Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew: Study Skills

It seems so painfully obvious, doesn't it? But we all had friends who flunked out of college because they just didn't study for whatever reason: lack of study skills, inability to prioritize, choosing parties over studying, or the all-too-common "But I never had to study in high school!"

Homeschoolers often have a leg up on traditional schoolers with study skills. Hopefully, parents, you have cultivated independent work in your home, so that by the time your student is a junior, s/he is generally setting his or her own study schedule and working mostly on his or her own.

But leg up or not, all freshmen are faced with the same threat: the illusion of freedom. For the first time in many students' lives, they are presented with large blocks of unscheduled time: time to hang out with friends, take a nap, play video games.  Mom isn't there to say "do your homework" or "get off the Playstation!" It is sheer bliss—until that first paper is due.

All the faculty members in our panel discussion "What College Professors Wish Freshmen Knew  agree wholeheartedly: students must manage their time well in order to succeed in college. As Dr. O. said, "Plan your time, or the world will plan for you." At this time in a student's life, he emphasized, studying is your job, and you should put the same amount of time into your studies as one would put into a job—at least 40-50 hours/week. (Note: I can personally attest that I spent nowhere near 40 hours/week studying and did great in college, but Dr. O. graduated summa cum laude from Yale and knows better than I do!)

So how should a student study? Below are some key suggestions from our panel:
  1. Set up a big-picture schedule. Use a planner and record all the due dates for exams, papers, etc. from your syllabi.
  2. Set up a day-to-day schedule. Make a to-do list of all the tasks you need to do each day, including larger assignments that are due 8-10 weeks out. Dr. O. suggests that you plan for every half-hour that you are awake. If you don't have a plan laid out, you will lose valuable time trying to figure out what you should be doing.
  3. Prioritize. Get the biggest tasks done first. Don't put off starting a major paper that's worth half your grade to do an assignment that's only worth a few points.
  4. Plan your free time. Give yourself time to have fun, but make sure it is part of your schedule. Don't give up writing a paper so that you can hang out with friends. Make hanging out with friends a reward for finishing your to-do list.
  5. Differentiate between "homework" and "studying": Doing the assigned questions at the end of a chapter is homework; studying is spending your own time going over notes from class, reading your assignment and taking notes, making flashcards, etc. When I was in college, I took notes by hand in class and then typed them out (yes, on a typewriter) back in my room in order to help with retention.
  6. Learn how to study effectively. What works for one student doesn't work for another. Learn how you study best. Is it at the library, or in your room quietly, or with several other students? Do you study best with or without music? Hopefully, a student knows all these things before he goes to college, but if not, he should quickly ascertain his optimum studying environment.
  7. Get rest. If you don't get everything done on your list at the end of the day, don't feel discouraged. Instead, get a great night's sleep and start again the next day.
  8. Join (or start) a study group. Some of the most successful students are those that a part of a study group with other students in the class.
  9. Look for Supplemental Instruction (SI). Dr. M. highly recommends SI, which he says is available at most universities. These are peer-assisted study sessions aimed at improving student retention, targeted at courses that have a reputation for being difficult (e.g., organic chemistry). SI provides regular review sessions outside of class in which students work collaboratively by discussing readings, comparing notes, and sharing ideas for improving class material.
  10. Don't procrastinate. As much as we procrastinators hate to hear it, it's true: procrastination is painful, stressful, and, well, avoidable. Yes, we procrastinators may claim to do our best work because we wait until the last minute, but the truth is, our lives would be so much easier if we actually followed a strict to-do list. Really. Trust me. I've been there. I know what it's like to chip away daily on a major paper, taking notecards and organizing my thoughts; and I know what it's like to start a paper at 8 p.m. that is due at 8 a.m. And  my organized, well-prepared paper was always better.

Studying is a skill—it really is. Parents, help your high school student learn study skills, including notetaking skills. Here are some links with great ideas:

This is #5 in the series "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew." See also:
#1: Write Well
#2: Read the Syllabus
#3. Be Responsible
#4. How to Interact with Professors
#6. Get Involved


  1. Love the picture of Pardee.
    Also really liked the article.

    1. Well, you know, it's fake Pardee, but it serves a purpose. Thank you!

  2. We aren't homeschooling any longer, but this is so valuable to me as a mom. Thanks for taking the time to put this together! I have a middle school student and an elementary school student, but high school is knocking at our door.

  3. I know I was guilty of all these failings my freshman year. Wish I could go back and do it again!


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