As mentioned in last week’s blog, there are two boulders in the road that seem to come up time and again for my students regardless of age, level of maturity, or socio-economic demographics: time management and study skills. Time management might be the wilier, more amorphous concept, but a lack of good study skills can really hurt a student who, with a little guidance, might otherwise ace every class from English 101 to Super-advanced-quantum-mechanical-string-theory-what-the-heck-is-dark-matter-anyway 303 (did I mention that I am not a scientist?). I think about things in my life that once seemed as impossible as they now seem obvious, like finding the volume of a rectangular solid before I knew that V = L x W x H, or taking apart simple machines until I learned the mantra “righty tight lefty loosie.” (Maybe it’s just me, but I remember being about ten years old when I learned “righty tighty lefty loosie,” and the revelation felt like I had just broken through The Matrix for the first time. As the film The Matrix wouldn’t be made for another 35 years, it was a pretty big deal.) The point is that there are simple, concrete ways in which we can teach college-level study skills, and sometimes it’s these small tweaks and strategies that can make all the difference.
When I work with students who need help in this area, the first thing I always do is try to figure out what kind of learners they are. We’ve all heard the basic idea that certain people are more visual learners while others learn better by listening. Some people are more tactile or more kinesthetic. For many of us, it’s a mix. I, for example, am terrible at mental math but pretty darn great when I have access to a pad and a pencil and can write out or draw every single step of the problem. However, when it comes to creating a lesson plan or contemplating possible solutions to a particular dilemma, I’ve found nothing works better than taking a good, long walk while working it all out in my head. Most students already have some idea as to how they learn best, but many of them don’t know how to adjust their note-taking and study habits accordingly. Once we discuss the subject at length, they become more conscious of what works best for them, and they also learn- maybe for the first time- that there are multiple ways to do this thing called studying. There isn’t one right answer! There are some general rules, for sure, but a lot of it comes down to what works best for each, individual student.
Thus, I like to break these ideas into two camps: the universal, and the personalized. Here are two examples of each:
1. SQ3R, or: How to Read a Textbook
Maybe the most important thing I do as a success coach besides provide a space where students feel supported, listened to, and held accountable, is to teach people how to read a college-level textbook. At my university, we primarily use a popular method, invented during WWII when the U.S. military was tasked with readying tens of thousands of young men for war in a very limited time frame, called SQ3R. In brief, SQ3R stands for “survey, question, read, recite, review,” and it is all about teaching people to know ahead of time what they should be reading for. It teaches them to separate the corn from the chaff, so to speak- highlighting main ideas as well as the most salient details of a particular chapter without getting lost in less important but often more confusing verbiage. I often ask students to pick a book from the library on a subject about which neither of has much knowledge, and then we go through it together using the SQ3R method. For some students, it’s as great a revelation for them as “righty tighty lefty loosie,” was for me.
2. Read Your Professor’s Mind! or: How to Study for an Exam
The two main questions students need to ask themselves in preparation for an quiz or exam are A) what material is likely to be on this test? and B) how do I make sure I know that stuff? The answer to question “A” can vary wildly from professor to professor. Some professors provide students with detailed study guides, and if it isn’t on the study guide, it isn’t on the test. Others give no guidance whatsoever as to either the content or the format of an impending exam. Still others split the difference; these professors may give students a basic outline of what will the be on a given test and what it may look like (multiple choice, essay, short answer), but that outline is in no way meant to be a comprehensive study guide. So I train my students in the dark and mysterious art of mind-reading. I encourage students to seek out peers who have taken a class or had a particular professor before in order to get the skinny. Of what kinds of questions were the exams comprised? For what things was a certain professor a real stickler? Did he or she care more about the accuracy of facts or the synthesis of “big picture” concepts? Once students have a solid idea about what is likely to be tested, we talk about how to essentialize and simplify their notes. How can they winnow weeks or even months of notes and readings down to a single page if possible? It’s just like how you get to Carnegie Hall- practice, practice, practice!
1. Become Head of the Class in Class: How to Actually Remember a Lecture
One of the biggest study skill-related issues I encounter is that of not knowing how to take notes effectively in class. Students are so used to being able to find anything and everything they want on the Internet that they don’t realize that not everything a professor says in a lecture will be “findable” outside that moment. A professor may emphasize and elaborate on certain concepts in a lecture that are not on any syllabus or study guide and may not even be easy found (gasp!) online, but may still be on an exam. Many of our professors use power point in their classes, and I advise my students to print out hard copies of these power points from the class website so that they can follow along and take notes on the actual document. For my more aural learners, I recommend the tried and true technique of recording the lecture so that they can listen to it later, though this should only ever be done after receiving permission from the professor.
2. It was Professor Plum, in the Conservatory, with the Candlestick, or: The “Who, Where, How” (and When) of Studying on Your Own
Well, the “who” is pretty obvious (it’s the student), but it’s good to get students to think about the specific ways in which they work best. I ask my students questions like, “are you more focused when you work in the morning, afternoon, or at night? Do you study best in a group, alone at your desk, or alone but in a public space such as a library or coffee shop? Do you do better when you concentrate on one subject for a few hours before moving to another, or do you do better when you switch it up more frequently?” (i.e.- are you the kind of person who needs to eat all of her steak before she can move on to her potatoes, or do you follow a bite of steak with a bite of potato and maybe even a bite of asparagus before feeling ready for that next bite of steak?) Though we all eventually answer these questions for ourselves, I find that a little mindfulness can act as a catalyst for students to come up with their own solutions to study habit quandaries.
These are but a few of the tips and strategies I give to my students, but hopefully it shines a light (or a hi-light! Okay, I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress!) on one of the most common pitfalls that can befall an at-risk student.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.