17 Ways To Excel In Your Class

I am currently an upperclassman in pursuit of my Bachelor’s degree. College is a lot harder than high school, but this is also a time in your life where you get to refine your work ethic. With the school semester about to begin, I wanted to give out a couple of hints. Without further ado, here are my 17 tips for studying and learning more effectively in college:

1.     Read the textbook before class

Most classes require a textbook, but most people only read the textbook briefly before their exam or assignment to see if there was anything the professor didn’t cover. But here’s a secret I had to learn on my own: if you know you’re going to be covering chapter 13 in class, read chapter 13 before class starts. You’ll have a better idea of what’s going on and then you’ll be able to ask good questions. You won’t be stuck on “wait, what’s the difference between autotroph and heterotroph again?” when your professor is lecturing on chemoheterotrophs and photoautotrophs. 

Also, if you can and it is a reasonable price, print versions help you learn better than digital. If your library has the textbook, but it’s the 8th edition instead of the 14th edition, go ahead and borrow it. It’s free, and while page number assignments may be off, the gist of the information is still going to be there (and that’s a lot better than dropping $150 on that physics book that you’ll never pick up again).

2.     Show up to class

I hope this tip is obvious to you (duh), but there are a lot of people who skip class if there isn’t an assignment due. I’ve only done it twice to work on biochemistry assignments with my group…but the 73% I got on the following genetics exam demonstrated that skipping class didn’t benefit me. I also know it can be really hard to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, especially for your calculus class. Seriously, though. If you want to have any idea of what’s happening in the class, you need to at least have a presence. Most professors will give not-so-subtle hints as to what’s going to be on an assignment or exam during class, and you will not get this information any other way. Unless you want to make your life harder (which I know is not the case), just show up to class. 

3.     Pay attention

Honestly, I’m surprised at the number of people in classes who don’t pay attention. The professor will explain something (e.g. “the sky is blue”), and ten minutes later, someone will ask “What color is the sky?”. Instagram can wait. I promise. 

4.     Take notes

You know that notes are important. Believe me, don’t tell yourself you’ll do it later. You won’t. At least, not until the night before your exam when your hand is seriously cramping and you were wishing you were ambidextrous (but we’ll get to that later). If your teacher provides you with a PowerPoint ahead of time, print it out and take notes as the lecture progresses. If PowerPoints are not provided, bring a piece of paper and create an outline, bullet points, or if you’re super creative, doodle! Seriously, what your notes look like doesn’t matter, as long as you understand them and get all of the pertinent information. Here’s one more tip: stay away from the computer. While you can type faster, you most likely won’t learn as much that way. If you feel that you really need to use your laptop, rewrite your notes by hand that evening. Repetition is the key to learning, anyways.

5.     Color code everything

Here’s one trick that I’ve been implementing. I assign a color to each class and then I stick with it. I can somehow remember colors better than I can words. Even though I took biochemistry a few semesters ago, anytime I write with the light green pen, that’s what always comes to mind because that was the color I assigned to it. At times, I’ll color code one whole lecture (you know, to remember the differences between an autotroph, which is red, and a heterotroph, which is gold).

6.     Dissect articles that don’t make sense

Your history professor just gave you a 20-page historical document written sometime in the 1700s and told you that you needed to read it before your assignment that’s due in 4 days. You think it’s going to be a no-brainer, but your second glance at the page shows that you were wrong. Why in the world does one “s” look like a lowercase “f” while another one doesn’t? And what in the world does that word mean? Here’s my hint on how to tackle these: print out the documents and grab your gel pens (or something that is not black so that it stands out). Pick one side margin (e.g. the right side) and circle the words that you need to define and draw an arrow and write the meanings in this margin, and only on this side, if you can. On the opposite margin (e.g. the left side), write a one to two sentence description of what happened in that paragraph. The goal is to get the main points of each paragraph in this process. By taking the time out of your study time to dissect your paper like this, you will save yourself time in the future when you need to look up the same word 15 times because you still have no idea what it means.

7.     A planner will save your grade

You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s true. Write down everything. Your brain is going to be so full that you will probably forget to send that email to Dr. So-and-So (at times, I even forget to eat lunch!). So write down that you need to send that email so that you don’t forget. Color coding also works wonderfully here too. Seriously…write everything down, even if you think it’s silly. Your brain will thank you later.

8.     Find a quiet place to study

Many people told me that the absolute best place to study on campus was in one of the libraries. During my first semester at my four-year university, I tried it out. And I got nowhere in a pretty long period of time. You see, as much as I don’t like walking up to people and striking up a conversation with them, I am an avid people watcher. It turns out I got no studying done. I was too busy watching the people in the Starbucks line and those who were studying and chatting around me. After I finally realized I had wasted my afternoon (but gotten some much-needed entertainment), I decided I needed a different place to study in between classes. I finally found the perfect spot – a deserted corner on the highest floor of the bioscience building. There was a desk, chair, and power outlet, and that was all I needed to get my work done. It was quiet, and there were (maybe) one or two other people there at the most. While you may be able to study in a well-populated area, I am not. Just make sure to find the area where you are most productive.

9.     Turn your assignments in early (or on time if you absolutely have to)

Both of my grandfathers served in the military. One was in the Air Force while the other was in the Navy. The one thing that they taught my parents: “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.” I’ll give you one shot at guessing what my parents taught me about when to show up places. I typically show up at least 15 minutes early to my next class, if I don’t need to sprint across campus. Even if I show up 5 minutes early, I am stressing out because I feel like I’m late.

I treat my assignments the same way as much as I can (unfortunately I need to take what I can get with group work). I would much rather turn the assignment in the day we get the assignment or the day before it’s due at the latest. With individual work, I can do that, but with group work, it’s typically only submitted a few hours before the deadline…a couple of times, mere seconds before the deadline. While that’s all well and good, my parents also made sure I knew about “Murphy’s Law”. Whatever can go wrong, will. It is wiser to turn your assignments in early than wait till the last minute. What happens if your internet goes out? You get a reduction in points, if not a zero. Besides, submitting things early keeps you from staying up till 3 am to get your assignment finished before your 8 am class.

10.     Create a review sheet before your test

One thing that got me through my really hard classes was a review sheet a few days before an exam (not the night before, thank you!). I would write down all of the things that we covered onto ONE side of an 8½ by 11-inch paper. And if I couldn’t fit everything on there, I would start over. This practice is not about making yourself write smaller and smaller – it’s about making yourself re-write the information so many times to fit it all on one side that you actually memorize things in the process, and can take them off of your paper. I also color-coded this, too, based on the topic or concept. This helped me a lot. 

Bonus: If you can get your professor to look over it beforehand, they’ll usually give you hints on important things you missed or where you need to further clarify. Just stress that it’s a review sheet and that you will not be bringing it with you to the test! We don’t want any honor code violations. 

11.     Ask for help at the first sign that you need it

I had to take Organic Chemistry 1 twice. I had never failed a class before in my life. It was an eight-week course, and I was determined that I could get myself out of the hole that I had been digging without any help. And boy, was I wrong. My teacher was one who would bend over backwards to help students succeed…but only if they asked for it. About two weeks before the class ended, I realized that I needed some help, and pronto. But by then it was too late to save my grade. She helped me as best she could and I ended up with a D. I can only imagine what I would have ended up with had I not asked for help! So I took it again, in sixteen weeks, with her the next semester and passed with a C. While that was not an awesome final grade, I’ve been told that Organic Chemistry needs to be your cup of tea if you really want to do great. Congrats to all those who actually get an A. In a later biochemistry course, I got a 63% on my first test and practically ran to the teacher asking for help. I went every week…sometimes multiple times a week. But he helped me understand the material and I went from a D to an A in that class because I had learned my lesson with Organic Chemistry. 

Moral of the story: ask for help right at the first indication that you need it. It will literally save your grade.

12.     Study with smart people

I will be completely honest – I really don’t like the classes that force me to do group work. Most people like turning things in the day that they’re due, whereas I would rather turn the assignment in a week early, if possible. I have noticed, though, that when I’m in a group with someone who is on the President’s List (3.9+ GPA) I typically learn the material better. While I would rather study on my own, multiple people swear by studying in groups. It’s at least worth a try, right?

13.     Teach someone else

My parents and my sister were (and still are!) very benevolent when I would come home and explain to them exactly how glycolysis and the Kreb’s cycle work together to break down one molecule of glucose. I would then tell them that fermentation gives you about 2 ATP (energy), whereas oxidative phosphorylation and the electron transport chain give you upwards of 38 ATP. To tell you the truth, they didn’t really care. They didn’t care about how the metabolic systems all worked together when I commandeered the living room floor and mapped it all out. But they did care about the fact that I was learning by doing so. When you’re able to teach someone else (or at least have someone else pay half-attention to you as you explain it) you better understand the material and it sticks with you longer. 

14.     Endear yourself to your professors

Don’t bring them homemade brownies every day. The goal is not to bribe them, but for you to get on their good side. By showing up to class early, asking good questions in class, and showing that you’re attentive to them and respecting them, they’ll tend to be nicer to you than the person who comes in late and scrolls through Pinterest during the lecture. Also, go see them during office hours. At the very least they’ll finally be able to put a face with your name. I have seen that you can learn tips about the exam and how to better succeed in the class during these times too. Even if you don’t have a question right away, make one up (a plausible, good one) just to have an excuse to go see them. This will show them that you’re putting extra effort into their class, which will go a long way.

15.     Don’t pull an all-nighter

Trust me, you won’t learn anything. You’ll just lose sleep, become highly caffeinated, and almost fall asleep the next day during your test. If you can, try studying a few days beforehand, or even just the day before. But set a bedtime. Don’t stay up late. Go to bed before midnight, so that you wake up refreshed and aware (just remember to set your alarm!). Eat breakfast before your test, and walk in knowing you’re going to ace it. I don’t care if it is your organic chemistry final! If you walk in telling yourself you’re going to fail, you might as well just turn back around and walk out…because you will. If you walk in confident, on the other hand, you’ll do so much better. You may not get an A, but you’ll certainly be in the right mindset to not fail. 

16.     Take the syllabus quiz

Some classes have a syllabus quiz where it’s worth a “measly” 3 points or 1% of your grade. Quite a few people just skip over this and don’t bother completing it. Trust me, that 1% will make all the difference if you have an 89% in the class (just saying…). It will take you probably about 5 minutes and you literally have all the answers on the syllabus.

17.     Always do extra credit

It always boggles my mind whenever I find out that people don’t complete extra credit because they think they don’t have time for it, or they’re already doing well in class. Extra credit never hurts. I love it when I can get over 100% on an assignment…it makes up for days when I don’t do so well. It’s never a good idea to skip extra credit assignments.

The main takeaway that I can give you is that your professors will be your best resource. By utilizing the above strategies, I have found that I am a whole lot less stressed around finals week than my peers. And it’s not because I know the material better than them…I just know how I work better. Because we are all different and created uniquely, not everything on this list may work for you, and that’s okay. 

“I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.” 

– Psalms 139:14

If you are not 100% sure that you’ll go to Heaven when you die, now is the time to repent and put your trust in Jesus Christ. If you have any questions or doubts about your salvation, click here to learn how to be saved!

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version.

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