Dr. Dean’s Guide to Becoming a Successful College Student
You are students of Spring Hill College, an outstanding institution with a proud history and an exciting future.
Remember that learning is a two-way street between teacher and student. Make sure that you are doing your part at least as well as the faculty does theirs. As a former “professional student” and current college professor, I feel well-qualified to offer the following thoughts and suggestions for becoming a successful college student.
“The most important thing in life is showing up,” says Woody Allen. That’s true, too, with regard to your classes. On any given day, you could probably think of several things you would rather do than go to class (such as staying in bed). As a matter of fact, as most of you have already discovered, staying in bed will be one of the greatest temptations of your college life. There are several good reasons for attending class but perhaps these are the two most important:
1. You’ll learn more. When you study without having been to class, you’re learning the material for the first time. When you study after you’ve been to class, you’re reviewing. That’s a big difference.
2. In the subjective realm of grading, attendance always counts. Repeated absences will lose you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to grading - and you never know when you might need that benefit.
Prepare for class
As a renowned educator (whose name I can’t recall) once said, “If you don’t know enough about a subject already, lectures are a pretty poor way to learn.” You have to read the material eventually, so you may as well read it before class. It’s amazing how much more meaningful the material is the second time you hear it.
Don’t confuse taking notes with stenography. You can’t listen, think, and ask questions if you’re busy writing down every word the instructor says. Write down key words and phrases and develop your own personal form of shorthand (abbreviations for commonly used words, etc.).
Participate in class
Most professors ask for and appreciate student involvement in their class - it makes learning and teaching more enjoyable. If you are uncomfortable speaking up in a group the college classroom affords a wonderful opportunity to become good at it. You will need to speak in public when you are out in the “real world”, so take the opportunity to practice now.
The study methods which earned you good grades in high school will not produce the same results in college. On average, you should spend two hours studying each day for every hour spent in class. Spend time studying every night of the week (well, maybe not Fridays). Weekend days present an opportunity for highly productive studying because you should be refreshed and relaxed. Study in a place without distractions. Most importantly, focus on learning the material, not on cramming facts to be regurgitated on the next quiz or exam and forgotten by the end of the day. Learning implies understanding, retaining, integrating, and applying the knowledge you acquire. The material truly is important, you not only have to know it for the next exam, but also for your future coursework, and probably for your entire professional life. Also, focusing on learning the material, rather than on achieving a particular grade on an exam, will reduce the stress and the development of “burn out” toward the end of the semester. Besides, if you’ve truly learned the material, grades tend to take care of themselves.
Final Exam Advice
As you may have noticed, final exams tend to occur during final exam week, and for that reason they are typically a losing proposition. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you have to do well on a final exam.
Take advantage of the opportunity to learn the art of written and oral communication. In biomedical science, communication is as important as knowledge. Possessing knowledge is only half of the equation, the other half is having the ability to convey your knowledge to others in precise and concise terms, both verbally and in writing. Essay exams (and perhaps even oral exams) should be the norm rather than the exception.
Behave responsibly and develop healthy lifestyle habits. The transition between home and college life is not easy. You are no longer under the direct supervision of your parents. It is the beginning of learning to be responsible and independent. Unfortunately, the college culture today includes the use of alcohol and drugs at staggering levels of abuse. Rather than adopting self-destructive habits, develop healthy lifestyle habits that you can maintain for a lifetime.
Take time to enjoy yourself, and don’t neglect your spiritual life. These are busy years for you - there is much to learn. Odds are, however, that 20 years from now it will still be that way. Get into something extracurricular that you can enjoy, music, drama, literature, community service, sports, whatever. Place yourself in the world around you. But get into it in a big way. It may save your sanity in the all too frequent moments of stressful professional overload and burnout. Just because you are away from home is no reason to neglect your spiritual life. Regular church attendance, fellowship, Bible study, and prayer are all critical to spiritual growth.
Right now, make a personal commitment to lifelong learning. We are on a logarithmic scale of growth in biomedical science. Much of what you are now being taught was not available when I first attended college more than 30 years ago, and the half-life of what you are now learning will likely be even shorter. Despite the quality of the education that you will receive here, if you don’t develop the right habits now, you will be steamrolled by the advances in science which are sure to come.
The Gift of You
Lastly, the fundamental purpose of education (as I see it anyway), is to show you that the most important thing of all is to be the one thing nobody else in the whole world can be except you, and that is your own unique and precious self. Whatever you do with your life - whatever you end up achieving or not achieving - the greatest gift you have in you to give the world is the gift of who you are: your way of seeing things, saying things, and feeling about things that is like no one else. We are unique, and each of us can make contributions to society that no one else can make.
I truly want you to be both happy and successful, and I will do anything I can to help you.
David F. Dean, DVM, PhD
Department of Biology
Spring Hill College