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!!

Active Learning Activity: The Motherhood Penalty, at Work and Home

Kermit The Frog Drinking Tea - men are seen as harder workers when they have kids but mothers are "less into the work" but thats none of my business

A student meme from Autumn 2017.

My absolutely favorite assignment every semester is the “family science meme” assignment. I have them make a meme related to our class, and write a short paragraph explaining it. This assignment really helps me understand what stood out to them during the semester, plus the memes are really funny. I noticed last semester that more than half of the memes were about microaggressions! I do a class every semester on microaggressions – what they are and how they affect families. I use these videos from MTV. My students find these videos so compelling, they often end up being one of the most memorable activities of the semester.

I wanted to create an assignment/learning experiences that would be as memorable and profound for a topic I am passionate about – the Motherhood Penalty. I worked with Michael Garrett from my college’s Ed Tech team to create a series of videos in which women (all friends of mine) tell their experience of the motherhood penalty. The students then complete an assignment in which they read an article and watch a video about the motherhood penalty, and watch the scenarios (linked below). Next they describe how they would have handled each scenario and how, collectively, the scenarios illustrate the penalty.

Next, in class, or in an online discussion forum, they watch the resolution videos, where the women describe how they handled it and how it made them feel, if they would handle it differently now, and offer some advice. I follow this with a lecture or discussion of this cartoon which illustrates the mental load that mother’s take on at home, and some of my research on the division of labor at the transition to parenthood (Dads are often having fun while moms work around the house and When the baby comes, working couples no longer share housework equally). We then discuss the motherhood penalty at home. At the end of class, we bring it all together.

My students have just completed these activities, and the student feedback was amazing. Note in the first class period/discussion of this module, we talked about the gender pay gap with these videos, so you will some mention of the pay gap.

“One thing that really surprised me in this module were all of the microaggressions and the penalties that mothers face in the work force. I always knew that it was difficult for mothers to keep a career and mothers often make significantly less money than single women and fathers. I also thought the one fact was interesting: “The pay gap between childless women and mothers is greater than the pay gap between men and women.” This just really solidified how prevalent the problem is to me. I think something that is also troubling is I’m not sure how we can fix it. There is no law-breaking, it is all just stereotypes and stigma and that is hard to rid of. I guess we just have to raise awareness first and educate women on their rights and what to do if they experience this. I am glad we had this module so I, personally, can be more prepared for my future.”

“Overall, the materials from this week really opened my eyes up to some important arguments, and sort of angered me. Why aren’t people talking about this? Why isn’t anything being done about this? How can people just sit back and let this happen? I wish I had answers.” Continue reading

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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Active Learning Activity: Perfect Partners and the Suffocation of Marriage

I have been really busy with life, and work, and lots of other things, so it has been over a year since I have posted! I thought I would share a fun active learning exercise that I do with my family development students related to intimate relationships. Thanks to Kale Monk for some of the inspiration behind this two-part activity.

One thing I want to teach my students is to keep their expectations for their partners in check. One person cannot be our best friend, best lover, biggest source of perfect social support, accountability partner for our goals, etcetera. That is too much pressure to put on any one person! To make this point, I have my students do two in-class activities (on different days) that I tie together. Note I do these activities with a freshman/sophomore level gen-ed class of about 55 students (and I have an online version that I use for an online class of about 200 students).

Class 1: The Perfect Partner

On the first day, in a module of the course called “love and romantic relationships” I have them do a supplemental reading from Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance. Here is a quote from the chapter called Choices and Options:

“. . . we live in a culture that tells us we want and deserve the best, and now we have the technology to get it. Think about the overwhelming popularity of websites that are dedicated to our pursuit of the best things available. Yelp for restaurants. TripAdvisor for travel. Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic for movies. A few decades ago, if I wanted to research vanilla ice cream, what would I have even done? Cold-approach chubby guys and then slowly steer the convo toward ice cream to get their take? No, thanks. Nowadays the Internet is my chubby friend. It is the whole world’s chubby friend. If this mentality has so pervaded our decision making, then it stands to reason that it is also affecting our search for a romantic partner, especially if it’s going to be long-term.”

Ansari, Aziz; Klinenberg, Eric. Modern Romance (Kindle Locations 1521-1528). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

No pressure here!

After having an in-class discussion about an assignment related to the chapter, I have them consider how much time they spend researching a purchase or where to go to dinner. Then, I ask “Do we take this “best of” mentality into our relationships?”
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Fighting Back: Implicit Bias, Micro-aggressions, and Micro-resistance

I have been planning to do a post on diversity in graduate education, but it requires me being vulnerable and I wasn’t even sure how to even do it. On Tuesday, in my first-year graduate proseminar, we had a session on implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and micro-resistance, and ironically, 2016 was the first year that I have included this session. I thought as I taught that class that the glass ceiling would be shattered that night and that the need for a class on these topics would become less necessary over time. How wrong I was. Now, more than ever, the necessity of promoting diversity, and strategies for dealing with implicit bias in the academy and life, have never been more important.

What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias is a major pathway through which privilege is enacted. Using the definition from Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute: “implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.  Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.  Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.”

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A Graduate Family Course Syllabus

I have been revising my Theoretical Perspectives on the Family syllabus (see the final product here). [Check out this post for tips on how to design your own interdisciplinary graduate seminars]  In a given week, I only want to assign about four readings. But, given that I have to cover theory and substantive topics each week, four readings is always too few. Further, I don’t want the students only reading work from psychology, but also from sociology and economics, and even from communication, public health, anthropology, and law when appropriate. My courses therefore end up being a lot of work for students, and a lot of work for me in design.

Two principles that informed my design:

First, I spoke with a student last year who was talking with me about race discrimination and overall racial ignorance in her graduate program. One example she gave me was that in her classes, diversity was either ignored all together or relegated to a specific week in the semester. This was insulting as race and diversity issues touch every issue, every week. With this in mind, I tried to incorporate readings about marginalized families every week.

Second, all readings must be accessible online. I will only assign a reading that is not online if I have access to a pdf that I can post to our course management system. I do not want to contribute to grad student debt if at all possible.

Here is a list of theories and topics that I cover each week, and the readings I chose to represent them.

Introduction to the course. What is a fact? Historical changes and the American family. An introduction to theory

Cherlin, A. (2009). Why it’s hard to know when a fact is a fact.

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Designing an (Interdisciplinary) Graduate Seminar: The Crowd-Sourced Syllabus

Designing syllabi for graduate courses is a lot of work, particularly when they are seminars, and particularly when you are in an interdisciplinary program.  In an interdisciplinary program, you might want to teach a seminar on a topic, say intimate relationships, but may only know the research in the discipline (e.g. clinical psychology) you were trained in.  This is one instance where crowd-sourcing can really help.medium_5120100

Here is my story. I teach a graduate course in family theory and research. There are several constellations of family relationships (i.e. couple relationships, sibling relationships, parent-child relationships, in-law, grandparent-grandchild, etc.), as well as several theories related to the study of families. Thus, putting together the syllabus for this course the first time was overwhelming.

I began by looking at a syllabus for a family theory/research course I enjoyed that I took in graduate school in HDFS at Penn State taught by Catherine Cohan, HDFS 525 for you Penn State HDFSers. Next, I googled “sociology of the family”, “economics of the family”, “family communication”, “family psychology”, and “family theory”, and variations on these, with the word syllabus to try to find syllabi that might be relevant. In writing this post, I looked back at my folder of syllabi, and I have several sociology, HDFS, economics, and psychology syllabi related to the family that I used to get ideas of what important readings I might want to include.

Next, I put together an initial draft. I circulated the initial draft among 12 faculty outside of my home institution and my colleagues at Ohio State. I sent the following message:

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