How to Study and Succeed in College

by Dr. Larry J Solomon, copyright © 2002

Unfortunately, many students entering college in the 21st century are poorly prepared for college work. Most have poor or no study habits, i.e., routines that are necessary for academic success. More and more students are entering college without the ability or know-how for taking notes and for critical/logical reasoning. Many do not plan their study time and do not know how to organize subject material in order to learn and succeed. Unfortunately, if effective study routines are not learned or taught before entering college, as they should, the student must learn them during their Freshman year and this must then be regarded as remedial work. Without good study habits, a student will not be likely to succeed.

Attend all Classes and Be on Time

Outstanding students never cut classes. Missing even a single class creates gaps in knowledge and disrupts the continuity of information. In theory or math classes it is especially important to miss nothing, because gaps will impair your comprehension in subsequent classes. If you must miss a class due to illness or emergency, be sure to get the information that you missed and ensure that any missed obligations are being met. This is your responsibility, not the instructor's. Tardiness is just as bad as absence and additionally disrupts the classroom. Please be considerate of your fellow classmates and the instructor by being regular and on time. Plan your schedule accordingly.

Keep a Notebook

It is best to use a 3-ring binder for your notebook, because pages can be added or subtracted, and revisions are easier. Your notebook should contain:

Take Notes!

Always take your own notes in pencil in class and date them!! Just listening to a lecture or reading a textbook is inadequate preparation for learning and success. It's also important to take notes on your text readings, rather than just reading the material. At a minimum, your text should be highlighted and/or underlined. It is not advisable to rely on someone else to supply notes or to copy their notes. Writing down your own notes during a lecture hones your listening skills, develops your ability to distill the salient points of a lecture, and organize your thoughts as well as they relate to the lecture. If you do not take notes in class, you will be unlikely to develop these important life skills; your study and thoughts will be unorganized, chaotic, lacking direction and purpose. Learning new material will then be difficult and frustrating. It is best to compile notes in outline form, with main headings and sub-headings, organizing and ordering the material into logical groups.

Notes are also the greatest help for memory. In order to learn and retain information, you must write it down. Without notes, studies have shown that you will forget most of what was said in the lecture within 24 hours. To incesase and strengthen your memory, review your notes as soon as possible after class. Reviewing your notes for a few minutes each day thereafter will assure that you won't forget what you have learned. Study is enhanced by highlighting, underlining, and adding your own comments to the existing notebook. For this reason, it is best to leave space where you can write your notes on the right side of the notebook, and leave the left side blank for additions. Arrows can be used to relate the left and right sides. Use a pencil and eraser, not a pen. For purposes of revision, a good eraser that makes a clean erasure is as important and necessary as a good pencil.

Ask Questions

It is just as important to formulate questions as it is to find answers. Practice formulating questions as you review your notes and text. As you study your notes, write down questions that you would like the instructor to answer. Pose these questions ASAP at the beginning of the next class. The instructor will usually call for questions at the beginning of class. There is no such thing as a "dumb question." All questions are intelligent and worth answering when relevant to the subject.

Critical Thinking

There is a lot more to an education than just memorizing facts and information. Critical Thinking is an essential quality of any well-educated person. Although it is possible for someone to get good grades and acquire a college degree without mastering the ability to think critically, that person does not qualify as being educated. Critical Thinking enables one to draw valid conclusions from data or premises, to correctly induce and deduce. It also involves the ability to draw valid inferences, evaluate, explain, and judge rationally. Most importantly, it includes self-evaluation,  self correction, an open mind, a willingness to admit error, and a willingness to change. For an excellent exposition on Critical Thinking, see:

Be Willing to Make Mistakes and Discuss Them

Hopefully, people who enroll in a course do so because of a desire to learn what they do not know. This is an honest admission of ignorance which indicates an intention to replace ignorance with knowledge and competence. It is important to recognize that we are all ignorant in some areas, and that we all make mistakes, so don't be afraid to have errors recognized and discussed. Typically, a good student is thankful for the exposition of errors, because learning happens primarily by correcting mistakes. The first and most important step is to recognize and admit these errors. That takes courage. But that courage is rewarded, because once recognized, the same mistake will be subsequently less likely.

Remember that the ability to accept criticism is an essential quality for self improvement. Criticism of your work is not a destructive criticism of you as a person, but rather it is a constructive way to guide improvement of your work and make you a stronger, more capable person.

Focus on Learning Rather than on Grades

Of course, students want to get the best grades, but what many often don't realize is that good grades come easily if the focus is on a passion to learn the subject, not upon grades.Contrarily, if the focus is more on grades than on the intrinsic value of learning, students often find good grades to be elusive and difficult. Excitement and passion are important for success in any field, but are often overlooked or underrated.

Remember that a grade is only a crude indication of mastery or competence, as are degrees. Charles Ives, now considered to be one of the greatest American composers, had a D average as a music student at Yale in 1898. As an undergraduate he composed two symphonies as a part of his degree program. These were his Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2, both of which are performed as standard symphonic repertoire today.  This implies a lot about grade inflation and the extreme relativity of grading. Which is better -- a D at Yale in 1898 or an A at "Podunk College" in the 21st century? What does this say about grades in general?

This is not to say that grades don't matter, but rather that they should be put into a proper perspective. At best, they may indicate a relative mastery of the subject. The key word here is "relative", for a grade is relative to many, many factors, and does not guarantee competency. In the end, mastery and competence will be proved by the actual work in the field, not by grades, and this is always a result of one's real skills, products, and what one really knows or does not know.

Textbook and Readings

Read the assigned textbook chapters before the next class meets. This will ensure a better understanding of the lecture and class discussions. Compile notes on the reading in your notebook and /or make notes in the margins of your text. Bring your notes into the class lecture, and add them to your lecture notes. Compare your text and lecture notes. Correspondences indicate the most essential  material to be learned.

Time Management

Schedule your study time for this course. Allow 6-10 hours per week outside of class time for study. This assumes an efficient use of this time, without distractions. If you work, have family or other obligations, it is even more important to keep a strict schedule of your study time and stick to it. It is best to study the material in 30-40 minute blocks with breaks in between blocks. Divide your study material into a series of small tasks. When you complete each task, you will have a sense of accomplishment that energizes you to go on to the next. Procrastination leads to an unmanageable pile-up of unlearned material that will be both frustrating and discouraging. "Cramming" guarantees that you will not learn or retain information.

The best time to do homework and drills is as soon as possible after the lecture. This will help to reinforce what you have just learned and your memory retention will be increased.

Study Groups

Form study groups of three to six students. Work with people with similar goals and objectives. An effective study group can be a very important tool for academic success. Study group suggestions:


Compile 3x5 notecards with vocabulary terms on one side and their definitions on the opposite side. Take them with you wherever you go. You can make productive use of time spent in waiting rooms or lines as you study these cards.

Visit your Instructor During Office Hours or by Appointment

Don't wait until it's too late to seek help. If you think you are slipping, need clarification, or if you have suggestions or complaints, always confide in and talk with your instructor. A good instructor will welcome your visits, questions, and chats, listen to you, and will try to help you. Do not be afraid to do this. "There is nothing to fear but fear itself."

A Positive Attitude Will Make All the Difference

Be excited about the subject. Seek knowledge with passion. Learning can be a joyful, exhilarating experience, which comes from a strong positive attitude and a sincere desire to learn. Rather than regarding study as dull routine, think of it as your opportunity to improve yourself and your comprehension of the subject. Try to be an outstanding student. Follow your dreams and goals. Knowledge is power, and by incorporating your love of learning into your total lifestyle you will be loved.


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