5 Things Every Student Should Know Before Starting College

writing top 5 on blackboard

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 a traditional-age student, then you’re probably just starting to think 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. Well, here’s an opportunity to get ahead of the game, to use the experiences of others 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.”

Tip Number One: 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 are 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 is representative of 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. They will be inherent in everything that you are asked to do.

Tip Number Two: Understand the 80/20 Rule / 20/80 Rule Shift

I introduced this concept about three 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 Rule flips to the 20/80 Rule. Your professor provides a foundational 20% of the information needed for the class. You’re responsible for producing the remaining 80% — usually outside of the classroom. There probably won’t be worksheets that reinforce the material presented in class. Don’t expect extra credit assignments.  Your homework will be to read and study, but it won’t be defined in the ways in which you are accustomed. The 20/80 Rule and its related mental operations are foreign to many students.

I developed The 80/20 Rule after working with countless students. Many of them as well as numerous educators have reported that simply putting this singular concept into practice has positioned students to be much more successful learners.

Tip Number Three: 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 order of events:

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.

It’s highly improbable you’ll ever 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 get more 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.

Tip Number Four: 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 that require analytical, evaluative and creative thinking skills.  The bad news is that you need a new set of metrics for your learning. The good news is that I have two free documents that will help you change these metrics.  Those documents can be downloaded at: https://www.thelearnwellprojects.com/tools/.

 Tip Number Five: 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.

Share your thoughts and tips by commenting below.

Comments 4

  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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