Before considering some of these techniques, it’s important to dispel a couple of myths. For one thing, there’s no such thing as “fixed intelligence.” Some people might have an easier time with math or the piano, but everyone can learn, provided that they commit to it.
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck examines the importance of having a growth mindset. “The view you adapt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” she writes. “It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”
Moreover, as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham has shown, “learning styles” do not exist. It’s true that you might prefer one method to another or one subject to another, but when it comes to learning, the most important thing to know is that it requires regular and focused practice. As Cal Newport shows in his book Deep Work, attempting to multitask is counterproductive. The key is to focus without distraction.
You need to be precise and practice particular activities, the kind that you will be expected to demonstrate on an exam or assignment. One of the best things you can do is practice retrieving information. Flash cards, for example, work to build information networks in your brain, which you can later access with ease. There are a number of good electronic ways to do this, including the Flash Card Machine, which is free and allows for sharing.
You should also practice more difficult skills, like analyzing what you’ve learned and applying it to new situations and across courses. Here’s a great definition and overview of critical thinking that you might find helpful. Even if you’ve moved on to new material or a different module, you should review what you’ve learned. As Dustin Bakkie puts it, “The best time to learn something is right as you’re about to forget it.”
Here’s a video on five different ways to take good notes. The “mind map” method works very well as a pre-writing exercise for papers. When deciding between pen and paper or computer, you should know that research has found that people retain information better when they take notes by hand.
In addition to the how, there is also the question of how much studying. Indeed, “time on task” is one of the greatest predictors of student success. The “Carnegie Rule” is that you should spend 2-3 hours a week studying for every hour you are in class. Not every course will be this demanding, but many of your professors are operating under the assumption that you are a “full-time student.”
One big difference between high school and college is the amount of unscheduled time you have. Most of your work will be done out of class, which means you need to have strong time management skills and an ability to prioritize your activities. Managing your time properly will ensure that you can attend classes prepared. You will get more out of class, if you know what everyone is talking about and you can contribute with informed questions and comments.
David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, which has become a movement of sorts, offers five steps for productivity: (1) writing down everything you have to do, (2) identifying the actionable steps, (3) organizing those activities by category and priority, (4) frequently reflecting on your list, and (5) remaining engaged.
You should also keep a calendar that is accessible from your mobile phone that you refer to and update frequently. At the beginning of each semester, you should add all of the key dates for your courses and assignments—and refer to the syllabi regularly. It contains important information about assignments and expectations that you might not remember from the first day of class.
Todoist a free app to organize your projects and tasks, when merely putting them on your calendar is not enough. Many people use the Evernote webpage/app for notes and lists. It’s free, flexible, and integrated into other programs, apps, and websites. You could use Google Docs in the same way. Its formatting makes it simple for writing papers, and since it’s cloud-based, you never have to worry about losing your work.
Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests you keep a to-do list that’s organized around how important things are and when they are due. It’s inspired by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president and general. Most people are prone to spend their time working on things at the last minute, then are too exhausted to do anything other than waste time on unimportant activities. The trick is to maximize the time you spend on important but not urgent work.
If you struggle with time management, you might want to check out “How To Avoid Procrastination for Good” or “The Science of Procrastination” video for a number of effective techniques. You could also keep a log of all your activities for a couple weeks to determine if you are using your time wisely.
If you’re concerned about writing, you should make heavy use of the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University and Writing for Success, a free open-access grammar and style handbook. Grammarly is an excellent Chrome extension that helps with spelling and grammar in email and websites.
With a Youtube channel, a blog, and a podcast, Collegeinfogeek.com is another great resource for serious students.
Finally, you should visit your professors in their offices early in the semester and again later, as the need arises. The same is true of support services around campus—your advisor/s, the research librarians, the Learning Center, etc.
There are a great many people on campus wanting to help you succeed. Most times, however, it’s easier for you to find them than it is for them to find you.