5 Things Every Student Should Know Before Starting College

Updated: August 2017

By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
Confucius

In a previous post, Professors Are from Mars, Students Are from Venus, I attempted to artfully delineate the drastically different approaches to learning of college professors versus their pupils. With a new session of school upon us, this entry provides a student-friendly version of this message.

If you’re at least 17-19 years old, then you’ve probably accumulated just enough life experiences that you’ve begun thinking to yourself, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have never…” This doesn’t mean you’re getting old; it just means you’re getting wiser. You’re processing your past experiences through the lens of maturity.
Learning from your past mistakes is a first step in your maturation, but learning from others’ mistakes is a much bigger step. This way you get wiser without too many experiential lumps.

Well, here’s an opportunity to get ahead of the college academic game, to use the experiences of other students to avoid making some costly mistakes. The goal is that you’ll look back one day and say, “I’m glad I heeded those tips from The LearnWell Projects because I avoided making some serious academic mistakes.” Now that’s true wisdom!

1. Your Professors Hate Your Favorite High School Teachers!

Professors are interesting animals. While they may hold a similar position as your high school teacher –– that of the authority figure in the classroom –– they define their role vastly differently. Your favorite high school teacher was probably someone who spent hours of non-classroom time developing the most effective instructional approach to teach you what you needed to know. She considered the test questions you’d be asked and then developed related tasks and activities that were strategically selected and sequentially ordered to help you learn the material. She did what she was trained to do as a teacher.

You need to know that most professors don’t have formal teaching training. They’re subject experts. They spend their out-of-class time thinking deeply about the inner workings of their discipline, passionately discussing matters of their field of expertise, and researching and writing about topics within their discipline. The change in addressing them as “Dr.” or “Professor,” rather than “teacher” is more than mere words. It represents the operational role they serve, which may be different from the role of any educators you’ve encountered thus far.

Like your favorite teachers, your professors are doing what they were trained to do: research, pose deep questions, engage in deep thinking. This means you should commit to learning to operate in much the same way as your instructors because they value these skills. Your professors inherently evaluate your ability to function in these ways in every class interaction, every online feedback you provide, every paper you write, and every test you take.

2. Understand the 80-20/20-80 Paradigm Shift.

I introduced this concept about five years ago in the article Why Good Students Do Bad’ in College. Your high school teacher provided around 80% of the information you needed to know to be successful in her class. You came up with the other 20%, usually by completing highly directed tasks such as well-defined homework assignments, worksheets and the like.

College operates opposite from how you’ve been conditioned to learn. The 80/20 paradigm flips to the 20/80 paradigm. Your professor provides a foundational 20% of the information needed for the class. You’re responsible for producing the remaining 80%. You must develop your knowledge away from the classroom.

There probably won’t be worksheets that reinforce the material presented in class, as is common in high school. Don’t expect extra credit assignments to save your grade. Your homework will consist of reading and studying, but it won’t be defined in the ways in which you are accustomed. The 20/80 shift and its related mental operations are foreign to many students. Your view of what learning entails and how to leverage the various academic tasks (e.g., class attendance, studying, reading, etc.) must quickly evolve.

One last note on this concept. I discovered the 80-20/20-80 Principle after working closely with thousands of students. As the comments to the Why Good Students Do “Bad” in College article show, many students and educators have experienced significant success simply by putting this singular concept into practice.

3. Read Material Before Class.

Your high school teachers were trained to translate course material into structured, sequential lessons. Therefore, you may be accustomed to the following learning sequence:

  1. Teacher presents material during class.
  2. Teacher distributes worksheets or facilitates classroom discussion about material.
  3. Teacher assigns homework and/or requires reading of specific pages.
  4. Teacher incorporates assignment into lesson.
  5. Rewind and repeat.

Those days are over. You’ll probably never experience this kind of highly directed learning again. In the collegiate world, you need to consult your course syllabus well before each class meeting to determine what will be presented. Then, before class, you need to read/study the material that’s going to be discussed. This approach just about guarantees that you’ll extract more valuable information out of the class than your counterparts who walked in unaware of and unprepared for the day’s lesson. Think of it as starting a foot race ten feet in front of your rivals.

4. Know the Difference Between Memorizing and Learning.

Many students spend their study time only memorizing. Memorization is the beginning of learning, not the end. So, if you find yourself engaged in the practice of memorizing without exercising other thinking skills, you will end up on the lower end of the grading scale in rigorous courses. Such classes require a more expansive set of thinking skills.

The bad news is that you need a new set of metrics for your learning. The good news is that I have three free documents that will help you change these metrics.  Those documents can be downloaded here.

You can see how one student changed her learning metrics by reading Keisha’s Story: Developing a Higher Education State of Mind.

  1. Be Confident. You Are Not Broken.

Unfortunately, many educators have bought into a ubiquitous belief that your generation is somehow deficient compared to previous generations. University instructors often engage in a practice that a friend of mine calls “nostesia,” which is a mix of nostalgia and amnesia. This translates into remembering the good ol’ days that never were. Nostesia rears its head at practically every faculty event I conduct. I have developed some effective ways of addressing it, but describing them would make for a long article. So for now, just know that it’s out there. And when you feel discouraged because some professor or maybe even your parents are presenting you with “research” about how technology, “instant gratification,” or “over-parenting” has damaged you, just politely smile and get to work putting the other four tips into practice.


The two activities below detail powerful actions you can take to begin walking along your path of wisdom.

Do them independently or show them to your professor.

Please share your findings in “comments” section below.

Expand Your Universe of Thinking Skills

Step 1 – Using the Compendium of Thinking Skills, circle the skills that most reflect those you used in high school.

Step 2 – Next, in a different color, circle the skills valued in your college course(s).

Step 3 – Compare the differences and write out a plan for activating, monitoring and measuring your usage of the college-appropriate skills as you study.


Shifting Your Learning Paradigm – Reflective Writing Assignment

Step 1 – Reflect on how information was presented in high school, what percentage of the information came from your teacher, the similarities between the information presented in class and the test material, the ways in which you advanced this information on your own, the similarities between the information presented in class and the test material. Write out your recollections.

Step 2 – Ponder how your college classes are similar to and different from your high school classes. Consider the ways in which information is presented (e.g., lecture, problems, scenarios, etc.), the differences between the embedded thinking skills of content that are presented in class and the thinking skills expressed on exams of the same content. Write what you see.

Step 3 – Partner with classmates or peers to discuss what they see as well.

Step 4 – Make your own informal “lesson plans” for how you can develop content from the ways in which it’s presented in class into the ways in which it is expressed on exams.

Here’s an example: A class of nursing students may be presented several terms and concepts during class.  However, they may notice that their tests consist of scenario-based questions. The difference is that in class they are presented facts and concepts that can be learned through rote memorization. But they are being tested on their ability to evaluate medical situations and competently apply the concepts as appropriate. The embedded thinking in the questions are analytical and evaluative, much more rigorous than memorization. Therefore, the nursing students’ plan must demonstrate how they will generate this type of thinking in their study sessions.

(Keep in mind that discerning embedded thinking skills is an advanced level of metacognitive functioning. If you struggle at this activity, then I encourage you to read Keisha’s Story. You can also hone your skills using the ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram and Learning Sufficiency Diagram.)

Comments 7

  1. This is EXACTLY what I tell my students on the first day of class, although certainly not quite as eloquently! Thank you so much for reinforcing the lessons I want to teach them (I teach a bridge reading class that seeks to improve their comprehension of academic materials).

  2. Very helpful. I feel way more prepared to enter my Professors domain. These are things that would take unaware students a long time to realize and understand. Having it laid out in the way you have written is extremely eye-opening and helpful. Thank you.

  3. This is the most accurate article I have ever read about college! I am in my 6th semester of college and am just now seeing this because of an assignment in my college transfer course. I wish I would have seen this when I started college two years ago!

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