How to Do Well at University (and not just get good grades)

Today is the start of the Fall term at Tyndale University College and I wanted to share some of the tips about doing well in university that I’ll discuss with my students during our first few days of the term. One of the first things I tell my students at the beginning of every semester is that there is a difference between doing well in a course and getting a good grade in a course. Most professors try their hardest to make sure that the two correspond with one another, but for various reasons that’s not always the case. For example, if a student only occasionaly comes to class, or comes often but is rarely attentive, then it’s unlikely that such a student will do well in the course. But that doesn’t mean this person won’t get a good grade on his transcript at the end of the term. Some students are good at tricking their professors into thinking they’ve learned the material when in reality all they’ve done is memorize it the night for the exam, regurgitate it on exam day, and then promptly forget everything they “studied.” These students will have received the high grade, but will not have done well.

On the other hand, some students will do their best to truly understand the material (and not simply memorize it), seek clarification from their professor when needed, and even incorporate it into their other studies. These students will likely remember the material long after their exams, even though there is no guarantee that their hard work will translate into a high grade. Maybe a student had a rough morning the same day as the final exam and didn’t perform as well as he would’ve otherwise, or perhaps the demands for some other course were so high he couldn’t put all his energy into completing the essay. Regardless of what the grade is on the transcript, if this student has truly learned the material, then he’ll have done well in the course.

In my experience, the two go hand-in-hand most of the time. When students complain to me about their low grade I ask them about their study habits and often will quickly learn why their grade is what it is. Making this distinction, however, can help keep you focused on what matters most. If you graduate from university and have a few bad grades on your transcript, but actually learned the material in those courses, then you’ll have still achieved what is most important. You don’t attend university to get a piece of a paper that has a lot of A’s on it, you attend university to get an education.

So, with all this in mind, I’d like to offer six tips for doing well in university. These are tips that I’ve been giving to students for years and I’ve yet to hear from a student who has followed each of them and not done well in their courses.

Tip #1: Read the Material Before Class

This should go without saying, but it’s extremely important that you’ve read the assigned readings before class. University courses do not regularly cover material that is easy to understand—if they did no one would feel the need to come in the first place. Because the material is important, you have to approach it mulitiple times and in different ways. If the lecture is the first time you’ve thought about Xeno’s paradoxes or Anselm’s ontological argument, then it is highly likely that you’re not going to get very far in understanding eiither.

In my experience, this is the first thing that students skip when their lives get really busy. Why? Because no one else knows whether you’ve done the readings but you. This is why many professors have reading quizzes or require reading reflections. They’re not just trying to be mean, they too recognize that students are tempted to skip the readings and rely solely on the lecture. Don’t allow yourself to succumb to this temptation, it’s almost impossible to truly do well in a course if you’ve not become intimately familiar with the readings your professor has assigned.

Tip #2: Come to Class and Be Attentive/Pay Attention

The most important part of this tip is the “pay attention” part. For some reason students often think that just coming into the lecture hall will somehow magically impart understanding to them. To do well in university you must come to class, but that’s just the bare minimum. You also need to be an active participant in it. This doesn’t always mean you have to try and answer every question asked by your professor, but it does mean you’re not goofing around on your iPhone or chatting over Facebook. Use that time to ask for clarification about things you didn’t understand in the readings. Hang around afterward and ask questions you were too nervous to ask during class. The lecture is your opportunity to have direct access to someone who is a specialist in the field so take advantage of it.

Tip #3: Review Your Notes Soon After Class

Reading the material beforehand and paying attention in class will do wonders for you in university. But if you really want to do well, I strongly recommend taking a few minutes at some point soon after class to review your notes. While the lecture is still fresh in your mind, go back and see how the material from the beginning of the class connects with material near the end. See if you have any remaning questions that you should follow up on during the professor’s office hours. Write those down. Look back at your reading notes and compare them with your lecture notes. Doing this provides yet another way to become acquainted with the material (and it doesn’t take all that long).

Even if you take good notes during class, if you never look at them again until it’s time to study for the exam, then you’re probably not going to remember the details surrounding those notes. A phrase like, “It is necessary to say and to think What Is is; for it is to be, but nothing, it is not” may make perfect sense during the lecture (maybe!), but a few weeks later could leave you completely baffled (that’s Parmenides, by the way). Reviewing your notes is also a good time to add to them which can help you remember the details when you begin studying for exams. You won’t often need to spend several hours doing this, 15 to 20 minutes can be enough (and even 5 minutes is better than nothing at all). If your professor is like me and doesn’t allow laptops in class, then budget a bit more time for this and type out your handwritten notes. You’ll not only have something easier to study from later on, but the process itself will help you remember the material.

Tip #4: Study in Groups

How many times have you said something like, “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t say it”? At some point or another we’ve all been there. Many times this is another way of saying, “I don’t really know what I want to say.” We are really good at fooling ourselves into thinking we understand something when we actually don’t. Studying in groups forces you to vocalize the material you’re studying which can help you figure out what you really know and what you’re still fooling yourself into thinking you know. This also provides yet another way, and opportunity, to interact with the material from your course. You should see the pattern by now, give yourself the opportunity to deal with course material in as many ways, and as often, as possible.

The temptation here will be to get together with your classmates, get all your notes and books out, and then talk about the terrrible call the referee made during last night’s football game. Simply coming to class won’t help you learn the material and neither will simply reserving a group study room at the library. The key to “Study in Groups” is the actually studying.

Tip #5: Don’t Multitask While Studying

Multitasking is a myth. You’re not very good at, even though you think you are. In particular, you’re almost certainly not good at multitasking while studying. The problem with multitasking is that it assumes we’re able to actually watch Monday Night Football while simultaneously reading Plato’s Euthyphro. What in fact happens is that you read a bit of Plato until you hear the announcer’s voice rise (or hear a rise in crowd nose). You then stop reading Plato, look up to try and figure out either what just happened or what is about to happen, and then when that is done you look down to start reading Plato again. Unfortunately, you’ve lost your place on the page and have to spend some time finding it and then re-read the previous few sentences (or paragraphs) to get the train of thought going again. But then, you hear something else interesting on TV, look up to see what’s going on, and start the whole process over.

There are scores of studies that indicate just how bad multitasking is for certain tasks (just enter “the myth of multitasking” into any search engine and you’ll find all you could ever ask for), but the one conducted by Ohio State University professor Zheng Wang may be most relevant for those wanting to do well in university. Wang’s research focused specifically on the results of multitasking while studying and concluded that we are most likely to try and multitask precisely when it hurts us the most. When we need to focus the most, we’re likely to multitask instead, which actually hurts our cognitive abilities. If you’d rather listen to more on the myth of multitasking, I also recommend this interview on NPR with Clifford Nass who is a psychology professor at Stanford University. His thesis is that multitasking not only wastes more time than it saves, but it also hurts our concentration and creativity (a conclusion that fits well with Wang’s).

Tip #6: Don’t Give Up

There will be times, perhaps a lot of them, when you feel like you’re not cut out for university. You’ll want to quit because the subject matter seems too daunting and you feel unequipped for the task. Well, many times you are unequipped, but that’s exactly why you’re in university in the first place. There is a good chance that even if you do all of the above, you’ll still find yourself struggling at times. That’s okay, expect it. University is supposed to be hard so don’t worry if you find yourself struggling. Stick with it. A graduate school professor (J. P. Moreland) once told our class, “Many of you probably feel like you have no idea what’s going on. Well, that’s okay. Just stick with it and come Spring Break you’ll finally see the fog lift. Until then, just hang in there.” Given that this was during the Fall semester, waiting until Spring Break to get some clarity seemed liked an empty promise. But, he was exactly right. Some time around Spring Break material from the previous semester started to make sense and I could incorporate it into what we were learning that semester. The fog did lift.

Go and Do It

While the semester is still young do your best to habituate these sorts of activities. Spend a few minutes thinking about your daily routine. Figure out how many pages you need to read each day to not fall behind. Do a bit of research on note-taking strategies. In other words,  make your plan to do well in university now and then go and do it. You’re an adult now so your success will depend, in large part, on your acting like one.

Follow me on Twitter @WPaul.
Follow Tyndale Philosophy on Twitter @TyndaleUCPhilos.

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