Sometimes students see their professors as truly gifted brainiacs, and there are certainly some people like that among my faculty colleagues. Most of us, however, are nothing special. What sets us apart really just boils down to two things: interest enough in something to invest years of our lives to study it and caring enough to get things right when we know better.
When I was an undergrad I already had those qualities and I had wanted “to be a professor” since I was a little boy. Through grammar school and high school, it looked like I had the tools to do that. I managed straight-As with very little effort, and it wasn’t until Calculus that I hit something that really stumped me. I remember investing a whole four hours in study for the AP exam in Biology in 1985. It was the most I had ever studied for anything, and probably equal to the amount of time I had spent on homework and studying my entire senior year.
As you might imagine, that warped sense of what work really meant (academic work, that is – I knew what it was like to mow lawns for 8 hours a day) did not prepare me well for college. I was probably already in way over my head by the second week of classes my freshman year. I went from A-student to C-student almost overnight, culminating in placement on the academic warning list for a sub-2.0 GPA in the spring of my sophomore year. I wasn’t partying. I wasn’t drinking. I never skipped a class. I was really trying. The problem is that I didn’t yet know better.
I spent the next two years learning how to study. It took more than buckling down. The old adage applied to me that I needed to work smarter not harder, but “smarter” varies with the individual. No one can tell you what it is that will turn things around for you. I had to discover it for myself, and I suspect you will too.
For me, the thing that ultimately worked was a change in attitude. First, part of knowing better is the realization that the level of information that might have been sufficient for us in high school is not the level expected in the real world. This fact is self-evident to everyone but high school students; it’s the reason that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CEO of Intel, and your friendly neighborhood heart surgeon are not high school students.
In college, the student begins to be held responsible for a greater depth of understanding than required for high school. For just about everyone, that added depth requires a change in approach as opposed to just doing more of what worked in high school. So stand back as I’m about top drop some serious wisdom here. This is what really worked for me, and helped me dig out of my academic hole. By my final semester as a senior, I made the Dean’s List. I’m still growing and learning and in some ways still paying for those dull undergraduate years in which I was just spinning my wheels, but I made it as a professor. Me – a guy who almost flunked out! If I could get through and go on to a rewarding and challenging career then certainly you can too.
1) Studying is not something to do on the day before an exam, it’s something that needs to become part of a daily routine, if even for just 5 minutes. The reason that you can recite line after line from your favorite movie or sing along note for note to your favorite song is that you’ve seen or heard those things more than once. Think of the things you really know how to do: dive a car, throw a Frisbee, apply mascara, play the cello, bowhunt, dominate Call of Duty, etc. Now imagine someone mentioning these things to you and you trying them for yourself for the first time a few weeks later. Would you be ready to display expert knowledge and ability if tested on those things after only trying them for yourself once? That’s what it’s like to cram for an exam the day before when you haven’t been looking at your notes every day in the weeks leading up to that exam.
2) Reading is not studying. In fact, for me, reading is something that puts me to sleep. I learned that it was crucial for me to engage my mind and my hands at the same time to really cement something in my memory. Yes, there are different ways that individuals retain information, but I have not yet met the person who would derive no benefit from the following. This is the specific thing that propelled me from Academic Warning to the Dean’s List:
First, take notes. Take notes in class, take notes from your text and other readings, TAKE NOTES. I am stunned by the number of students in my classes who think they can just sit there and absorb information without taking notes. Now, I always took notes even as a lousy student so merely taking the notes doesn’t really help. What I started doing was taking notes of my notes. Here’s how that works: I might have scribbled out 2 or 3 pages in a lecture. Part of my regular routine became to then distill that chicken-scratch into one good, clear, organized page of those notes. Often I couldn’t make sense of something I had written in haste; this forced me to consult my text to fill in the gap of my understanding in something. By the time an exam was looming, usually based on 10–15 lectures, I had 10–15 pages of really great notes from which to study.
In the days leading up to an exam, I would take notes of my notes of my notes. My objective was to summarize those 10–15 pages into a single, one-page outline. In the 24 hours before an exam, I studied only from that one piece of paper. (In graduate school I even had some success paring things down to a single index card.) Again, the point here is that no one could give me that magic sheet of paper that held everything I needed to know for the exam. I had to physically make it myself, and I couldn’t do that without really understanding every word I wrote on that one sheet of paper. In other words, it took practice. You can’t expect to do well at anything with just one day of practice; the key was forcing myself to do a little bit at a time as part of my regular routine.
3) Challenge yourself to write well. The first way to do that is to place writing on equal footing with mathematics. We don’t accept mistakes when doing math. When we arrive at a wrong answer, the answer is wrong. We go out of our way to avoid those mistakes by checking our arithmetic on calculators and re-doing those calculations when we find an error. We do our darnedest to avoid mistakes in the first place, we rely on things other than our own brains to help spot mistakes, and we re-do everything to make sure we’ve got it right before we turn it in. Why on earth don’t we apply those same standards to our writing?
Simple things like incomplete sentences, lack of agreement between nouns and verbs, and (gasp!) misspellings – these are all objectively wrong. They’re no different than turning in a math assignment in which you’ve indicated that 2 + 3 = 23. So why allow such mistakes? We know they’re wrong, we can check our work before turning it in, and we have technological tools like dictionaries that can help us spell words correctly, just like that calculator that helps us determine that 2 + 3 actually = 5.
Students sometimes grouse that we want their papers to be “perfect” but that is incorrect. We want their papers to be free of mistakes, and there can still be a vast gulf between that and perfection. If you give me a mistake-free paper, however, we at least have a chance to make it actually better, instead of just fixing things that are wrong.
4) Finally, we hear all the time about how important it is to really think critically about the information we receive. We need to integrate and make connections rather than just memorize something for the next test. But how? There are ways to get yourself thinking instead of just memorizing, and here’s one I’ve hit on recently (inspired by one of my students who I think does this quite well): In your classes, readings, and other educational experiences, train yourself to keep asking this question: “So that means . . . ?” If you make a habit of this, you will deepen your knowledge by not just memorizing arcane facts, but by training to really integrate ideas. I promise that this will make you smarter and improve your success in the classroom and, ultimately, your career.
There you go: Four actual things you can try to improve your academic success, from someone who’s been there, struggling just to keep from flunking out. Now that I’m on the other side of the lecture hall, I sure wish someone had shared such things with me back then.