My Personal Revelation and Mastering College
My second year in college was really the first time I began to question how I approached my learning. In many ways, it was a pivotal year where all the right ingredients came together. I realized that the “study-really-hard-and-have-no-life” plan didn’t work for me. If I wanted to master college, I would have to start experimenting with my own learning style.
Experiment #1: Stop Taking Notes
One of the first things I stopped doing was taking notes in class. I never really bothered to review them once I left class, so why take them at all? I have to admit – when everyone else around you is busily scribbling notes down, trying to savor every word that the professor pontificates, it takes a bit of courage to refrain from the practices. Instead of writing during the lecture, all I did was listen. And, just in case, I recorded the class lectures and listened to them in small chunks (5 minutes at a time) if I couldn’t recall what was said in class.
My test scores actually went up over a broad range of classes including psychology, economics, and literature. Disclaimer: as far as I can tell, I am probably an audio/visual learner which means that I learn primarily though listening and use visual cues to supplement what is being said. Thus, it makes sense that trying to listen while looking at my paper while writing didn’t work so well.
While I don’t urge everyone to stop taking notes, my experiment started giving me ideas of how to adapt the way I learn with the way information is taught in the classroom. Take at least one learning style assessment to figure out what your dominant learn style is and how to best adapt the way you learn with the way information is given to you in college. If you are a visual learner (like me) staring at your notebook won’t help you much! Instead, focus your attention on the visual cues that your professor gives, as for visual demonstrations (charts, drawings, illustrations, etc.) that will help you retain the information.
Experiment #2: Speed Reading
Your textbook is a tool; different teachers use them in different ways. Many of my college professors were seasoned and had taught for many years. Because of that, they would rarely refer to the textbook for more information. Thus, they would rarely use the textbook to generate tests. Instead, many of the tests were taken directly from class notes. I learned early on that reading the textbook for every detail wasn’t much help. Instead, I studied from my class notes and would “scan” my textbook. This was especially true for those classes that were requirements for my degree, but not related at all to what I was trying to accomplish in my professional life (i.e. economics, accounting).
Because many college students view their studies as their obligation, they feel the need to read every letter of their textbook. I admire that. But I also admire the ability to discern what information is relevant and which is not, especially in light of other subjects competing for your time.
Each time you start a new class, your professors have an idea of what they want you to know when you leave. If you can figure out the best way to obtain those goals (hint: they are usually in the syllabus), you can begin to direct your studies around those areas. Too often students focus on the non-essentials and even though they study hard, they study the wrong things.
The next round of new classes try this: After your first test in any given text, compare the questions from the test with the information in your textbook. How much of the test was written from information in the textbook alone? How much of the test was written from content covered in class and handouts? If you can get an idea where the questions on the tests are coming from, you will now be better informed on how to study for the next test.
Experiment #3: Office Hours
Walking downstairs one day after class, my professor said to me, “I love it when students come in for office hours – it’s just that no one ever does!” That gave me an idea. I made it a point to stop in and talk with my professors once a week – for 15 minutes. In large classes, it’s easy to remain anonymous. But anonymous is not good. Anonymous is ordinary. You want to stand out. The easiest way to stand out is to be known. Stop in and talk with your professors. Some will be easy to chat with and others will be weird and bothered (a result of sitting in their academic closets too long). Either way, you can build relationships (very important) and get a better understanding for who your professors are.
One day I stopped in to a philosophy professor’s office. I had scored low on the first test of the quarter and I wanted to go over the test with him. After I was done, I straight out asked him, “So when I am studying for the next test, should I be spending the majority of my time on this (pointing to a section of my textbook)” He responded, “No, while you should be familiar with this, I wouldn’t spend too much time memorizing this.” Translation: Don’t worry about that section, study something else. Later, I went back to his office and reviewed: “Okay, I studied x,y, and z – is there anything else you think I need to know?” Because I had taken the time to show him that I cared, he graciously gave me a few other things to review. The test was a breeze.
If you want opportunities that no one else has, you should do those things which no one else does. Now that I have been a professor, I can tell you that virtually no one shows up for office hours. Yet, they are missing a key chance to excel in their class, narrow down the content that they have to study, and focus on studying the right things, rather than everything.