How to Succeed in College III: Studytime Strategies

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

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Rick Malloy
8 years 6 months ago
Excellent suggestions Ray.  Too many students get much less out of college than they could.  And about the cost of books... when a John Grisham novel cost $29.00, a 700 page intro to sociology text book ($80-$100) is a bargain.  Why do students, who seem to spend much more on beer than on books, not complain about a five dollar beer at the local bar?


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