With a new semester right around the corner, I’m thinking about how my students may prepare for it. As a college professor for 20 years, I have seen a wide range of student styles and aptitudes, but I hope they develop some very particular skills when I meet them if they haven’t already.
These skills help students achieve their academic and life goals, but truthfully we professors are also helped! We love having more engaged, organized, and holistically healthy students.
The 5 skills my students need from day one
1. A pump-up playlist
Plenty of research shows that listening to music releases endorphins, reducing discomfort. Hate your homework? Pair it with a favorite song. Dread cleaning your dorm room? Set up a playlist that matches the time needed to tidy up.
Better yet, once you connect these songs to specific tasks, you train yourself to start the task when you hear the music. This is important because college, like life, includes tasks no one really “feels like” doing. Knowing how to push past that and get things done anyway is paramount to success. If procrastination sneaks in, as it often does when you attempt challenging things, I hope my students know how to stave it off. Music can help students motivate themselves efficiently.
2. Stretching routine
While science backs the role of stretching before and during cognitive tasks, most people only stretch as part of their physical activities. Students can hoist themselves out of the last century and start connecting the mind and body.
Before a class, do large motor stretches like simple lunges. When you start to lose focus while studying, it’s time to slowly roll your neck and reach your arms up to the sky. This works because stretching affects not only our muscular system but also our nervous system, which operates the brain. As a professor, I’d like to know your brain is as tuned up as it can be when you enter my class, even if this means you are making socially awkward moves in the hallway before you enter.
3. A balanced diet
I teach the psychology of learning, so students may be surprised if I ask about their nutrition. For example, students’ protein intake can affect focus, energy, and mood. Students who carb out in the dining hall but complain about feeling groggy and overwhelmed are doing themselves a disservice. While lack of food access is a real concern among many college-aged students, many others have access but choose poorly. I’m not a nutritionist, but I hope my students seek and implement nutritional advice to keep their brains sharp and bodies energetic. Food matters in your educational success
4. Small talk
Every student should have at least one classmate to text with questions and/or study with in every class. Too many students think their education can happen independently of others. They think they can attend classes and not interact with classmates, as if they were showing up to download new software via my lecture. Sorry, but that’s not how learning works!
Humans are social animals, and we learn best with others. A big part of social learning is that your brain gets to rehearse and rehash the information through dialogue, practice, and peer-to-peer quizzing. Interacting with others about the material helps encode it into your long-term memory, which we can all agree is where we hope it will reside forever (or at least until finals!). How to make this happen? Meet classmates, whether or not the professor enables that. Make small talk about the class, such as “Did you read that last chapter?” or “Is paper #3 due this week or next?” or even “Professor Kruse is my favorite; how about you?”
Small talk in school, like in society, is borne of shared circumstances. Students can use the weather, school sports, or the course they’re in together to make a few connections, which makes eventual studying together even easier. Trust me; this tip has carried many students through to their degrees.
5. How to “read” in college
I have witnessed many first-year students drown in academic overwhelm because no one told them explicitly that assigned readings in college don’t have to be thoroughly read and digested. Reading assignments vary greatly by professor; smart students learn early in the term how much they need to read to learn the material. Here are some categories for assigned reading: Read in detail and take notes so you can use them for later assessments (exams or papers); Read enough to be able to discuss in class; Read it lightly as background to the upcoming lecture; Read the beginning or end enough to know this piece exists in the world simply — plenty of assigned reading falls in this category because we professors want students to be exposed to it.
In addition to cracking the code of reading in each class, students should know how to milk a textbook, such as starting with the chapter summary, quizzing themselves on the content points before reading like a pretest, or even creating visual aids like a mind map of the chapter to be filled in as they read. There are many effective strategies for college reading, so I want my students to choose wisely.
There are many ways to prepare for the back-to-campus season, and I hope these five unexpected steps will position many students for a stronger semester than ever before.
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