The Secrets of College Success

Higher Ed Gamma

Hollywood has largely abandoned one of its late 20th, early 21st century staples: The laugh-until-you-cry college comedy.  You no doubt remember them with a smile:  Animal House.  Back to School.  The House Bunny.  Old School.  Pitch PerfectReal Genius.  Revenge of the Nerds.  School Daze.  The Social Network.  Van Wilder. The early scenes from Legally Blonde and When Harry Met Sally.

These raucous, madcap, zany comedies — the comic, flippant antitheses of Love Story’s over-the-top solemnity and earnestness– reinforced a host of stereotypes about college life: The uppity frat boys, the overbearing deans, the uptight professors clueless about the real world.

If not quite as popular or pervasive as the many movies featuring high schoolers on the verge of college  – like American GraffitiAmerican PieBreakfast ClubCluelessFerris Bueller’s Day OffRisky Business, and Superbad – these often acerbic, mocking cinematic satires and spoofs nonetheless served as a fun house mirror that shaped student expectations about college, including the oddball assortment of geeks, nerds, misfits, sorority babes, daredevils, slackers, and stoners that one would meet, and who would cram, procrastinate, carouse, and, of course, prefer partying to studying.

Yet somewhat ironically, this comedic category’s underlying theme is maturation and self-discovery: achieving independence, defining an identity, developing self-confidence, obtaining deeper, acquiring more intimate friendships, and finding a romantic partner.

Then there was the “into the wild” “reality bites” post-college genre, from The Graduate to The Devil Wears Prada, which included such flicks as Kicking and ScreamingLast Days of DiscoMona Lisa SmilePitch Perfect IIPost GradSt. Elmo’s FireThe Secrets of My SuccessTiny Furniture, and Trainspotting.  The unifying theme: In the aftermath of “Pomp and Circumstances” college graduates were too often left dazed and confused: overqualified and underqualified, lonely and directionless, experiencing a mixture of the post-graduation blues and failure to launch.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that in the wake of these unsettling images, a number of serious academics have written guides to college success.

One, The Secret Syllabus, describes “the unwritten rules of success that every student must follow to thrive in college. Another, Outsmart Your Brain, explain how “you too can be an ‘A’ student” (in the Wall Street Journal’s words) with a boost from cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Secret Syllabus authors Jay Phelan, a biology Ph.D., and Terry Burnham, a business economist, have written a book designed to help the growing number of anxiety-ridden college students who are unaware of college’s unspoken cultural norms and expectations and who “frequently stumble, underperform, and miss opportunities.”  Their advice is right on the money:  Select courses with great teachers.  Take advantage of office hours.   Plan your time carefully.  Behave in class in ways that create a positive impression on your instructors.  The authors also offer practical advice about how to study, prepare for exams, and write better.

My one worry: Even though the authors call on undergrads to cultivate genuine, not instrumental, relationships with faculty, the book’s advice tends to emphasize the practical benefits, not for learning or mentoring, but better grades, more positive letters of recommendations, and greater support for applications for internships and other on- and off-campus opportunities.

Daniel Willingham, Outsmart Your Brain’s author, is K-12 education’s go-to authority on the practical application of the learning sciences in classroom teaching.  Every college instructor would benefit from reading the “Ask the Cognitive Psychologist” columns that he has written for the American Federation of Teachers.

Professor Willingham certainly knows the secrets of publishing success.  Academic authors have a lot to learn from his ability to write for a broad audience.  He debunks myths – like the notion that pedagogy should be tailored to students’ learning styles and that students can learn while multitasking.  He dispels misbeliefs and misconceptions – for example, that motivation in the abstract has a direct impact on learning, and that repetition and drilling guarantees learning.

His willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom and question faddish thinking are praiseworthy.  He shows, for example, that making material relevant to students’ interests generally doesn’t work, and that efforts to instill grit – as opposed to self-control and development of a growth mindset – almost always fail.

He’s straightforward:  As he states bluntly, highlighting and rereading reading passages aren’t effective ways to learn.  He demystifies the dense prose found in more specialized academic studies. He dismisses cant and forgoes jargon.  Yet he doesn’t dumb down or oversimplify: Instead, he prunes and clarifies and makes the complex intelligible and engaging.

Perhaps the single most important point conveyed in his popular writing is one that I wholeheartedly endorse: That claims that imagination and creativity are more important than factual knowledge are utterly misguided.  As he puts it, factual knowledge and background knowledge are “the prerequisite for imagination, problem solving, decision-making, and creativity,” as well as for critical thinking and can only be acquired through memorization.

Professor Willingham’s latest book explains why many students struggle academically.  The answers won’t surprise you, and Phelan and Burnham make some of the same points.  Students use poor strategies for memorization.  They have trouble understanding lectures and comprehending complex writing.  They procrastinate and choke on high-stakes tests.

The book offers a loads of valuable, actionable advice about how to avoid procrastination, memorize content, stay focused, gain confidence, judge when you’ve studied enough, cope with anxiety, take notes, read difficult books, study for exams, and take tests.

Here are some of the lessons that I draw from his scholarship:

  • Instructors must be more deliberate about teaching critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving.
  • Skills and knowledge are not separate but intertwined.
  • Students need exposure to varied examples before a concept becomes more abstract and they can successfully apply that understanding to novel situations.
  • The value of sustained practice can’t be overstated, and requires concentration, feedback, and self-testing to determine if progress is being made.
  • The standard of knowing a topic is the “ability to explain to others,” not “understanding when explained by others.”
  • Students need to avoid distractions and multitasking when studying, take periodic rest breaks, eat and sleep well, reduce chronic mind wandering (for example, by chewing gum or reading out loud), and distribute their studying over time rather than cram.
  • Students shouldn’t rely on their feelings about whether they’ve mastered material; they need to quiz themselves.

So, what, then, are the most important takeaways from his new book?  At the risk of gross oversimplification, I might reduce his 94 tips to these:

  • To learn from a lecture, it’s essential to use note-taking shorthand and understand how lectures are organized — hierarchically, rather than linearly – and attend closely to verbal and non-verbal cues that provide clues to a lecture’s organization.  Also, students need to get over their reluctance to ask questions when a portion of a lecture is confusing.
  • To make sense of a difficult book or article, take notes, outline the argument, and summarize key points and terminology.
  • To stay organized, focused, and on track, don’t rely on willpower; create a calendar, dedicate consistent blocks of time for studying, and generate a to-do list with each item taking 20-60 minutes, then reward yourself when you’ve finished these tasks.
  • To effectively study and get essential material to stick, create a study guide and test your memory of the content in random order.  Also, retrieve information after a break and test yourself on the types of questions the instructor is likely to ask.
  • Take advantage of study groups in which participants fill in gaps in lecture and reading notes and quiz one another.
  • To improve future performance, learn from past performance.  Evaluate what went wrong on a quiz, test, or essay.
  • Build self-confidence by taking steps to alter your self-image and socializing with others who are committed to learning or who can provide emotional, informational, and practical support.
  • Tame academic anxiety through mindfulness medication and a three-step process of normalizing, evaluating, and engaging.

Professor Willingham also offers useful guidance for faculty.  Some of that advice is surprising: Making material relevant to students’ interests generally doesn’t work. Instead, personally connect with your students and organize your material in ways that are interesting and easy to understand.  Here’s are some other pieces of advice that he offers:

  • Don’t take students’ study skills for granted.
  • Praise student effort, and repeatedly remind them that hard work pays off.Express confidence in your students, but don’t praise second-rate work.
  • Help students understand that failure is a natural part of learning and that it is virtually impossible to become proficient in a subject without extensive practice.
  • Break big assignments into smaller tasks each with its own deadline.

All good, practical, and useful advice that instructors should bear in mind.

A recent piece in The New York Times claimed that a key to student success “seems almost too obvious to mention but, in fact, deserves far more attention and discussion: a simple willingness to learn.”

I certainly love to have students who are avid, passionate, earnest, and dedicated learners who are fascinated by whatever it is that I’m teaching.  But I’m not surprised that most undergraduates enter my classroom convinced that my history courses are a box-checking exercise, irrelevant to their professional ambitions.  That’s a fact of life that I accept.  In consequence, I believe a big part of my job is to alter their opinion by engaging and motivating them and demonstrating that history isn’t one damn fact after another.

The student success book authors offer valuable advice about how to take advantage of college. Were I king, I’d introduce more for-credit student success classes and share many of the tips that the authors’ include in their books. I totally agree with those who liken a university to a health club:  You only get out of it what you put in.  But I also think that there is much more that campuses can do to sustain students’ academic momentum and bring them to a bright future.

Let’s not forget that the main answer to the question of why a third or more of college students fail to earn a degree is not mindset, motivation, or poor preparation or study skills.  After all, most college dropouts are in good academic standing.  Put bluntly, “Academic performance is not the primary risk to departure.”

The real problems have to do with finances and life circumstances as well as a host of factors that campuses can control.  These include:

  • Enhancing students’ sense of belonging.
  • Providing every new student with a degree plan and a designated adviser.
  • Instilling a sense of belonging.
  • Monitoring student progress and Intervening proactively when undergraduates are off-track.
  • Facilitating credit transfer.
  • Reducing the number of wasted credit hours.
  • Substituting co-requisite remediation for non-credit remedial courses.
  • Ensuring access to gateway courses.
  • Making sure that class schedules accommodate students who commute, work, and caregive.
  • Encouraging participation in learning support services.
  • Incentivizing full-time enrollment.
  • Reducing or eliminating needlessly complex degree requirements.
  • Delivering engaged, relevant, and clear, well-organized instruction that aligns with students’ career goals.

It turns out that the secrets of college success are not a secret at all.  Academic success is a collective effort and  we act irresponsibly when we place the burden of success largely on students’ backs.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Steven Mintz
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Thursday, February 9, 2023
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