How to Succeed in College

Dear students,

The science of learning has identified many study strategies that can increase retention and comprehension, yet most college professors rarely talk about these strategies. Below I cover four topics: efficient study skills, accountability structures, distraction blockers, and additional tips. If you apply these strategies to every college course you take, and your life in general, the good news is that you will get better grades and improve your overall success in college, and the even better news is that it will probably take you less time than your current strategies and will improve your well-being.

Efficient Study Skills

The single worst way to remember something is to read it. That is, the single worst way to study is to read your notes. If you want to remember something, you have to practice remembering it. The first study strategy I am going to suggest to you is retrieval. In cognitive science, the retrieval effect suggests that if you want to remember or retrieve something from your memory, you have to PRACTICE remembering or retrieving it from you memory! If you do not practice retrieving it, then why do you expect to be able to retrieve the information on your exam, or, later in life, as most college professors would like you to do as you apply the concepts from your coursework to the real world. In fact, according to science, the more times you have to remember something, the more likely you are to remember it in the future. Thus, practice retrieval.

Try making flashcards, using resources from your textbook which may include flashcards, or use Quizlet or other applications or websites that allow you to create your own flashcards or games. You can try creating regular flashcards, or try a strategy I once heard an ADHD coach suggest – create a visual depiction along with the word you are trying to remember. If you are a visual learner, you may remember better with the visual cue in conjunction with the word. Have a friend quiz you – perhaps a friend you make in this class, or another friend. Take turns quizzing each other on material from your respective courses.

The second study strategy I am going to suggest to you is prediction. In an experiment, UCLA researchers found that the simple act of predicting what you are going to be taught, even if it is wrong, increases retention of material. Specifically, according to James Lang’s book Small Teaching, when you use prediction: “you are compelled to search around for any possible information you might have that could relate to the subject matter and help you make a plausible prediction. That search activates prior knowledge you have about the subject matter and prepares your brain to slot the answer, when you receive it, into a more richly connected network of facts.” (p. 49). If you want a better grade in your courses, try predicting what you think you will learn in a reading, in a lecture, or in a video or podcast before you consume the material. Specifically, try reading the title of a chapter or video. What do you think it is going to be about? What do you think will be the four main points? Read the chapter or watch the video. Were you right? Even better, go back and correct your answers. This strategy will help you retain the material for the exams, and even later in life.

The third strategy I suggest is interleaving. Interleaving is the strategy of reviewing old material and adding in new material little by little. Instead of cramming lots of new material into your study practice right before a quiz, each day, review materials from previous modules, then add in a few new things. For example, review your flashcards for the last two modules, and then read or watch something from the next module, make flashcards, and study these too. This is an excellent and effective learning strategy. Practice retrieval through interleaving for 10 to 20 minutes each day. This way, you won’t cram all of your retrieval in right before the midterm or final. You will better learn the material, and you will save yourself a lot of time and stress in the long run.

Accountability Structures

When you have accountability, you are more likely to complete a task. At Ohio State, the most significant way I can advance my career is to work on my research. Yet, my research does not bug me with emails and doesn’t ask to meet with me. So, I use accountability to make sure that I get it done. You can use some of my same strategies to do better in your courses through accountability.

  1. Form a study group

Form a study group with others in the course. You could meet up for two hours every Sunday, do some predicting, read/watch course materials, quiz each other over these materials, work on assignments or discussion posts, etcetera. Then, celebrate when it is all done by grabbing pizza together or going to the gym, whatever you like to do for fun.

  1. Form an accountability study group

Find a few friends and form an accountability study group. Spend one hour on Sunday setting goals that you want to accomplish the following week. Perhaps it is to spend 20 minutes each day reviewing course material, or finishing your term paper, etcetera. Then, after you check in with your goals, spend an hour or two working on assignments or flashcards. Set-up a recurring time to check in with your goals/study together each week. You can even use a doodle poll to find a time that works for all of you. Next week at your meeting, check in with all of your goals. Did you meet them? If so, you get a gold star (make a chart!). If you almost met them, you get a silver star. If you did not meet them, you get a blue. Keep track of your goals and achievements over the course of the semester. Celebrate good grades and less stress because you are getting your work done. You can see more details about my accountability group here.

Importantly for both of these strategies, when the group is meeting to either goal set or study together, you need to turn all of your phones on do-not disturb and commit to not checking any social media or news alerts, etcetera while you are studying. A lot of cognitive science suggests that humans are really bad at multi-tasking, so focusing your attention on studying during this time will increase your learning. You also need to make sure you keep chatting under control. You do not want this to turn into a gossip session. Set a timer for 10 minutes for catching up, and once it goes off, start working.

If you are looking for a place to meet, libraries and many residence halls have meeting spaces. Reserve one for the entire semester for your study time. I do something called write-on-site with other professors where we meet for two hours in a conference room on campus to get writing done. We all work quietly on our laptops, and no one checks their email or their phones. This accountability really helps my productivity.

  1. Use a Pomodoro

A Pomodoro is an online timer that can be used for accountability. Set the timer, work for 25 minutes, and then take a 5 minute break. Then, start another timer.

Distraction Blockers

How often do you want to get something done when you find yourself distracted by your phone or your email? Or, how often are you studying when you decide to take a break, but then you find yourself still on Instagram thirty minutes later? I like to joke with my husband that I do not even know if I could have gotten my PhD with a smart phone. I get distracted by my phone/email/the news just like all of you do. One way I think professors are failing our undergraduate students is by not talking about how to handle digital distractions. The following are strategies that I use to reduce distractions that would probably help you.

  1. Turn off all notifications.

I have turned off all notifications on my email, Facebook, news apps, Snapchat, etcetera. I get notifications for my texts and a few other apps, but I am very selective about what I allow to send me a notification. You can find out how many likes your photo on Instagram got when you log into Instagram. You do not need to know immediately. Importantly, turn off notifications on your phone, your laptop, and wherever else you are getting notifications. You are in charge of your time – not your phone.

  1. Turn your phone on do-not-disturb

I have the ability on my iPhone to turn it on do-not-disturb. When I turn my phone on do-not-disturb, only people on my “favorites” list can get through. This allows me to up my concentration level and really focus on work I need to get done. For most of us, life-or-death emergencies while our phone is on do not disturb are unlikely. That text can still be responded to an hour later. And, you can tell your friend or parent – “Sorry, I was really trying to study and focus. I am done now – what do you need?” If you are not comfortable doing this, ask yourself why. Do you have fear of missing out? You will probably be able to engage in activities more fully, that is, be more fully present, when you are not ruminating about your school work. If you are still worried about missing texts, you can tell family and friends “I study for two hours uninterrupted every Tuesday from 3 to 5. I won’t respond to texts then, but will check my phone when I am done at 5. I will be here [fill in location] if you really need me.” You can even set up a recurring “do-not-disturb” for that time.

  1. Use fidget toys or walking to take a break during studying

I went on a writing retreat a while back, and the writing coach who led the retreat told me that one of her strategies for taking a break when she is writing is to use a fidget toy. In fact, she suggested that reading Instagram, or a news website, or anything text based continues to overwhelm our brains and makes it much less likely that we will continue on the task we were doing. Now, when I am writing, I take breaks with a fidget toy or by taking a walk around my office. Sometimes I will take a walk down the hall, but that can be risky because I am trying not to talk to anyone. I try to avoid engaging with someone else when I am trying to get something done.

  1. Use an app that will block distractions

I use apps like Freedom and StayFocusd. You can set these apps up to block websites for certain periods of time. I have all distracting websites blocked on my phone and computers from 9 am until 4 pm with the app Freedom. I also block distracting websites after 9 pm when I need to be getting ready for bed, and want to give my husband my full attention.

Additional Tips

  1. Get an Academic Coach!

At Ohio State, the Dennis Learning Center offers academic coaching through free one-on-one appointments for Ohio State students. The coaches are trained in learning and motivation strategies, and your coach can help you examine your academic strengths and weaknesses and develop strategies that lead to success. And it is free! Perhaps your own university offers something like this.

  1. Take a workshop or course on study and procrastination tips

At Ohio State, the Dennis Learning Center also offers workshops, including “Active Note-taking Strategies” and “Dealing with Procrastination.” They also offer courses that you can take for credit, including “Learning and Motivation Strategies for Success in College” and “Online Learning Strategies and Skills.” Perhaps your university offers courses like this. Ask an adviser.

  1. Work with the Writing Center

When I was an undergrad, I sometimes got feedback that my writing was poor. Unfortunately, most people have a fixed mindset about writing. That means that they think that their writing cannot improve. This is wrong! You should cultivate a growth mindset around your writing skills. I have become a much better writer over the years. One way to get help with your writing is through your campus’s writing center. Most offer free help with writing at any stage of the writing process. You can bring in an assignment, or even just bring in an idea to bounce around! I have a writing group with my grad students, and some of our most productive sessions come from just discussing an idea. I should also mention that there has been some critique’s of writing centers – specifically that they do not help students with basic writing skills. If you find that this is a problem, try showing your writing center mentor this article, and ask for basic help. Or, read some books on writing. One I like, although it is a little convoluted and dry, is The Sense of Style.  You can also try my favorite writing tip – read it out loud. I try to read everything out loud, and every time I do, I find so many errors, and every time I don’t, someone else finds my errors and I am embarassed.

  1. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness is something that most people think is really hokey. But, the research on mindfulness, and meditation, which promotes mindfulness, shows that it can improve cognitive functioning and reduce stress in a myriad of ways. There are apps and podcasts you can get – like 10% Happier – to help you create and learn about mindfulness and practice meditation. And, you can get benefits from mindfulness in as little as one minute of meditation a day! One minute! I recently went through a huge stressor, one of the biggest stressors of my life. I kept ruminating about it. Then, a counselor I talked to reminded me of the power of mindfulness. I used the mantra “where you are, there you are” to try to center myself to stop ruminating and stressing about the situation. This reminded me that the best way for me to live is to live in the moment and use and enjoy this moment, and to try to let the worry over the past and future go. It really helped me out! So, try practicing mindfulness and meditation when you start to get stressed. You will likely find yourself happier and less stressed out when the difficult times of the semester hits. If you are skeptical, I cannot suggest the book 10% Happier and the app 10% Happier enough. They are literally designed for skeptics. Some of the most successful people in the world meditate: Lebron James, Derek JeterOprah Winfrey, Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern, and of course the Dalai Lama to name a few.

At Ohio State, there is even the YesPlus club, which holds retreats designed around mindfulness. Perhaps your campus has a club or retreat program like this.

  1. Exercise

Research indicates that exercise benefits memory and learning. So, check out a group fitness class at your campus gym, go for a run with friends, take a walk around campus, or do some kind of exercise.

  1. Sleep

Make sure you are getting enough sleep. It is literally more difficult to learn when you are sleep-deprived – a sleep-deprived person has a much more difficult time concentrating, which reduces the efficiency of any time spent trying to study/learn when you are tired. Sleep also has a role in creating memory, which means that if you are sleep deprived, your brain may be less likely to create memories and connections, which will lead you to get poorer grades. And not only that, you are four times more likely to catch a cold if you get less than 7 hours of sleep per night. So, shoot for 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. My phone automatically goes on do-not-disturb at 9 pm and turns back on at 5 am so that texts and other notifications do not wake me up.

  1. Self-care

Many undergraduate students find themselves stressed. Make sure you are taking care of yourself and your stress, because stress can beget stress. Stress can make you sick and make you less productive as you ruminate about all of the things that you need to do. Mindfulness and exercise will help with stress, but make sure you incorporate self-care into your day whether that it is watching Netflix, hanging out with friends, or listening to your favorite podcast or audiobook.

  1. Mind Your Mental Health

If you do find yourself feeling stressed and overwhelmed, reach out for help. If you are my student, I am always available for you to talk with (even after you finish with my course), or try your campus’s mental health center. If you are considering harming or killing yourself, you can call this 24-hour suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255) or chat with someone. You are important, and you matter.

  1. Take Care of Your Physical Health

Get your flu shot, wash your hands often, and avoid sick friends/roommates. If you do find that you are sick, visit your campus’s health center to see a doctor or nurse practitioner. Try not to let your semester slide because you are not taking care of your physical health.

I hope you find these strategies helpful, and good luck!!

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