Tips for the Aspiring Scholar: Methods of Study for College Freshmen

Tips for the Aspiring Scholar: Methods of Study for College Freshmen

Alma materAre you just about ready to begin your college career? If so, you must be feeling a lot of excitement about the chance to have new experiences, meet new people and live away from home on your own for the first time. But you may also be feeling some trepidation about the academic side of things. You know the demands and expectations are going to be greater and the stakes higher, because ultimately it is your future that is on the line.

Learning to function efficiently and effectively in a college setting will inevitably require you to learn and adjust on the fly; this is true. But nevertheless, there are some methods, techniques and approaches to studying and learning that can help you get off to a good start and gain a solid footing in your academic work right from the get-go, if you are willing to give them a try. These strategies have helped others find success at the college level, and they can do the same for you.

Take Responsibility for Your Own Learning

The first thing to realize is that you are an adult now and whether you like it or not, it is going to be up to you to take total responsibility for your learning. The harsh reality is that many of your professors don’t care if you fall behind on your work or get poor grades, and your parents aren’t going to be there to push you either – it is all completely on your shoulders.

The good news, however, is that your professors and their teaching assistants have a lot of knowledge to share about their particular specialties, and if you ask questions you can expect to get informed, detailed responses. The imperious, arrogant professor may be a cliché on TV and in the movies but in real life you teachers have a lot to share and are perfectly happy to share it.

Participate in Class

Even if it is not natural behavior for you, it is always wise to participate in any class discussion activities. Not because it will impress your teachers, but rather, because it will allow you to get a good feel for the way you will need to think, argue, and process information in order to have success in your classes. The kind of discussions you have in class with give you good clues about the way you should answer questions on exams, and about the way you should present information when you are asked to write research papers. The difference is that in the class discussions you can actually get feedback, so you can learn what is expected and make adjustments in your presentation style.

Tips for Writing

You will be judged by your professors based on the quality of information you provide but you will also be judged by how you present it. Pay very close attention to spelling and grammar in everything you write, and if you feel you are somewhat challenged in these areas it could be a good idea to ask classmates to read over the things you have written to help you check for mistakes and awkward phrasing.

One thing to beware of in college writing is the passive voice. For reasons that are not always 100% clear, most college professors are sticklers about the passive voice, and you should try to eliminate it from your writing and replace it with the active voice as frequently as possible. For example, if you discover a sentence in your writing that sounds something like this: “Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, and a declaration of war was issued by the United States shortly thereafter,” this is an example of passive voice. You should change this sentence to the active voice, which would sound like this: “The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States issued a declaration of war shortly thereafter.”

As to the content of your writing, the most important thing is that you must make an argument. It doesn’t matter so much if your argument is a particularly good one – you just have to have one. And the arguments must be your own – never simply parrot what the professor has said in class. You need to come up with your own reasons, either through research or your own thinking process, to support the thesis of your paper or exam answer. Also, your arguments cannot be based simply on ideology; if you are conservative in your politics, for example, you cannot argue that overregulation caused the collapse of the housing market because everyone knows government regulation is always bad. Your reasoning needs to go much deeper than that. If you can back up your claim with supporting evidence and logical inferences, your professor will give you good grades for your work – even if he completely disagrees with your point of view.

Notes Within Notes

The best way to learn in a college setting is not just to take notes, but to also take notes in sequence. When you are listening in class or reading a text, by all means take plenty of notes. But to study for exams, or just to fix the information in your mind generally, you need to take notes of those notes. And then take notes from the notes of the notes. In other words, you must take notes continuously in sequence, moving down towards short phrases or single key words at the final stage.

Why do this? Because this process of intellectual distillation will require you to think through and process the things you have heard in lectures or read in books in a way that will aid memory tremendously, while helping to make complex concepts much more clear in your mind. While this methodology can become a little tedious at times, it will pay off in the long run because it will eliminate the need to cram for exams at the last minute. This is a poor way to learn anyway - you will have much more success if you use the notes-in-sequence process to aid with memorization and in-depth analysis.

Get Away From Your Computer

This final tip may surprise you. But the truth is that while the computer is an excellent source for information, it is extremely overrated as an aid for learning. Our eyes evolved to capture reflected light, which is what we are constantly picking up and processing visually from our surrounding environment. But light from a computer is direct light, beamed straight into your eyes and research has shown that this kind of light not only puts a strain on the eyes, but it actually interferes with the mental processes involved in learning. If two people of equal intelligence study the same piece of written material, but one reads it from a book while the other reads it off a computer screen, the person who read the book will remember more and understand more, and perform better on tests of that particular material. So you should always be as circumspect as possible when it comes to using the computer as a study tool. Reading from books and writing your notes in a notebook by hand should always be preferred over working strictly on a computer.

On the Road to Scholarly Nirvana

If you follow these pieces of advice, there is no guarantee that you will get only As in all of your classes. But these tips will help you maximize your potential as a student and a learner at even the most academically challenging universities, and in the end that is all that anyone can possibly hope for.