. You can introduce yourself the first time - after that, it's "why did Napoleon think the could invade Russia?" or "if the CIA is so powerful, why can't they kill Castro" or "do you have any recommendations for getting extra practice simplifying radicals?" Or whatever.

Join a club now and keep going for the next three years. Volunteer with someone in the community. Don't do your homework at work.

Take responsibility for mastering the material. If the textbook confuses you, get a different book and do more work. Watch YouTube videos that explain things differently.

Read your assigned books like Sherlock Holmes, not one of the ditzy girls you aren't supposed to like in Jane Austen's novels. What are you supposed to be learning from this? Why should you care? Can you explain it to someone else without the book in front of you?

If anything is interfering with your ability to get stuff done, see a doctor, say "we'll have to do this after finals," quit the job, whatever. School comes first.

Also: relax. You're still smart. Failing classes really stinks and (for me, at least) makes you feel like a moron. Your problems are probably mostly in the "consistency" area, not "ability."

And whatever you do: GO TO CLASS.
posted by SMPA at 9:48 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

FacultyFilter: Pay extra attention in the first few minutes of class and the last few minutes.

Sometimes toward the end of a lecture, I realized I've missed covering a point that I know will be on the exam. I can try to cram it into that last few minutes or cover it immediately at the start of the next lecture. Either way, those first and last minutes contain some gems. Don't get there late or start zipping your knapsack 5 minutes before the lecture ends.

I had heard this as a student, but didn't really appreciate it until I taught. First 5 and last 5 minutes are golden.
posted by 26.2 at 9:59 AM on January 5, 2011

Yes, sit at the front. You will not be able to goof off on internet stuff, and you will not be distracted by people in front of you goofing off either.
posted by carter at 10:06 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

What's working for me right now, after totally fucking up the first time I tried college:

- Showing up to class. Every class. No matter what (I missed one class last semester for illness. I missed one class the semester before that).
- I don't know about 40 hours, but yeah, a lot of time studying. In math and engineering classes, this means doing it, checking your answers, doing it again, checking your answers, and doing it again.
- Living in my professors' offices. I bugged the shit out of my professors during their office hours until I'm sure that I thoroughly understand the concept I came to talk to them about. I'd bring them tests or homework assignments and work problems for them on their whiteboards, and ask them to stop me when I made a wrong turn.
- Effective note taking. I don't really write "notes" anymore. I open up my laptop and make flash cards every time a professor says a fact. I've gotten good at listening to a lecture and guessing what could be a possible test question. I make flash cards in Anki (free! cross platform!), and that syncs wirelessly to my iPhone, where the Anki app ($25 and completely worth it) lets me study anytime I have a few minutes to a few hours of downtime.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:10 AM on January 5, 2011

Seconding Study Hacks and Cal Newport in general. If I'd only found his work earlier.

I'm really of two minds about your dean's comment (the 40h/wk thing). Hours/week goals are great for things like running where the barrier is just your mind saying "ugh, I hate running" and once you get started, you're fine. You already know how to put one leg in front of the other; it's just getting over the initial resistance that's difficult. And it's true that if you can really make yourself do it, yeah, spending 40h/wk on classwork would almost certainly get your grades above where they are now at 10h/wk.

But I worry that this kind of goal doesn't really get at the heart of the matter. Studying isn't exactly like running: it encompasses a huge array of activities. The temptation with a time-based kind of goal, then, is to meet it by doing lots of low-intensity work, like passively re-reading your notes for 8 hours a night. This is only barely better than not studying, and is also boring and time consuming. Far better would be to treat studying like interval training: just an hour or so of intense work, like writing down questions and quizzing yourself, or solving extra problems on a problem set, followed by 10 minutes of vegetating (or whatever reward you want). Repeat a few times and you're done for the day -- a big win over spending twice as long to get almost nothing done.

This has a lot in common with the Unschedule method Neil Fiore puts forth in another favorite, The Now Habit, which I recommend you check out from the library (or get a used copy of) if you haven't seen it yet. It works like this: schedule only appointments, classes, exercise, and fun things, not work. Instead, fill in "work" periods on your calendar after you've completed them. To get credit for a work period, it has to be at least 30 minutes worth of uninterrupted work, not punctuated by e-mail or coffee breaks or whatever. Don't set yourself any other goals for how much uninterrupted work you should get done per week: even for most people who work full-time, the amount of uninterrupted, focused work completed will almost certainly be way less than 40h/wk.

Basically I think the problem with the "just work harder" idea is twofold. First, it presumes you already know how to do the right kind of work, which, if you're like I was in college, you might not. Second, to be pushed around breeds resistance, even if you're also the one doing the pushing. Thinking to yourself that you're lazy and need to be bossed around bifurcates you into a resentful serf and an angry feudal landlord, a great recipe for internal conflict. You can do better by being not a taskmaster but a caretaker, making sure that your (totally legitimate) needs for human interaction and play don't get left behind. Fiore has a lot of great stuff to say about this in other parts of The Now Habit.

(Also, yeah, sleep and eat enough for sure!)
posted by en forme de poire at 10:18 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm an adult (ha!) in law school part time with a full time job that takes up a serious amount of time and energy. But I do ALL the reading. And study. HARD. Because it's really HARD. I'm mentioning this because I look back on my undergrad career [which I did fine at-mostly As, a smattering of Bs] and wonder how incredibly awesome I could/would have been if I'd had this work ethic then. I wrote kickass, well-researched papers and exams, and always went to class, but rarely did the reading unless I "knew" [how did I know? I don't know. Yeah.] it was necessary. As in-my parents paid for books I almost never cracked open.
Uh, I PAY for law school [OK, work pays for much of it, but nonetheless]. So I'm taking what I paid for, thanks.
There are a lot of hours in your day. And plenty of them SHOULD be for fun things.
But going to class, taking good notes, doing the reading-these things are baseline. They also make the fun stuff considerably more fun. Because it feels awesome to be kickass.
So, things I do now:
-Flashcards-I write them out. Got me a blister to show for it!
-Outlining-this is the kind of thing they teach you in law school, but if you're in the humanities, I think it would have really assisted me then in a lot of classes.
-DO the reading before class and skim it afterward. Take notes on the reading if you think it's important. Take those notes in the same place as your class notes.
-Reread/retype/rewrite your notes before finals.
-Make your notes/outline/study materials pretty. That sounds stupid, but the more aesthetically pleasing they are to look at, the more you'll be willing to look at them. Favorite pen, highlighter color, font or whatever. Use 'em.
-Studies on studying [ha!] show that you should study the same material in DIFFERENT places-so try mixing up your study locations.
posted by atomicstone at 10:29 AM on January 5, 2011

Lots of good advice here. You are definitely not alone about not realizing you should be going to office hours. I was a TA for 5 years and taught my own course 1 year, and I almost never had anyone show up to office hours unless it was right before or right after a test.

Things that have helped me/my students:
1. reading the material that will be covered in class BEFORE class, so that you know what you found confusing and so you can better focus on learning what the teacher wants you to know about the material instead of being overwhelmed by hearing everything for the first time
2. If the professor uses slides/powerpoint, resist the temptation to copy each slide word for word. I see students doing it all the time and they are so concerned about writing down the words that they don't hear anything I am saying and they don't even understand what they are writing so they are left with notes that make no sense later. It's much better to listen, get a gist, and make notes on that, and go back to the professor/TA during office hours to ask questions if you didn't get enough information from your notes
3. If you have a paper, take time to write up a decent draft beforehand and have the TA or professor go over it with you before it is due. Besides moving up your deadlines and creating less papers, you get notes on how to improve before it affects your grades, and honestly, even though I know I shouldn't, I tended to grade people who came to see me a bit easier, if I see they tried to take my comments into account, because I know they are trying to improve and I think that's worth something.
4. Go over your tests after they are graded (even if you have to schedule a time with the professor to do it). Even if the class isn't cumulative. This allows you to see what types of mistakes you were making, whether you just really didn't know the material, or whether you were just psyching yourself out of the right answer, whether you weren't studying enough detail, or too much, etc. Almost no one does this, but it's amazingly helpful.
5. If you have a problem where you need to ask for an extension, make sure you do it before things are due, and make sure you ask politely. Do not go in and say (as has been said to me at the end of many a semester), "But I NEED to get an A in this class, what are you going to do to fix this." Every professor/TA would rather you ask permission than beg forgiveness.
6. The best way to learn something is to have to teach it. Get a study group together and teach each other the material. Have others in the group act like they don't get it (if everyone does) and ask "stupid" questions, so that you get used to having to think about what you learned in different ways and can't just regurgitate what you read.
7. Ask questions in class. Even if you think they are stupid and that everyone else is understanding it but you. Trust me, they aren't. Also, try to answer the professor/TA's questions, even if you aren't sure you are right, sometimes they can see how you got to your answer, and help redirect your thinking if you are wrong.
posted by katers890 at 10:30 AM on January 5, 2011

One more thing:

- Backup everything at least every week, hopefully every day. Back it up to google docs or shared university space or a separate hard drive but do it and often. Don't be that guy/girl who's laptop gets stolen from the library and loses two months of work. Professors generally have little sympathy for such tragedies.
posted by octothorpe at 10:41 AM on January 5, 2011

If you need Bs, you might need to study 3 hours per class hour in a difficult subject; for an A, it's more. Every semester is a campaign to get the right schedule, not just for convenience but for the right mix of difficult and easy each semester (you don't want 15 hours of your hardest courses in a single semester). You plan for the right teachers and to get in all the required and desired courses during your four years. Right teachers=by reputation and qualification best in their field, or best for you. Inexperienced new instructors can be great or they can sink you. They're unpredictable. Experienced profs have a reputation. Check it out.

Write down verbatim the first five minutes of prof's remarks and the last things said because this is when you're told what's expected of you (they start with what they think is important to tell you that day and they reiterate or tack on what they forgot as they're leaving). You probably have BlackBoard and and other kinds of aids, but take your own notes. (You don't have to be as ridiculous as I was; I kept each class in a separate bound blank book and I took lots of notes as well as using that book for study notes, translations, illustrations, etc. I still have that set of course note books. There are some awesome doodles in there.)

Go to every lecture, class meeting, study group, lab and outside assignment without fail. Sit up front, hang on every word, make eye contact with the teacher, smile when you get one of their obscure, wry jokes. Participate that way even if you don't ask questions.

The day a paper is assigned, start making notes and outlining for it; if they are all listed on the syllabus, set your schedule of writing time from day one. Make sure you are absolutely current with all reading and writing at the one-quarter mark in the semester; then keep up. If you postpone anything, you'll get behind and even if you catch up, your GPA will suffer.

Seconding chbrooks advice to "reverse-engineer" the tests. Also, after you see what kind of tests and feedback you get, you can plan helpful things like a couple of well written sentences on topic X which will drop into your midterm or final and cover an important point. When you know something is going to be on the exam, take this step beyond knowing the answer and it will save you crucial time. It also helps when you look at exam questions and suddenly go blank.

The night before a big exam, don't study; get a little physical exercise, eat properly and sleep enough. Take a snack to long exams if you know you will get tired and need the calories.

Be sure you know what to do if a course blows up in your face. Know the rules and exceptions: drop dates, all the options for incomplete, special circumstances, check out the escape hatches.

Use the library and the librarians; if you haven't yet made the acquaintance of a reference librarian, do so. They know a lot about what's in the library and they'll help you with source and style manual questions and they often know a lot about the school. They are information junkies.
posted by Anitanola at 10:41 AM on January 5, 2011

I was like you, and then the reality of my loans are what made me wake up. Unfortunately, it was a little too late.

I spent 5.5 years in college instead of the usual 4 because I slacked off so much in the beginning. Now I'm severely in debt, all loans in my name, and I'm stuck paying $750 in loans, plus $300 in credit card bills a month. I'm very thankful that I landed a decent paying job as soon as I left college, otherwise I would have been screwed over. I was lucky, but many are not. I have many friends who did prestigiously at college, then graduated, and are now stuck in minimum wage jobs because no one wants to hire them.

Here's what I pay each month now:
$650 rent
$100 utilities
$750 loans
$300 credit cards
$300 auto loan (I had to buy a car when I left college so I could drive to work)
$120 auto insurance

Total per month: $2,220

I work 40 hours a week, meaning I need to make at least $14/hr to cover my bills. This doesn't include gas, food, federal/state taxes, and other miscellaneous expenses. Can you make that amount right now? Probably not. You need to make much more than minimum wage to pull off that kind of monthly bill. Even now I'm financially living month to month because I don't make enough extra money to put into savings. Too many random bills keep coming up. For example, on Christmas, I had to go to the emergency room for an unexpected medical emergency. I'm not looking forward to that bill when it comes in the mail...

Since graduation, I've learned to budget money and manage my credit wisely because, well, I've had no other choice. To this day, I wish I had been more considerate of my loans while I was in college, but what's done is done. I've learned my lesson and moved on.

Be proactive. Study hard. Get internships now to gain experience in your field, which will make you more desirable to prospective employers when you graduate. I lucked out because I had a computer science degree, which just happens to be in-demand in today's market, but you may not be as lucky. I've heard that it's much more difficult to get a job with a liberal arts degree, and if that's the case ( I don't know if it is), then you need to work much harder than your peers if you want any chance at a decent job in the post-college world. You don't want to be that person stuck in your childhood town living with your parents until they are 30, do you?

I'm not trying to scare you, I just don't want you to fool yourself into thinking that success is guaranteed at the end of your 4 years of college. It's not. Your future is whatever you make it out to be.

So, if you get anything from this, it's don't waste money if you're just going to waste your time at college. Otherwise, you might as well quit right now and move in with your parents. You'll save a lot of money.
posted by nikkorizz at 11:00 AM on January 5, 2011

There is one thing that teachers always told me to do and yet I never did until one day I did and now I'm a changed student.


This way the lecture reinforces information you already have. If you have questions about things you know to pay more attention and take more notes during those sections of the lectures.
posted by magnetsphere at 11:04 AM on January 5, 2011

I coasted through High School as well. Obviously we were required to attend class every day, but the vast majority of all my work and studying was done in class, most likely the morning it was due (unless it was a paper, then I did it the night before. Though this wasn't always the case.)

For me, college still isn't difficult in terms of how much I must work to grasp the material. However, the workload has increased and this means something important. Such an increase in workload means you can't just start the night before where I did things the morning of, nor can I start things two nights before where I used to start the night before.

The best way to truly counteract this, is just to do things immediately or equally though out the semester.

Get assigned a ten page paper? Spend the next two days cranking out those ten pages. Let it sit. Revise it. Now you're done. You wrote a good paper, and you have a set amount of time until its due. Previously, you would've started the night before, and would've cranked something poor out. If you do things immediately, it saves you from having to stress about: "When do I need to start this by in order to finish this on time?" If you just do it immediately, you won't have to stress about that question.

Have an exam? Depending on how the exam functions, just study for ten minutes to an hour every day five days a week. Again, don't stress yourself out and waste time by asking: "When do I need to start studying in order to finish this on time?" Just break it up and study it.

This workload is the biggest change you need to account for. Previously at High School, the workload was small enough you could study it the night before and be fine. At the worst, things got a little tight. Things aren't much different here, its just that there's a lot more of it. It's at the point where its no longer reasonable to ask yourself: "What is the LATEST point in time at which I can start to study and still do fine?" Because with this increase in workload, your error of estimation is going to become off by a significant portion, resulting in poorer grades and retention.
posted by SollosQ at 11:58 AM on January 5, 2011

I recently got The Craft of Research on the recommendation of, I think, another mefite, and I can't recommend it enough. It's about research papers, but contains lots of good advice about crafting any kind of academic paper and outlines exactly what steps to go through to bring your academic writing to the next level. I'm in my second year of grad school and I still learned a ton from it.
posted by LeeLanded at 12:16 PM on January 5, 2011

Take notes while you're in class. You don't have to study them - it helps you engage in the content and come up with questions to ask.
posted by jander03 at 12:32 PM on January 5, 2011

I was the same in high school. I could coast and do well, when I bothered. I nearly flunked, because I couldn't be bothered most of the time. In college, I started doing the work and earned scholarships, including a full-ride to law school. I passed the state bar the first time around, then got a job teaching other law grads how to pass the bar. Here's what I've learned along the way:

1. Re big projects: "It's hard by the yard, but it's a cinch by the inch." Break the project into smaller chunks and then focus on the chunks. Before you know it, it will come together. This is also good advice for analytical problems.

2. Keep your course syllabus. The professor made it for a reason. The reason is often related to what they are going to try to teach you which, in turn, can help you frame your notes before they're even written and also predict the content of tests.

3. Attend class; take good notes.

4. For liberal arts: learn how to outline. Your best resource for this will be either a graduate student who does it well or, preferably, a successful second or third year law student. For notes on a text (rather than literature), take the course syllabus and the table of contents. Make the relevant topics your major headings. Fill in the sub parts from your reading and from lecture notes.

5. Befriend students in your class who are really interested in the course subject. Arrange to share notes so you can get them if you miss class.

6. Take advantage of office hours to discuss anything you don't understand after re-reading notes and source material. Also discuss anything you find interesting and want to know more about, as long as your professor is willing and has time. (Pro-tip: the good ones will.)

7. Master written English. Your ability to get grades (and later, earn the big bucks) depends upon the extent to which the English language is your bitch. Pay attention to corrections on papers and assignments. Take extra classes in comp. You won't be sorry.

8. Proof read everything. Several times. If you can't spell or use punctuation, learn how. Inability makes us think you're an idiot. Harsh but true: people we think are idiots don't get an "A."

9. Don't study where you sleep. You'll sleep better. You'll study better.
posted by Hylas at 1:05 PM on January 5, 2011

What's the thing that you do instead of going to class, or doing your readings, or working on homework? When you sit down to review for exams, what do you find yourself doing instead? Give that up, or find a way to draw firm boundaries around it, and you may find yourself doing much better at your studies.
posted by yomimono at 2:08 PM on January 5, 2011

Uh, what is your major? What classes do you find more difficult?
posted by blargerz at 6:36 PM on January 5, 2011

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