Author’s note: I started this essay when my son graduated from high school. He is now a college senior. (Procrastination is a problem I need to deal with one of these days.) I publish it now so that readers may share it with the college students in their own lives. Students get a lot of advice of varying quality. This is advice from a father (who knows college and understands learning) to his own child.
You are heading off to college. I’m proud of you and all you’ve accomplished. I know you will thrive in college, but it’s going to be a major transition both academically and socially. Often people don’t realize just how profound the transition is from high school to college. You will be creating your own independent identity and making important choices for yourself for the first time. Those choices will influence the kind of college experience you will have. Sadly, some students who are capable of success in college get lost in this transition; they struggle and may even drop out. As your dad, a long-time college teacher and cognitive psychologist, I wanted to share some insights and advice to help you have a successful first year.
College isn’t just harder than high school; it is a completely different learning environment. Even students who come from rigorous high school programs face a major academic transition. College courses cover material at twice the pace of high school with only about a quarter of the class meeting time, which means you are responsible for your learning to a much greater degree than ever before. Another crucial difference is the teachers. Generally, high school teachers are trained to teach and then specialize in a subject area. College professors are experts who have spent years studying their disciplines and teach as part of their job responsibilities. Most college professors have little if any training in teaching. Good teaching may not be a priority for them, because it may not matter much in terms of their continued employment and professional advancement. Sadly, some college faculty have little interest in teaching, and a few even see it as a waste of their time. I like to think that the vast majority of college faculty take their teaching responsibilities seriously. Even so, most college faculty have far less knowledge about how to teach effectively than high school teachers. At the same time, they are likely to have much higher expectations for student learning. They are teaching subjects that they have devoted their adult lives to understanding. Their sense of what it means to “understand” a concept is likely far more sophisticated than what students expect.
Because college is a completely different learning environment, you have to create a whole new approach to learning to be successful. The strategies and study methods you used in high school may not just be obsolete; they may be counterproductive in college. Here is some advice for making the transition.
Approach each class with the right mindset for success
A lot of research shows that academic success in a course depends on the mindset you bring to the course. Your mindset is your beliefs and attitudes about the course, the topic, and the instructor. A successful mindset is when you are open to and curious about the information presented in the course. You believe that what you will learn has value to you in some way. It will correct misconceptions and gaps in your knowledge, it will be useful for success in other courses or your career, or maybe it will just make you a more interesting person. You take courses because they are required for general education or your major or because your friends are taking them. Regardless, you should find some reason why that course has value for you.
Try to be curious about each course you are in. Why is it a requirement for your program? What has this field contributed to culture and civilization? What drives the instructor to study and teach this field? Most students change their major at least once in college. They discover new fields of study that they were unaware of, or they find that their preconceptions about a field are incorrect. To find the field that best suits your interests, you need to be curious about whatever courses you are taking.
Establish good habits that will set you up for success
Good habits will save you time and effort in being a successful student. Habits are automatic, default procedures that a person follows in a specific situation, like brushing your teeth or changing lanes while driving. They are the mindless routines you typically carry out in particular situations. When you were learning to drive, I taught you the habit of a safe lane change: check mirror, signal, check blind spot, change lanes. I wanted you to follow this habit any time you wanted to change lanes. The downside of this habit is that you may go through this routine even when you are driving on a deserted road, and it isn’t really necessary. The upside is that you will always do it when it is important without thinking about it. The alternative is to think about whether you should signal or not and then remind yourself to check the blind spot before changing lanes—a slow, effortful process prone to errors.
We form new habits anytime we are in a new situation. During the pandemic, a lot of people took up new habits in response to the new situation, like baking, walking, or gardening. Going to college is a new context in which you will create new habits, including for studying. Make the effort to establish constructive habits, ones that will produce effective learning and save you time and effort. Good students usually have good habits. Here are some good ones to develop:
- Attend class regularly.
- Take through, effective notes in class.
- Use effective study strategies (more on this below) and avoid distraction.
- Start and complete assignments with at least a day to spare before the deadline.
- Have all the material for an exam read and organized several days in advance so you can spend time in review.
- Eat regular, healthy meals and get sufficient sleep and exercise.
Going to college is a chance to set new habits. Set up these habits to be as easy to follow as possible. Find ways to support these routines and reward yourself for sticking with them. Keep in mind that if you aren’t actively trying to establish good habits, you are automatically establishing bad ones. For example, if you aren’t going to class every day, then you are establishing a habit of finding reasons to skip class, and that may become your default routine.
Think efficiency, not ease, of learning
In college, you will be learning new, conceptually complex information. Learning such information takes concentration and effort. The study strategies you use will make a huge difference in your academic success. It turns out that most students use the least effective study strategies, which undermines their learning. Why do they prefer such bad strategies? Because they are looking for easy learning strategies instead of efficient ones. Mindlessly rereading notes, memorizing definitions, and highlighting already bolded terms are easy to do but don’t help learning. Instead of easy study strategies, focus on efficient ones that will give you the most learning for the effort you put in.
Good studying consists of two different processes: encoding, which is how you input, rehearse, and represent information in memory; and retrieval, which is how you determine when and how to recover information from memory. Generally, the best way to encode information as you study is to create rich, meaningful, and distinctive memories, a process called elaborative rehearsal. Effective retrieval strategies are the ones you rehearse and use as you study. Practice recalling and applying information in the same way you will be expected to do on the exam. Both effective encoding and retrieval are slow and effortful, but they are the most efficient ways to learn. There are many good study strategies but many more bad ones. Avoid ones that are easy, or ones that are difficult but don’t have you doing meaningful encoding or retrieval.
It is tempting to look for hacks and shortcuts to correct answers, such as homework websites, online test banks, and helpful classmates, but with these you are trading short-term gain for long-term difficulty in learning. It’s more important to know why an answer is correct than the answer itself. Overall, you are better off exerting the effort needed to learn in the most efficient ways to achieve learning.
As you study, do so with full concentration and without distractions. Develop the habit of studying with full focus, even if you can only do it for a few minutes at a time. Studying for brief periods with full focus is still much more effective than trying to multitask or studying in the presence of distractions. Make sure you understand the requirements of every assignment so you don’t waste effort on faulty assumptions. Identify and use the most reliable sources of information. Be the student who checks the syllabus and doesn’t rely on the class GroupMe.
Temper your optimism with real evidence that you’ve learned
It’s easy to fool yourself into being overconfident about your level of learning. We aren’t good about judging how much we’ve learned. Bad study strategies lead to high confidence without increasing learning. The solution is to find ways to test your learning and get feedback about your level of mastery. Often students overlook helpful feedback or fail to use it effectively. Class examples and problems are opportunities to get feedback about your level of understanding. So are reflection papers, homework problems, and written assignments. Feedback on a draft paper tells you how to improve not only that draft but also your writing overall. An exam score isn’t just a grade but gives you feedback about the effectiveness of your exam preparation. Are you studying at the right level of detail and understanding? Are you missing key lecture information in your notes? Should you put more emphasis on studying assigned readings or notes? Seek feedback in any form you can and make the most of it.
One key form of feedback comes from making mistakes. Make mistakes you can learn from, and make them when they don’t matter. The best mistakes to learn from are the ones made by others. You are still going to make your share of errors. If you make errors due to sloppiness, you won’t learn much from them. If you do your best to complete assignments according to the instructions, you can learn from the errors that you make. Look at homework, classroom problems, quizzes, and practice exams as chances to get feedback when the cost of mistakes is low so you won’t make the same mistakes when the stakes are high.
Seek out good teachers and let them know you appreciate their efforts
An instructor can make or break a course—make it a pointless exercise where you learn nothing or a transformative experience that changes how you think. How do you find the best professors? Probably not by looking at teacher rating websites or listening to what other students say. For me, the first trait I would look for is a professor who wants to be there. Teaching excites them and is important to them. They make it easy for you to do all the other things I’ve listed here. They make clear the value of the course, they create a sense of community among all the members of the course, and they are committed to helping students learn and succeed. They show that with the right level of effort, all the students in the class can succeed. They show how to think meaningfully about concepts that you can use in your studying. They give ample opportunities for feedback. When you find a good professor, let them know you appreciate their efforts.
Lots of factors other than studying affect learning
One last thing. Sleep, exercise, and psychological well-being are as important to learning as aptitude and effort. Sufficient sleep is necessary for long-term learning as well as for stress control. Exercise plays a role in mental health and sustained attention. There will come a time when you are overwhelmed with studying, and it will be more valuable for you to get some sleep or take a walk rather than cram more information. And if you do find yourself overwhelmed by the challenges of college, don’t hesitate to seek out the resources that the college offers to help you get back on track.
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.