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.

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Accountability Group

As many of my readers know, and for that matter, anyone who talks to me knows, I am an avid consumer of productivity tips, from blog posts to books. As the mother of four boys ages 5 to 15, married to a full-time employed co-parent, I am super busy all the time. And, I also love to not work and have fun with my family and friends. So, when I am at work, I need to get things done. This can be a problem because I also love to waste time reading news websites, online shopping, engaging on social media, etcetera. I use a ton of productivity strategies (see this post for some of them) to try to create accountability around getting the things done that will advance my career. For me, that is getting my grants and publications written, revised, and submitted.

Stream in the woods

The view on a walk during my 2016 InkWell writing retreat.

One of my favorite tips for productivity came from Michelle Boyd of InkWell writing retreats. I went on one of Michelle’s amazing retreats in 2016 (cannot recommend her enough), and one of the best parts of retreating was my half hour I spent with Michelle each day. We talked about my writing struggles, and she mentioned that one strategy that really helped her get her writing done was her accountability group. I started an accountability group in the Fall of 2016 with three fellow faculty members, two assistant professors and another associate professor like myself. We are in three different departments in three different colleges at Ohio State. We meet for one hour, strict, every week (one member is a “timekeeper”). This group has helped me become more productive, and has given me peer mentoring and support through some of the most trying times of my career. I cannot recommend forming your own accountability group enough.

At the first meeting of the semester, we discuss some overarching goals we have for the semester and set goals for the next week. Then, each week, we meet and discuss whether we met our goals or not. One member is a “secretary”, and they will remind you what your goals were. If you met your goal, you get a gold star (one member is a “goalkeeper”). If you almost met it, you get a silver star. If you do not meet your goal, you get a blue star. After three blues, we might have an intervention and brainstorm ways to get back on track, or provide social support, or encourage you to be gentle with yourself because you are going through a lot and you have unrealistic expectations, whatever seems right for the moment. One of my fellow accountability group members mentioned that she met a colleague who has her own accountability group at a conference. Their group throws in $5 every time they do not meet their goal, and then they use the money to share a meal at the end of the semester. I think this is a great idea! My group might try this next year. I find that I really want to get a gold star, and I try hard to meet my goals. Thus, I prioritize those things that I set goals for, and I would say that most weeks, I get silver or gold. What I love about the group is that my accountability group creates something to bug me to get my most important work done. My students will email me, journal editors will email me for reviews, but NIH doesn’t email me to find out when I am submitting my grant. My accountability group will ask me though, and keep me answerable to my goals.

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From Distracted to Productive: Time Management Lessons for Students… and Us

I was recently chosen as a Spring 2018 Featured Teacher by The Ohio State University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. As a featured teacher, I wrote a blog post for UCAT. The final UCAT version is a more polished and succinct, but I thought I would post the original, longer version here. Enjoy!

From Distracted to Productive: Time Management Lessons for Students… and Us

I recently said to my husband, “I don’t think I could have gotten my Ph.D. if I had had a smart phone! Or tenure for that matter.” Digital distraction is a real thing, and most of our undergraduate and graduate students suffer from it, as does our staff, lecturers, and faculty – actually, just about everyone privileged enough to have digital devices suffers from digital distraction. When we consider non-content related skills that our students need, we often discuss critical thinking and writing skills. But perhaps the most significant non-content related skill that our students need to learn is how to deal with digital distraction and procrastination so that they can focus on learning and achieving their goals.

This spring, I decided teach my students to deal with digital distractions and procrastination by giving them ALL of my own strategies that I use to be productive. My husband and I both work full-time at OSU, and we have four sons between ages 5 and 14. Because I don’t like to work all of the time and I enjoy reading books, watching TV, and hanging out with my family, I read a lot of books, articles, and podcasts about productivity and accountability. Over winter break, I read a book that I highly recommend to everyone: Small Teaching by James Lang. In this book, I learned that to cement my course material into my students’ long-term memories, they were going to need to be forced to recall that material. I decided to add in a cumulative midterm and final to my course HDFS 2200, Family Development, and as such, I also decided that I needed to give my students non-content related skills for studying so that they would be successful! This led me to take stock of the strategies I use to be productive, and I realized that most of my strategies would also work for my students. I created a video script, then recorded a video, and posted the script, to my online and in-person courses. I required students to watch/read the script and held them accountable by quizzing them over the content. I called it “How to Succeed in HDFS 2200.” I also created a generic version of the script called How to Succeed in College.
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Work and family and “one night a week”

I know there has been a lot written about academia and work-life balance – this recent post in Inside Higher Ed tries to get at why academics work so much. In general, the meme about academics working constantly doesn’t really resonate with me [I should also mention that the meme about professors never working also does not resonate with me]. College professor has been ranked as one of the best jobs in America and the least stressful, though both of these rankings have been debated. In general, I have found it possible to have work-life balance as an academic. Part of my strategy has been to try to make my time at work as productive as possible, so my time at home can be as fun and relaxing as possible.

So, my next post in my “how do I do it” series is my strategy of “one night a week”. While on the tenure track, I often found that it was difficult to find time to focus on my research and writing during the day when I was meeting with students, going to meetings, teaching, etcetera. So, I started staying at work one night a week, and working late, often until 10 or 11.  I would shut my door, order in some food, and work on my research and writing for several hours. This really worked for me, and I got a lot done. I tried not to let teaching or service creep into this time, and I would just work on analyses, coding, and writing. I should also mention that there were very few distractions after 5! Note it doesn’t always have to be at night – I have a friend who worked every Saturday morning on the tenure track.

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Writing Group

As the mother of four (2 sons born in grad school, 2 sons born on the tenure track), people are always asking me “how do you do it?”  [Note, my husband never gets asked this question, which is a whole other blog post on gender attitudes.] My go to answer is always “high quality husband, high quality childcare”.  This is true. But, I have also been interested in productivity for a while. I have read several books on the subject, including books designed for academics like Advice for New Faculty by Robert Boice and How to Write a Lot by Paul Silva, and those designed for a general audience like Leave the Office Earlier by Laura Stack. I also participated in the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development’s Faculty Success Program with Kerry Ann Roquemore, which I really enjoyed.

Recently a friend posted on Facebook that he and his wife, who are both on the tenure track, were going to need some tips for success with multiple children.  So, my friend Dave’s comment is inspiring my next series of posts.  I am going to post a few tips that I have found have helped me be productive.  Most I have implemented in the past five years or so, and I really think they have helped up my productivity.

The first tip I want to share is on my writing group.  After reading How to Write a Lot, my colleague Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and I started a writing group with our graduate students. We started out simply; I remember that our first semester one of our tasks was to read How to Write a Lot.  We devised a schedule for the quarter (though Ohio State is now on semesters, so we now devise our schedule by semesters), and each person in the group took a week to share a piece of writing with the group. We usually distribute a draft of a paper, though sometimes it might just be an idea for a paper, or a conference proposal. Sarah and I both take turns in addition to the graduate students. The group helped boost our productivity by creating deadlines for the students, and for us.  For instance, if a student presented a paper at a conference in the fall, we would encourage the student to put the paper on our schedule to read in the spring.  This is very important because publishing is key for both tenure, and what I call the “first tenure track” – grad school.  The job market is so competitive, and to stand out at all, students need to make sure they are submitting their work for publication early and often. We found that writing group was successful and resulted in several submissions.

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