10 Studying Tips for College Freshmen

So you’re off to college, high school diploma in tow, ready to take the world of higher education on by storm. You’ve bought your books, moved into your freshman dorm, attended your first week or two of classes, and even discovered the college party scene. But then the unthinkable happens– you fail you’re first test. You were a straight A student in high school and you never even had to study, so how could you fail your first test?

Well that’s exactly the problem: you never even had to study.

Although we don’t typically realize it while we are in high school, the difficulties of a standard high school education are laughable when compared to those of a college education. Likewise, many students are capable of achieving academic success in high school without ever exerting much effort or learning the proper time management and study techniques essential to collegiate success.

High school vs College: Whats the Difference?

While there are certainly a multitude of differences between college and high school education, two main differences seem to stand out. First of All, a typical high school workload hardly ever constitutes much to worry about. During any given term the average high school upperclassmen will have a maximum of 2 moderately challenging courses that require any regular additional time or effort outside of class. Meanwhile, in college, even the easiest courses require a significant amount of time spent doing homework and studying. Even advanced placement courses (high school courses designed to simulate college level material) fail to capture the true difficulty of college academia, for the transition from high school to college is characterized by a dramatic increase in the amount of independent student learning.

College: The World of “Do it Yourself”

In order to prepare students for professional life after college, college professors no longer provide the degree of guidance that students previously received from their old high school teachers. A typical school day for a high school student consists of classes spread over a 6 or 7 hour time period, with a small break for lunch. Meanwhile, the first misconception that a college student has about college is the amount of free time they think they are going to have. They see their class schedule and drool over the shortened class periods and large blocks of what seem to be leisure time. But little do they know that the time they have staked out for playing video games or painting their nails will actually be spent attempting to independently grasp new class material. This is partly because of the utter lack of class time that a college course offers when compared to a typical high school course. The bottom line: college students spend less time learning in class, and more time making up for that lost class-time on their own.

In many cases, learning college material autonomously not only prolongs the amount of time spent studying, but it also obstructs the students understanding of the material. I don’t mean to chastize the educational system– the ability to think critically and independently is an essential skill for success later in life– but the fact remains that this transition is one that many students never really get the hang of. So whether you’re a new freshman panicking about the exam you just bombed or a veteran college senior who’s grades are beginning to slip, these ten study tips can help you get back on track.

1. Use a Calendar

Whether it’s on your phone, laptop, or a dry erase board on your wall, keeping a detailed calendar helps keep track of just how much time you can afford to spend on one task. Each month, copy the due dates from your class syllabi over to your calendar to get a feel for the grand scheme of things– it really helps to visualize your entire itinerary in one place. Each week make a tentative list of tasks you plan to complete for each day of the week, making sure to take into account any extracurricular activities and trying your best to evenly distribute your workload. Also, make sure to look a week ahead for any assignments that may take longer than normal and plan accordingly. Each day get as many of those tasks done as possible; if you finish early consider getting an early start on some of tomorrow’s work. In the end, planning each month day-by-day will not only keep you from spacing on important due dates, but it will also keep track of just how much time you can spend procrastinating.

2. Location, Location, Location

It’s Thursday night and you have a 12 page paper due tomorrow morning. You planned on cranking out the last 6 pages of it tonight, but your next door neighbors decided that hosting a techno dance rager seemed more important. Not only is the blaring music breaking your focus, but the lure of social interaction is pulling you away from the computer screen. There are ways to avoid this type of situation. Distractions are often the sturdiest obstacle standing between a student and the sweet feeling of finishing a night’s work with time to spare. Distractions also happen to be a product of their environment, hence the heading of this tip– Location. While some people have the steely resolve to ignore all distractions, buckle down, and wade knee deep through hours of homework, some of us just cant resist the temptation invoked by the sound of a room mate playing a video game or laughing hysterically at an internet video. Which is why the library is the best place to study. Everyone in the library shares one thing in common– they are there to study– and thus unwelcome distractions will not be taken lightly by the library community. Even if you live on a large campus and the library is a mile away, the time saved and the increased quality of your work, courtesy of the distraction-free environment, will be more than worth it. But suppose it’s past midnight, the library is closed, and the rager next door continues to bump in the night…what then?

3. Invest in Some Headphones

Fight music with music. While this might be a matter of preference, in 2007 researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that “music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory” (Baker). So head onto youtube or itunes and play some of your favorite lyric free songs at a volume low enough to hear yourself think (lyric-free because words, for whatever reason, seem to disrupt concentration). Try classical music or even background music from movies. My personal favorite is Hans Zimmerman’s scores from The Last Samurai soundtrack. Also, create a playlist so that you don’t end up searching for a new song to listen to every 5 minutes.

4. Stay Off of Facebook

Remember our talk about distractions? Well, in my opinion, Facebook is one of the worst ones. You tell yourself you will just see if you have any new notifications and then an hour later you’re still mindlessly browsing through photo albums or chatting with a friend. But this rule doesn’t just apply to Facebook, it applies to any website that you find particularly addictive. With increased usage of laptops, smart phones, and online educational tools, the distractions of the internet are nearly always just one click away during homework sessions. My suggestion to ward off the calls of the internet is to set aside a half hour or so every day to sit down and do your internet dealings– Facebook, email, or whatever.

5. Choose Your Study Partners Wisely.

While studying with others often offers great advantages, it can sometimes lead away from productivity and towards procrastination. Many students find it impossible to focus on their work while the temptation to joke around with their best friend is looming close by. However, since it might ruin your friendship if you refuse to study with your buddy, it may be more prudent to make a pact prior to studying that all members of the study group will remain focused and stay away from irrelevant chatter or jokes. Also, you may want to stay away from studying with someone who understands the material significantly less than you do, because you will undoubtedly end up teaching them the material yourself. However, being able to effectively communicate the material to another student is a sign that you have mastered the concepts of the course, and teaching other students can help you achieve this level of understanding.

6. Take a Break

Quality vs. Quantity: A debate for the ages. If you find yourself doing hours and hours of homework with no break in between, you’ll be tipping the scales on the quantity side, while taking a severe hit in the quality of your work. As you slave away on your homework and time ticks along you will not only begin to grow mentally tired, but you will grow increasingly eager to just be done with it. It’s kind of like how your bladder works: just like how you have to go the worst right before you reach the toilet, nearing the end of your homework only increases your desire to simply wash your hands of it. I remember countless times when I’ve given up on my last nagging homework problem just because I had been working for hours on end and completion lay just beyond the horizon. Looking back, I realize that if I had taken a few short breaks to clear my head then I would not have had the unstoppable craving to quit. The best way to take breaks, from my experience, is to save them for in between assignments; this way your train of thought isn’t interrupted. A break can consist of just sitting down and relaxing for a few minutes, watching a bit of television, or even doing routine daily tasks such as taking a shower or eating dinner– anything to get your mind off of homework. Breaks don’t have to be short either; if you plan to do something non-homework related that day, do it in between assignments (as long as time permits). My favorite way to break up a night of homework is to do a couple assignments, go to the gym for an hour or so, and then come back and do the rest. In fact, I find that physical exertion is the best way to completely take your mind off of homework and regain a little bit of sanity.

7. Go To Class

To some, this may be blatantly obvious, while to others it may seem as if I’m asking too much. As noted, college represents a new realm of independence, leading many students to fall into the trap of exercising this newfound freedom by skipping class. As liberating as it may feel, missing just one class can lead to hours of frustration and confusion when attempting homework later, not to mention a lapse of quality in said homework. You could always turn to the textbook, but in the time it takes to actually fully absorb one page of most textbooks a professor could have provided one superior and informative example and then completed the rest of the lecture. Even if your teacher hardly speaks English or is horribly dreadful at teaching the class material, simply showing up will let you know exactly what is expected from you and could even win you some brownie points in case you’re on the fence between an A and a B at semester’s end.

8. Take Advantage of Your Professors

This doesn’t mean you should trick your professor into giving you A, rather, it means that you should capitalize on any additional assistance that professor’s may offer, especially if you’re struggling in the class. The first thing you should take note of is the time and place of your professor’s office hours. Most, if not all, colleges require professors to hold office hours, so you might as well take advantage of them. While alot of teachers are particularly inept at effectively teaching material to a class full of students, most of them are geniuses in their field. The key to accessing this genius in an understandable manner is the professor’s office hours– they will be able to fully address any questions or concerns you have, and often they will explain it as many times as it takes for you to grasp the concept. If the professor’s office hours don’t fit into your schedule, most of them will work with you to set up an appointment. Don’t feel like your intruding when you send them an email to set up a time to meet; it’s part of their job and part of what your tuition is paying for.

9. Repetition.

While this tip may not help too much with some of your more advanced classes, a lot of general education or core classes primarily test your ability to memorize facts. The first key to memorization is to put everything you need to remember in one place– such as a study guide. A lot of students simply go through power point slides or notes that professor’s have posted and try to memorize everything they see, but a big part of studying is knowing what information is most likely to show up on a test. Sometimes professors will give you a good idea about what will be on the test, other times they will leave you lost in the dark. A good rule of thumb is that if the professor spent a lot of time on the subject in class, or went through a concrete example of the subject, then you should know it for the test. The same goes for problems that you did for homework; you can probably expect a more difficult version of the same problem to show up on the test. Once you have gone through your notes and pulled all of the most pertinent information onto your study guide, the next step is to memorize. The best way for me to do this is to memorize page by page. I read over the definitions or facts that I have on the first page of my study guide until I feel I have memorized some of them. Next, I cover the answers with another sheet of paper and quiz myself, progressively moving down the list. If I get an answer wrong, I spend a minute or two trying to memorize it again. I repeat this process until I have memorized all of the information on the page, then I do the same thing with the second page. However, the trick is revisiting the previous pages that you have memorized after successfully memorizing each page. So once you finish memorizing the second page, go back to the first page and see how much of it you remember. Once you’ve finished with the third page, you should revisit the first and second page, and so on. This method works well because it is easiest to retain information from the beginning and end of your study session, while the middle information is more likely to be forgotten. By constantly revisiting the information in the middle of your study guide, you will be more likely to remember it.

10. Be the Adversary

Some professors are nice and the questions on their tests will more or less reflect the difficulty of the information you learned in class. Some professors, however, find it prudent to take the material they taught you in class, twist and turn it so it’s as difficult as possible, and then mercilessly throw it on the test. In order to prepare for this, for each piece of information that you study you should ask yourself “How could this problem be made as hard as possible?” Once you have drafted the most difficult version of the problem that you can fathom, go to work at trying to solve it. If you can’t quite crack it, bring it to your professor during office hours and work through it with him or her. This will do wonders for your understanding of the material, as well as show your professor that you are putting forth the extra effort. This tip separates the truly gifted students from the above average ones.

So you’ve read these ten tips and put them into action; now it’s time to redeem yourself and ace your next test. I hope that you find the tips as useful as I have.

Works Cited

Baker, Mitzi. "Music moves brain to pay attention, Stanford study finds ." Stanford School of 
Medicine. Stanford School of Medicine, 1 Apr. 2007. Web. 3 Aug. 2010.
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