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Major in Success: Make College Easier, Fire Up Your Dreams and Get a Very Cool Job

College Rules!: How to Study, Survive and Succeed in College

by Tania K. Cowling

Why do some students have such a wonderful experience in college and others donˇt? Chances are, itˇs not because students picked the right or the wrong college but because they didnˇt make the most of the opportunities available to them at the college they did choose.

The high rate of college dropouts and the rising cost of a college education make this an important issue for students and their families. What can college students do to improve their odds of having a positive academic and social experience? Is there anything parents can do or say to be helpful?

Making the Most of College by Professor Richard J. Light (Harvard University Press), offers suggestions based on a 10-year study of which factors were most likely to improve studentsˇ learning and overall happiness. For this study, researchers interviewed faculty from 24 institutions and 1600 students about the quality of teaching and advising the academic choices the students had made and how they spent their spare time. Dr. Light offers these concrete†and fairly simple†ways for students to get more out of college, in terms of their academic success as well as their personal happiness.

  •   Get to know at least one faculty member reasonably well each semester, and get that faculty member to know you too. Youˇll feel more connected to your school (and those letters of recommendation from faculty members will be helpful later on). For students at large schools or commuter campuses this may be more difficult, but itˇs worth the effort.
  • Donˇt try to hide academic problems. Two main symptoms of trouble ahead were found to be Ŕa sense of isolation” and Ŕunwillingness to seek help.” If youˇre struggling with your writing or falling behind in a math or science class, get some help right away. Start with your professor. Make an appointment during office hours; donˇt try to discuss your situation in a few minutes after class. Talk to your academic advisor. Find out about campus centers for peer tutoring or other assistance programs that may be available in particular subject area. 
  • Study in groups. One of the best ways to understand complex course material is for students to do their homework independently and then to study in small groups of four or five once or twice a week. Many professors used to frown on this approach, but now are encouraging group study, particularly in the freshmen year. They recognize what was revealed in Dr. Lightˇs research†that students who study in groups understand the material better and are more engaged in their classes.
  • Take a mix of courses. Students are often advised to get their requirements out of the way first and then take the classes they need to complete their major, saving the fun elective for senior year. The most successful students in the Harvard study did precisely the opposite. They started out taking required courses plus some smaller classes that allowed for more faculty-student interaction. The introductory core or survey classes are often large, and they cover so much material that students donˇt have anything to sink their teeth into. A better way to begin is to take a mix that includes some required courses and others that pique your interests and stimulate your imagination. The study found that people who do this feel more connected and happier when they choose a major.
  • Work on your writing. The more you write, the better. Try to identify courses that require several short papers rather than one long one. In the Harvard study, the most satisfied students were those who sought constructive, detailed feedback from their professors such as ŔWhere did my argument fall apart in this essay?” not ŔWhy didnˇt I get a better grade?” Get specific suggestions from professors on how to implement revisions to improve an early draft. If you keep getting the same feedback, make sure you understand what professors are trying to tell you. Go to a campus writing center to get help on problem areas.
  • Learn to manage your time. The scattershot approach to studying that many students use in high school will not be successful in college. Itˇs not enough to squeeze in 25 minutes of study between classes or read in the library for half an hour before dinner. In the study, studentsˇ grasp of the material and their grades improved when they had longer, uninterrupted periods of concentration. These are blocks of time you have to plan for and schedule.
  • Learn another language. Many students arrive at college with enough skills to Ŕtest out” of a schoolˇs foreign language requirement. But foreign language courses are most commonly mentioned as Ŕfavorite classes,” even though they require hard work. One key appears to be the pleasure component from learning to communicate in another language. Also, language classes are typically small. Students often work in groups and thereˇs a high level of participation. Thus, foreign language courses combine all the elements that encourage greater engagement and more learning.
  • Get involved in an outside activity. You might think that holding a job or participating in outside activities would detract from studentsˇ academic work, but the reverse is true. The study found that a substantial commitment to one or two activities other than coursework (for as much as 20 hours per week) as little or no relationship to grades. Students were particularly enthusiastic about participation in the arts†music, dance, and dramatic productions†as a source of both pleasure and learning. Students who make connections between what goes on inside and outside the classroom report a more satisfying college experience. ŔVery often, an experience outside the class can have a profound effect on the courses students choose and even what they want to do with their lives, Ŕ says Dr. Light. The one area where outside activities hurt studentsˇ grades was intercollegiate athletics. But the study also found athletes to be the happiest students at college.
  • Learn from differences. Most students feel very positive about the impact of cultural, racial, and especially, religious diversity on college campuses. But learning from differences doesnˇt come easily, and most students said they experienced unpleasant moments, awkward encounters and sometimes worse. According to the study, the Ŕgood stuff” doesnˇt happen by accident. Certain preconditions need to be met. ŔCampus leaders can do much to shape an environment in which diversity strengthens learning,” says Dr. Light. This kind of learning Ŕdoes not happen with segregated clubs. It does not happen with segregated arts activities or singing groups or drama production. It happens when students as well as campus leaders make a proactive effort to capitalize on the opportunities diversity offers.”

    (adapted from Work & Family Life newsletter, edited by Susan Ginsberg)



























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