You’re not going to like what I say.
But in college — as in any sport, family life, and any job where you want to keep the job and get ahead — there is no substitute for hard work. It comes as a shock to students to hear that there is a consensus among college and university professors and administrators (at least among the good ones) that the student should put in two hours a study for each one hour in the classroom. For someone taking the normal load of five courses, that comes to 30 hours a week. That’s to get by. Top students do more.
I think I hear you laughing. “Some of my professors don’t give that much homework,” you say. “Nobody I know studies 30 hours a week”. That may be true of the “students you know.” If so, start looking around for some new friends who will be better role models and more supportive of your intellectual goals than the group you have fallen into during the first weeks of the semester.
And consider the possibility that the professor who does not give you reading and writing assignments for every class may not have your best interests at heart. In fact, the less he or she challenges you, the less work for him or her.
Next, Buy the textbooks. What!? They cost $$$! Yes, but if you have the money for tuition and room and board — even through loans and work and scholarships — as well as for the latest wardrobe, sneakers, cell phones and all kinds of electronic stuff, you have the money for books. With the possible exception of $100 marketing and science tomes, the books you are assigned for class, at least in the humanities, should have permanent value and become the building blocks of your personal lifetime library.
If the teacher is using the books well, you should have your own copy in class when he or she asks you to turn to page 547 of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov where the name of the murderer is revealed and asks you, “Joe, tell the class in what sense that statement is both true and untrue.” You won’t look good when you turn to Biff on your left and try to borrow his book.
You also need your copy to mark it up. To know the text intimately you should read it with a red pen in your hand and a yellow high-lighter on the table. When a new character appears circle the name and scribble a note in the margin on why he’s important. As themes develop, write “theme” in the margin and underline the quote that demonstrates your point. Then make a list of characters in your notebook and jot down key facts about them as you move along. Pay particular attention to the first and last lines of each chapter, for the first line is meant to grab your attention and the last line often sums up what has gone before and draws the reader into what will happen next.
With some books, for example a nonfiction study of a social problem, it helps to pre-read the book, dwelling on the first and last pages of each chapter, so you know where you are going. Then read it straight through. If necessary, re-read it by starting with the last chapter and read it backwards. Because you know the ending you will be more alert to the main ideas which you are seeing for the second time.
Recent studies demonstrate that multitasking is a myth. Do not imagine that you can watch TV, answer the phone, listen to rock and rap, check Facebook, and study at the same time. You can’t. Pick a table in the library and put your hours in. Take a short break every hour and alternate between subjects: an hour for history, an hour for philosophy. Recent research also suggests that rather than always study in the same library location, alternate. Somehow switching topics and locales also improves retention.
Finally, join a study group. The practice of explaining the material to friends certainly reinforces your understanding and helps you deal with criticism of your ideas. But never count on the group’s work as a substitute for your own. For example, to have each member read one chapter and tell the others what’s in it both defeats the purpose of sharing ideas and may well guarantee a flunking grade. If your study buddy has passed along the wrong answers, you are stuck with his mistakes.
Raymond A. Schroth