I remember when I received my first syllabi during my first week of college, I was amazed to discover that most of my professors would be determining grades based solely on two tests: the mid-term and the final. A few professors also included homework or participation points, but these were negligible compared to the tests; at most, they counted for 15% of the final class grade. And in fact, some of my professors – especially those teaching the large lecture classes, which tended to have 100 + students – didn’t even assign homework. In other words, my professors left it entirely up to us students to figure out how we wanted to learn, memorize, and review new material to prepare for the major tests.
At the time, this style of teaching was completely alien to me. In high-school, my teachers had given daily homework and frequent in-class quizzes that they regularly graded, and that they often counted towards approximately 30% of the final class grade. In other words, I was used to a system in which learning was extremely structured, in which I was given constant feedback about my performance, and in which my grade didn’t depend so heavily on just a few tests. But, as soon as I began college, it was up to me to figure out not only how learn and digest new material, but also to monitor my performance so that I’d know if I was ready for test day.
It takes many freshmen a good deal of time to finally adjust to this new college learning environment. To ease your transition, I’ve broken down the major differences between how to study in high school and how to study in college.
1. Give Yourself Homework
In high-school, teachers assign so many in-class exercises and so much daily homework that students naturally begin to absorb new material. In college, this is rarely the case. Although the classes I attended in college varied in size and structure, a “hands-off” teaching style was the norm, whether the class was large or small. In fact, even in the smaller classes I took as an upperclassmen, my professors tended to assign 2-3 intensive research papers during the semester that we students would be graded on, rather than handing out daily worksheets.
Overtime, one of the most valuable skills I learned in college was to “give myself homework”. After I’d been taught new material in class, I’d do something like review my notes and do a mock-quiz with friends who were also in the class with me. Depending on the class, I’d also do things like work on practice problems in my textbooks on my own time, or re-read assigned reading that the professor had discussed in class.
Although giving yourself extra work in college may sound superfluous or fastidious, it in truth helped me maintain a balanced, healthy schedule when I was in college. Rather than saving all my studying until the night before the mid-term – only to discover that I didn’t remember key concepts I’d been taught weeks ago because I’d never reviewed them, or that I didn’t understand certain material after all – I was aware of what concepts I did and didn’t understand, and I was able to split my studying into manageable chunks.
2. Go to Office Hours
In high school, I was able to ask my teachers for help during class – especially when we were doing in-class exercises. In college, most classes consist of lectures and group discussions, so students aren’t able to ask for extensive help during class. However, almost all professors hold what’s called “office hours”, or a set time every week when professors are in their university office and are available to help. One of the biggest mistakes I made as a freshman was skipping these office hours, simply because I was already very busy with just my class schedule. I thought that I didn’t have time to spend my evenings in office hours, as I already spent most of my mornings and afternoons in class, or studying.
However, just as it’s up to college students to monitor their performance, it’s also up to college students to proactively pursue help when they are struggling. If you don’t do well on your mid-term, your professor will not schedule a personal meeting with you – the way high-school teachers often will. If you aren’t understanding key concepts, and you don’t say anything to your professors during office hours, they won’t take the initiative to work through any concepts you aren’t understanding with you, or to show you how to manage the material they’ve said you need to know by test day. But don’t be scared! Although professors tend to take a hands-off approach, they are extremely willing to help – if you ask.
3. Keep Your Professor Informed About Your Essay Topics and Research Materials
Essays and research papers in college are a much bigger deal than essays in high-school. In high-school, teachers often give you almost all of the material you need to write the essay. However, in college, professors often require you to write longer essays that utilize multiple sources from your university library. This means that professors expect you to find your own materials, but that they do give you several weeks advanced notice before a paper is due, so that you can begin your research. During this preliminary period, it’s crucial that you speak to your professor during office hours about what books you plan on using for your paper, as well as what ideas you have for your paper. That way, if you’ve chosen weak evidence, or haven’t fully thought through your own topic, your professor will be able to point you in a better direction.
In sum, the most important thing you will learn in college is not a set of formulas, or a bunch of theories, but how to learn. I know these differences between studying in college and high-school might seem daunting! However, you will find that the extra work you have to do in college will give you a much better sense of who you are and how you think, which is one of the reasons why college truly is a life-time investment.
By Rita Pearson