How to learn in college

Adam Dove is a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a B.A. in Fiction Writing and a Certificate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s studies. He currently communicates for Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering Dean’s Office. In his free time, he teaches a weekly writing workshop to a lively group of Pittsburgh seniors (citizens, that is), and organizes community author readings and open mics. He hopes to one day be as successful a novelist as the world will allow.

Don’t look at me like that. By now, if you’re anything like me, you know that there’s a serious difference between showing up to school and actually learning in school. Maybe you had that friend who coasted through high school with straight Ds because they decided they’d rather count down to the final bell than pay attention to the teacher. Maybe you were that friend. I know I was. Maybe you simply had that one day over the course of your otherwise enraptured academic career when, for whatever reason, you just didn’t feel like trying. No matter how academic apathy has touched your life, the point is, the difference between an engaged student and an unengaged one can end up being the difference between a successful career and a first-year dropout.
So, whether this was or wasn’t you in high school, it doesn’t matter. The point is to make sure it isn’t you in college. Because unlike high school, this time around it isn’t free, and whether it’s coming out of your personal wallet or not, four years is a lot of time you could have spent binge-watching Netflix. So, here are a few tried and true tips to make sure you get the most out of your classes (even the ones you hate).
1. Show up
Trust me, I do have to say it. It may not have seemed so difficult in high school, but when there’s no one there shaking you out of bed every five minutes until you get up and put your clothes, no one specifically hired to just pick you up and drive you directly to the front door, finding the motivation to drag your own butt to class can sometimes be difficult. But if you don’t go you can’t learn, no matter how many times you tell yourself I’ll just read the chapter in bed; it’ll be just like I was there. I promise; no one has ever actually read the chapter in bed, and no, it will not be just like you were there.
If this is a self-identified problem area for you, don’t worry, there are things you can do. Probably the most effective method is to make at least one friend in every class. I’m not saying you have to hang out with this person on weekends or even legitimately have anything in common. More someone you say hi to when you walk in, make before-class small talk with, maybe even sit next to. Someone who will notice when you aren’t there. Someone who will call and say Hey, did you die? Sometimes, this tiny bit of social accountability is all it takes. The guilt of ditching your ‘friend’ will get you out of bed.
2. Sit in the front
For those of you who felt a twinge of recognition reading over that first point, this one probably applies to you as well. As a natural night-owl, my biggest problem in college was falling asleep in class. Anything before 9 a.m.: forget about it. Sure, I would show up (somehow), but five minutes in I’d be propping up my head in the back row and trying to stay conscious. But in the front row, you can’t do that, at least not without risking serious humiliation. As soon as I realized this fact and started to sit myself right in front, suddenly it was like every class started at 11.
3. Monkey see, Monkey do
I know, you think you’re above peer pressure – that it’s some kind of media scare like razor apples and rainbow parties, or that all your classmates who ever partied too hard or bullied anyone or dressed like someone else just to feel cool are just victims of their own weak minds, and that you, being the open-minded free-thinking individual that you are, are above that. Well you’re not, just like I’m not, just like your parents or your grandparents or your best friends are not. Like it or not, much of who we are – of who each of us is – is shaped by our culture and the people we spend time with.
But don’t worry! That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Being swayed by the people around you is not a sign of weakness, but one of interconnectedness. Giving into peer pressure doesn’t automatically mean we all become lazy, freeloading drug-dealers. In fact, you can harness the power of peer pressure to help you achieve your goals! How? By carefully choosing the people you spend time around. Sure, if all of your friends spend their free time partying and playing video games, then you’re probably going to do that too. If your friends really love to study, however, or create together, or go to class, then most likely you will too. The trick is to surround yourself with a culture and a group of friends who want to succeed in the same way that you do. Just by watching these people work hard towards the same goals that you hope to someday achieve, you’ll be pushed to work harder too. Your peers can help pressure you into being the person you always wanted to be (even on the days when you really don’t feel like it).
4. Those who can’t teach, do
Or, no – that’s not right. It’s more like Those who can do, can do because they teach or have taught or something like that. Doesn’t matter. But this is the most important aspect of engaged learning. Sure, sitting in the front of the class room and listening with rapt attention to your professor prattle on about Freud this and nanoparticles that is a great first step to learning the material. But once you’ve gathered that information, what are you doing with it? Because if you don’t do something with it – and fast – all those fancy words can start to leak out the other ear pretty quickly. Trust me: the first two years of my college career ended up a word-stain on my left shoulder. For a lot of people, this means writing it down in a notebook or on your laptop, turning the page and forgetting about it until exam time, at which point they take it back out and try to re-absorb an entire semester’s worth of information in one, manic, caffeine-fueled sitting.
But why give yourself that headache? Instead, at the end of your class, or your day, or whenever you finally make it home, sit down with your roommate for a couple minutes and say, “Hey, wanna hear this cool thing I learned today?” If your roommate is a good sport, this can be a great way to solidify the things you learned that day in your brain, making all that coffee and cramming later on unnecessary.
Or, if you want to have even more fun with this, grab those positive-peer-pressure friends you made from tip 3 and host a weekly dinner party. As you eat, go around the table and have each person teach a brief lesson on something especially interesting they learned in their classes that week. This can be incredibly interesting if you’re all studying different things, but if you’re all in the same program, this is a great way to learn a lot of the things you’re probably going to need to know anyway. And I promise, once you’ve spent some time figuring out how to explain a concept to a room full of people who have no idea what you’re talking about, you’ll never forget it again. It won’t feel like studying, but by bringing that information out of the classroom and into the real world, you’ll make the subject come alive for yourself in ways that a professor never could. And who doesn’t love a good dinner party?

Sure, college is going to be as different from high school as Arbor Day from an asteroid, but just because your whole world is about to change overnight doesn’t mean that you will. Becoming your college self is going to take some active participation on your part, and if you do it right, your college years will be a time of hard fought battles and fruitful rewards. As long as you make sure to show up.

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