How to succeed in classes by actually trying

Elliott Miller
Michael Larson, Ben Black, and Alli Yost study together in the Harold B. Lee Library. (Elliott Miller)

Students arrive on campus bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, excited for their new classes as a semester starts. Empowered by the recent break, students do all the readings for the first week of school.

By the second week of class, something has changed. Some students keep up on their readings, while others start to fall behind. Soon students miss several assignments, fail easy quizzes and write mediocre papers, and their grades begin to reflect it.

What can a student do to stay on top of work and succeed in classes?

1. Do a little every day

In early years of college, students take general classes that are required for graduation. The ability to pick and choose classes allows students to take subjects they are interested in; however, since the types of generals are so broad, many students end up taking courses that are unfamiliar and even difficult for them.

For non-math-minded people one of those classes is statistics. Shannon Tass, a statistics professor at BYU, gave sage advice that can be applied to not just statistics, but to any class.

“Do a little every day,” Tass said. “It’s a lot harder to catch up than to keep up.”

Tass said learning is a slow process and that practicing equations or doing reading assignments on a daily basis will help students memorize information in a more permanent way than cramming will.

A 2009 study by Nate Kornell, who was a member of the department of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that spacing, rather than cramming (massed study), was a more effective study habit.

The result of the study showed that students who studied flashcards multiple times retained information better than did students who crammed instead. In the experiment, both groups studied for the same amount of time.

“Learners who perceive massed study as more effective than spaced study should beware: Massed study is seductive, and it can appear to be more effective than spaced study even when spaced study is the more effective strategy,” Kornell said in the study.

2. Be aware of assignments

Tass recommended looking at LearningSuite before the next school week to see what assignments are coming up. She also said that when she was in college, she would have a notebook for each class and keep track of what she needed to do that way.

Tyler Griffin, a religion professor at BYU, said students have to figure out what’s expected of them, especially with religion classes because students tend to come into those classes expecting to already know the material.

“The best way to succeed in a class is to keep on top of everything in the syllabus,” Griffin said. “Read the syllabus.”

Griffin said when he was a college student he would also keep a calendar and write in the times when he would work on specific classes. He said doing this was a physical reminder of how much time he needed to put into each class he was taking.

Planners are also a good place to write down every assignment for every class. That way, all the information is in one place and is easy to access.

Another option that can help facilitate organization could be the reminders feature most smartphones have. Sometimes the easiest assignments to forget are the ones that are due at the same time every week. Using the reminders feature and setting it to go off every week right before an assignment is due can minimize the chance of forgetting to turn it in.

3. Set a ‘pass out’ line

Griffin observed that as the semester progresses students start to procrastinate their assignments, and it shows in their work. He said if students set deadlines before the professor’s deadline, it allows for a cushioning period of time, in case an emergency happens.

“Treat the deadline (as) exactly what it is, a dead line,” Griffin said. “Pick an ‘I’m gonna pass out’ line a few days ahead of the professor’s deadline to give yourself some extra time, because life happens.”

4. Know and utilize resources

Another way students can be successful is to use resources that are available. Professors and their TAs generally all have office hours, which is time they set aside to help their students. Many students don’t take advantage of this extra resource until it’s too late.

Tass said students generally don’t come to see her unless it’s close to a project deadline. “Even today I asked my TA if anyone came in, and he said, ‘No,'” Tass said.

Tass recommended students come in long before a project is due or immediately when they are struggling in the class so they receive more one-on-one help from the instructor or TA.

The BYU Math Lab and the BYU Writing Center are also great resources for students who are taking math classes or have writing assignments.

Classes can be hard, and students can struggle, but with the right tools under their belts, students can have a successful semester.

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