R U Ready 4 College?
Available in print and for Kindle!
All this month I am going to be sharing excerpts from my newly-revised edition of R U Ready 4 College?, which shares strategies on how to be successful in college and how to cope in your new surroundings, academically-speaking. – Nicole P.
Excerpt One – Becoming an Active Learner:
Teaching yourself doesn’t mean picking up your professor’s slack. It means you’re responsible for what you take away from a class, so how much you learn is up to you. Your professors can teach you but they can’t force you to learn. Thus, the learning strategies I’m going to talk about in this chapter are all active, meaning they require participation from you:
Eliminate distractions. When class starts, stash away your phone, mp3 player, and any other electronic device that you don’t use to record lectures or take notes. Contrary to popular belief, people cannot truly multitask. You can do several things at once but your concentration will be on a single task, whichever you deem most important at the time. So if that’s texting a friend about your professor’s Texas-sized bald spot, that means you’re concentrating more on texting than listening to your professor. So remove anything that could hinder you from actively listening. This applies to your study time, too as usually any device with a glowing screen (unless you need to use a computer) is a siren’s call most Humans can’t ignore.
Keep a schedule. If you only had one class to keep track of, it wouldn’t be so bad. But as the average semester course load is four or five classes, things can get hectic in a hurry. To stay on track, keep a schedule with all of your assignments, class days and times, and related events jotted down. Place this schedule where you can see it every day. Part of being an active learner is taking responsibility for your work, and a good way to do that is to make sure you know when assignments are due so you can work on them and study accordingly. (A quick note about electronic devices – yes, you can put dates into your phone or tablet, but handwriting the information causes it to stick in your head longer. Plus it can’t be accidentally deleted. Unless zombies eat your brain.)
Connect with students and faculty. You can do this in a variety of ways. First, enroll in smaller classes as opposed to classes with enough students to fill a stadium. Granted, general education classes are purposely large to accommodate the sheer number of students who have to take them. But if you can, try to favor smaller classes. In a small class, there tends to be more personal attention from the professor and more open discussion as opposed to getting lost in a sea of people and becoming just another name on the roster. Finding smaller classes won’t always be possible, but if you can it’s a big plus.
Another way you can connect with serious learners is by joining student organizations in your field of study. Most four-year colleges and universities have organizations tailored for nearly every major. Nationally-organized groups are usually by invite only and have membership qualifications, such as credit hours in a given subject or GPA ranges. These groups consist of students who care about school and their future goals. Benefits to joining such organizations include not only common ground with fellow members but also the chance to attend workshops or listen to speakers who have valuable insights and information to share.
Another way to connect with others in your field is to find a position as a tutor, research assistant, or teaching assistant on campus. In many cases, these jobs pay and give you hands-on experience. Granted, if your life’s plate is already full, don’t overload yourself. But if you have the time, check into such opportunities.
Take notes. Taking notes is more than just giving your fingers something to do. It forces you to pay attention to what’s being shown or said. To illustrate, let’s say you viewed two different movies, one you watched and the other you took notes on while you watched. Which movie would you pay more attention to? Chances are, the movie that will stay with you will be the one you wrote about because not only were you visually engaging the movie, you were also paying attention to what was going on by writing events down.
The same rule applies to taking notes. If you just park yourself in a seat and listen to your professor, you’ll mentally latch onto some good information. But you’ll force yourself to pay attention by writing down what you hear and, hence, reinforcing what you hear with what you can read.
Note-taking strategies differ from class to class. In classes where you struggle with the material, you’ll take more notes. If the subject comes easy to you, you’ll probably take fewer notes. Also, some professors lecture in a way that allows you to take a ton of notes while others have sparse lectures.
Regardless, make sure to listen and write. Do assigned readings before class. Take whatever notes you can and fill in any details shortly after class. Reflect on your notes and ask what this information means to you. In doing so, you’re taking command of your learning, and if you do that you can rarely lose.
Studying. Keep in mind that you won’t spend equal time studying in all of your classes. If you’re strong in a subject and the material comes easy to you, you won’t have to put in too much extra time after class. But if you find yourself struggling in a class, you’ll have to devote more time and attention to it.
When I was getting my BA, I loved my Criminal Justice classes. I enjoyed these and found the material easy to grasp, so I didn’t have to spend long hours studying. Not so with my Latin classes. I struggled in those, so I had to spend a ton of time studying, reading, and perusing additional materials to help myself. So be prepared to adjust your study time to meet your needs.
When you study, pay attention to main ideas, which are the important segments or need-to-know concepts. In books, these areas are usually highlighted by headings, special fonts, or reiterated in chapter summaries. In your notes, you won’t write down every word your professor says, so you’ve essentially narrowed down the important bits yourself. These can be backed up by what you encounter in any assigned readings so you can fill in details your professor didn’t cover.
Lastly, some colleges have study groups, which are worth looking into if you learn better among others. Corporate sharing of knowledge is good provided it’s correct and relevant, and there’s accountability in a group. But some groups are just covers for chitchat sessions, so avoid study groups that don’t actually do any studying.
Overall, active studying means knowing details beyond what’s needed to pass a test or complete an assignment. Ask yourself what the material means to you and don’t say, “Nothing.” Everything has a point, but it’s up to you to figure out what it is and why it’s important.
Homework. Once again, don’t procrastinate! Work completed at the last minute is usually of poor quality. If you’ve been preparing for a test weeks before it’s given, you’re in better shape than someone who crammed the night before. That person might do well (emphasis on the word “might”) but I have my doubts.
Despite popular myth, homework is not cruel and unusual punishment. It’s meant for you to practice what you’re learning. If you can, work ahead. This might not always be possible, but if a professor gives you assignments ahead of time and you have the time to work on them, get your work done early.
Case in point: when I was in graduate school, I took a required research course where the primary assignment was a twenty-page essay. We were given this assignment in January during the second week of classes. I started on it right away and finished my essay’s draft in February. The essay wasn’t due until April, so that gave me plenty of time to polish it and tend to my other classes, too. Since the hardest part, the initial drafting, was done, I could take my time to produce a quality product.
Again, not every class will give you this luxury. But when you have it, use it. It will mean more work up front but result in less stress in the end.
Ask questions. You won’t be seen as dumb if you ask questions, provided you’re smart about it. Many times, my students would admit, after their work had been graded, that they struggled with the assignment. I always posed the same question to them: if you were confused, why didn’t you ask for clarification sooner? The answer was almost always the same: “I don’t know.” If you don’t know, then your professors don’t know and they can’t help you.
That being said, there is a good time to ask questions and a time to refrain. For example, if you have questions about your grade, don’t ask in front of the whole class. But if you have a question about an assignment’s instructions, feel free to share that aloud as there might be other students around you with the same concerns.
Likewise, avoid asking painfully obvious questions (such as “What’s our first essay about?” as soon as the professor hands out the assignment) or questions regarding matters that have already been addressed (like asking if you can use your notes for a test when your professor has already said you can’t consult notes during tests). In general, be smart in how you ask, what you ask, when you ask, and why you’re asking.
Want to read more active learning strategies (among other topics)? Then check out “R U Ready for College?”, available both in print and for Kindle!