The Finals Countdown! (If You’re Studying for Them, Breathe . . .)


purple flower


It’s that time of year. If you’re one of the students under pressure to perform on finals, here are a few quick tips to calm you down a bit:

  1. Don’t multitask (for goodness’ sake). It’s amazing – the powers of applying your entire brain to the task at hand. So, don’t have your phone in sight just in case you miss a text. Hide it or switch it to airplane mode for the time being. Don’t have other windows open if you’re using a computer or tablet to study. Conjure up that (old-fashioned?) image of the solitary student bent over a book in a quiet library – that method really works. You owe it to yourself to concentrate when you’re studying for important tests.
  2. Take occasional breaks. Give yourself a short rest at least every couple hours if you’re in a marathon study session. Stretch and take brief walks in the sunshine, if possible; perhaps take a lap around the building. At the very least, physically move away from your desk for a bit.
  3. Listen to New Age music. As a student, I’ve always preferred Classical as background when getting down to business; but recently, I’ve realized New Age – the kind of soothing music one hears at a spa while getting a massage – also can be excellent music for concentration. Personally, I find it most efficient to check out CDs from the library’s New Age section. I grab what looks interesting, and later usually discover I don’t like some of the albums, but I find others excellent for calming the anxious mind.
  4. Stay grateful. Keep in mind if you’re studying for finals, you’re in a group of lucky people enjoying the opportunity to earn an education. So even if the going seems rough at times, remember you’re partaking in a precious gift.

Good luck! –And for more Finals goodies, including study tips, click “exams” on this blog’s word cloud . . .

Image via / rikahi

What Olympians Do that All College Students Should

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Ice hockey

Never easy

I’ve long thought athletic competition a useful analogy to academic striving; students seem to understand athletes need to practice long hours to perfect their techniques, but those same students can cloud over when being reminded they need to work long hours to learn.

To illustrate, here are a few specific things Olympians do, with notes on how each can be applied to academics:

They must face their fears; they must bounce back from injury
Olympians, and athletes in general, must cope with the possibility of falling in any way short of the goal they’ve set. Who wants to be eliminated? Who wants to work for years only to be sidelined from the game with an injury? Of course competitive athletes accept that failure is a possibility and charge ahead with confidence. Time after time we hear of Olympians who had to sit out a certain Olympics or world championship, who had surgery only months before and know they may suffer a physical limitation, and so on; yet they come back and persevere as soon as they’re healthy enough to do so. In contrast, I’ve seen so many students with potential who, unfortunately, don’t seem to have the fortitude to bounce back from a failed class, even a failed assignment, and continue on with their education. They let one low grade or one negative experience discourage them – one! Listening to the stories of some ultimately successful world-class athletes, I realize many of them have a considerable number of setbacks, failures, and injuries. Babe Ruth said “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”

They must set personal problems aside and focus
This is closely related to the first; so many students in the community-college classes I’ve taught have had sad circumstances in life and obstacles – family-related, financial, medical, psychological. Those who really hunger for their degree – those “going for the gold” – are able to set those problems aside and focus on learning. Many times I’ve advised students who are dealing with very serious and time-consuming problems to come back to school after their crises are over. College does indeed require focus and dedication, and students have to be able to supply that when the time is right.

They must not cheat
We all know of high-profile athletes who were found to have cheated, but I don’t think many of us think this dishonesty is an admirable, or even acceptable, trait. Maybe for some athletes the specter of getting caught is the only thing that keeps them honest; but for the athletes with character, cheating is unacceptable because to do it would be utterly disgraceful. With 43% percent of undergraduate students on one large survey admitting to being academically dishonest (1), I wonder how many students think of cheating on papers and tests in the same light: that to do it is disgraceful and defeats the entire purpose of being a student. I believe some students see some of their classes as mere means to an end (diploma or degree) and thus rationalize plagiarism and academic dishonesty. But learning is and ought to be about self-improvement, and as such it is self-defeating to ingest “performance-enhancing drugs” in order to deceive oneself and everyone to whom one has lied about credentials.

They must perform under pressure
This is obvious when thinking of Olympians competing on “the world stage,” but students, in particular college students, perform under pressure as a matter of course: for instance, on exams and other time-sensitive projects; when knowing their scholarships depend on certain grades; and in some cases, when knowing their precious time is limited and must be shared with various family duties. Both athletes and students need to know themselves and know their stress-inducing triggers, and practice methods of coping with pressure.

They must take into account their “personal best” as well as their score
When I was watching ice dancing, I noticed the commentators revealing to us which scores were “personal best” marks for the couples – regardless of their standing with the others. I also recall high school track, in which the “personal best” time for a race was met with respect from any coach. So I don’t quite understand why students seem frustrated when their scores over time rise, but might not be high “A.” It is a big deal to achieve a personal best, and if, so far in the class, a score has moved from 61 to 71, that is a wonderful thing; it might not be the numbers that student was hoping for, but the important thing sometimes is that the needle – a barometer of mastery – is moving up.

They must practice and work hard
We know, we just know, that the figure skaters and skiers and hockey players we see on TV have practiced. And practiced. And practiced, in order to achieve their level of performance. Coaching and talent contribute, of course, but the “99% perspiration” element is not a new or surprising idea. So, again, when I read surveys in which students admit they aren’t giving their all to academics, aren’t taking that much time to study, I believe it should be no surprise when those same students aren’t learning very much, and also (it follows) aren’t getting very good grades. Anything worth mastering will take time and practice!

(1)    The McCabe survey summary information is found here:

Older posts on this blog inspired by the Olympics:
A Bit of Learning in Honor of the Olympics
What College Students Can Learn from Olympians

Image via Wikimedia Commons: Slovakia vs USA, men’s ice hockey, Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, credit: Atos International via Flickr.

Becoming a Better Student

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studying in field

On fields of green

Speaking of New Year’s Resolutions . . . All new and prospective college students should take a look at this article from The Teaching Professor Blog, “Seven Characteristics of Good Learners” (Dr. Maryellen Weimer, Faculty Focus).

I particularly like # 3 and 4: “Good learners recognize that a lot of learning isn’t fun” and “Failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial.” Too often I’ve seen students who mistakenly believe learning always should be fun, or else something’s wrong (the so-called “Sesame Street Syndrome”); and sadly, I’ve repeatedly seen students who have a tendency to give up and drop out upon facing academic challenges and frustrations. Avoid these pitfalls, and enjoy Dr. Weimer’s thought-provoking list!

Responding to Failure: World Series Edition

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Busch Stadium

Outstanding in their field

I’ve been watching the baseball World Series and though I’m a Cardinals fan, something Boston’s manager said after Game 3 really struck me. That game had ended with a stunning (but not incorrect) obstruction call that gave the Cards the winning run in the ninth inning. I saw a reporter ask how that ending affected the Red Sox the following night, and John Farrell replied something similar to “It happened on the field last night, and we left it there.”

How wise is this. Would that more students heeded this message . . . the idea that when something doesn’t go your way, you must leave that thing in the past as much as possible and focus on “winning” the next night. (Again, I prefer to see the Cardinals win, but anyway.) So many of my students, sadly, became defeatist after failing at a small assignment or failing a class entirely; they were prone to give up, drop out, and adopt a victim mentality. Perhaps they were dwelling too much on unpleasant events in the past; perhaps they were letting their anxieties and frustrations determine their fate.

It seems we have a philosophical lesson to take from sports: that is, the best players do take personal responsibility for their wins and losses, and when something out of their control happens, they don’t let it get in the way of their big-picture goal.  Naturally this is difficult to enact in real life, but I have to conclude the champions in the sports world have gotten where they are due to very hard work and persistence combined with the right attitude.

Take this example if you’re a student; know you’ll win a few and lose a few, but focus on the future!

Post script: I wrote a little piece on baseball and what it can teach us (featuring historical tidbits) in October 2011: In Honor of the Fall Classic: “Our Game.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Fredlyfish4

Wi-Fi on Campus, Studying on Phones . . .

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tiny frog

Smaller is better?

Here is a story about how some universities struggle to keep up with students’ demand for ever-more bandwidth – a demand driven, the article notes, by the laptops, smartphones, and tablets being brought to campus. Though students seem to expect wireless will be there, naturally, on campus and will work at the speed they desire, all this access costs money, and hence the rub: universities across the US are

“exhausting their budgets just to maintain their existing networks while congestion threatens to choke their online traffic.”

Where’s that money really going, after all? Well, one might ask what students are doing on their electronic devices – surely, study some of the time, and surely, engage in extra-curriculars too. Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it a lot – and the healthiness of being “always on, all the time” via mobile device is addressed in this interesting piece: “Smartphone Addiction.”

Back to the studying, though – when it comes to the use of phones for schoolwork, I (like some commenters to the article) wonder how much deep learning can be done on a phone’s tiny screen. As people haven’t had tiny screens on which to study before, I suppose the verdict is still out; but the experience of trying to focus on learning material a few inches square at a time seems to me unnecessarily onerous.

At any rate, if you, students, are attempting to study on a teeny device and are running into problems remembering what you read (as manifested in your grades), try studying via a book or at least a bigger screen. Also, try taking notes and annotating your readings, and do all this in an environment free of distraction. It’s easier said than done, but it could make the difference in your learning and your grades.

Articles cited above: “Device Explosion” by Carl Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 9/5/13.
“Smartphone Addiction” by Stephen Pirog, Inside Higher Ed (“Academic Minute” recording), 3/18/13.

Image via / aophotos

Back-to-College Articles with Helpful Advice

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backpack girl

Also, don’t strain your back

Whether you’re a new or returning college student, traditional or non-trad, part- or full-time, you’re probably open to some tips on how to navigate what is often a difficult experience – and the resources below offer helpful suggestions:
From MIT Admissions: 50 things for freshmen to consider as they embark upon their college journey (by Ben Jones).
“Back to school: Advice on how to adjust to college from someone who’s been there”: current students reveal their best back-to-school advice for college freshmen. (By Shawn Christ, The Patriot-News,
“Lessons Learned: Seven Tips for Returning to College”: this one is written from the point of view of a nontraditional student (by Suzanne T. Jackson,
This piece gives simple but useful advice to non-trads balancing work and college (“How about a Little Free Homework Help” at The 30 Something Student).
“Ten Tips You Need to Survive College”: This page offers some good basic advice on studying. Check it out for useful refreshers. From Middle Tennessee State University.

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Where Are the Best Professors? (And Is That the Right Question?)

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Star sunglasses


The intriguing piece “Save Us from the Superstars” (published recently in Inside Higher Ed) contains one quote in particular that stood out to me:

Higher education has always had superstars. Big names are lured away for big salaries, only to have very limited contact with undergraduates and very little impact on the day-to-day lives of students.” (John Warner, writing in the Just Visiting blog)

This is relevant, of course, to the college decision-making process of prospective students – and to the difficult yet important question: “But how do I know where the best professors are?” I’ve addressed this before on this blog, here — and suggested an academic adviser is a good resource for that discussion.

The news is good for students overall on this issue, though — I would bet that at every college, no matter the level of prestige, cost, or degrees granted, excellent professors profess. As countless students have discovered, professorial brilliance does not necessarily correspond to teaching ability, or the ability to explain concepts clearly and to engage students. But neither does that mean that the most “highly valued” profs wouldn’t shine in the classroom. Nor does that mean that great assistance can’t be found in on-campus tutoring (I remember grad students helping me to grasp concepts I wasn’t getting from class and my own reading). And of course, many excellent profs are adjuncts (part-time employees) and may not even be listed on the university’s website.

In short, learning is a complex and highly individual process. It’s nice to think “the right professors” will inspire and thrill, making your job of learning all that much easier — and that may be the case at times; but regardless of who’s teaching, learning is work, and the healthiest way to think about your learning at college is to remember it’s your responsibility. If the professor doesn’t explain something clearly, use office hours; form a study group; go to a tutor; ask a librarian; read and re-read your material; search for study aids on the web . . . all these things are within your power, whether or not your learning style seems to “click” with a given prof.

Related on this site: “‘Here We Are Now, Entertain Us’: Edutainment’s Effectiveness”

Image via / Carool

Score Higher on Finals

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kitchen prep

Preparation is key

If you’re a student preparing for Final Exams, reading up on exam study tips is very smart. (If reading the tips helps you earn even a little higher grade, or puts you even a little more at ease, isn’t the reading worth your time?) A quick internet search nets a number of articles and advice, many from college and university tutoring centers; I’ve listed just a few good articles below:

 “26 Tips for Studying for Final Exams” from Public Relations Matters, a blog authored by Dr. Barbara B. Nixon:

 “10 Tips to Help You Ace Your Final Exam” from Yahoo Voices’ Amy Brantley:

“Crazy Study Tips to Help Rock Your Final Exams” from Ryerson University’s Student Life page (this post is from Danni Gresko, a student):

Related posts on this site:
Finals Fright? Ease Your Mind with Proper Prep
Just in Time for Finals: Terrific Test-Taking Tips!

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Students and “Thank You”


Approach learning (& life!) like she approaches snow

Approach learning (& life!) like she approaches snow

Faculty Focus recently ran a lovely piece, “Engaging Students in a Habit of Gratitude,” which explains how one professor opens class by encouraging students to list things for which they are grateful in life.

Says Prof. Deborah Miller Fox,In an effort to address the sense of entitlement that prosperity and comfort breed, I decided to call my students into a posture of humility.” She also points out students (like the rest of us) “cannot learn when we are crippled by arrogance.”

The observation that one must be humble in order to learn is an astute one. Even students who come from modest economic means or troubled family backgrounds (characteristic of a number of students I’ve taught) have good reasons to be grateful, or as the article discusses, have blessings for which they are “indebted.” For one, they are enjoying higher education (mark: they are sitting in a college classroom!). Many are on some kind of financial aid or scholarship – another gift. It’s the saddest thing in the world to see students with potential let those gifts deteriorate for lack of motivation and, sometimes, a negative or defiant attitude.

Such students hurt themselves, of course; and I do wonder how many of them would improve themselves and their lives by first recognizing and then being grateful for their many blessings. I do hope the message of gratitude reaches them and inspires them to realize their good fortune and, instead of feeling entitled to high marks and preferential treatment, become more gracious and dwell in possibility.

Where to begin? One way to cultivate gratitude is to, of course, say “thank you” more often, and mean it. Another wonderful method is to start keeping a gratitude journal. I’ve done this myself just starting in the new year, and have found it truly life-changing. For more information, see “Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal” (from the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center – an interesting resource to browse).

Image via / Carlson

Our Football Team Has a Pretty Good University

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Football field

Cheering them on

In light of this coming “Super” Sunday, I thought it appropriate to turn to the ever-hot topic of collegiate athletics.

I’ve been acquainted with some college athletes, having tutored for the athletic department of a Big 12 school, and having had a number of athletes in my English classes over the years. Most, though not all, have been committed students; and personally I, along with many others, believe athletics in general are good, and sports scholarships offer excellent academic opportunities to student-athletes.

That said, I know many professors and members of the general public consider the college sports system to be “dysfunctional” – as expressed in an intriguing Chronicle of Higher Ed piece last year titled “End the Charade: Let Athletes Major in Sports.” A major and legitimate concern is that athletic programs end up negatively impacting college academics – this theme is explored at length in Murray Sperber’s book Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

Sigh. I hate to see anything erode academics, the purpose of higher ed; so I’ll end with a smidgen of practical advice for prospective and current college students:

  1. If you are a student, beware the seduction of spending too much time partying and attending sporting events. While socializing is good and the doctor says focusing on anything three-dimensional (football field?) is good for eyes frequently fixated on screens, don’t overdo the extracurriculars. Dropouts due to overindulging in fun can and do happen!
  2. If you are a student-athlete, be grateful for your sports scholarship, and to honor the character possessed by the greats in your chosen sport, be the best student you can be. (Any scholarship is truly a golden opportunity; if you’ve paid your own way in life, you’ll realize this.)

    Image via / taliesin

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