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!

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”

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Students Themselves Own their Destiny



Strength of self

A New York Times blog editorial this year reported on the relatively low number of college students who end up graduating; the article asserts “the United States is doing a terrible job of helping enrolled college students complete their educations.” (1)

Well, I’m not sure exactly who “the United States” refers to and what is meant by “helping,” but when it comes to increasing student success, graduation rates, and most importantly, learning, I rather agree with another recent editorial from Community College Week (2): “Time to Hold Students Accountable For Their Own Success.”

Hank Dunn, president of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville, North Carolina, tells the tale of his campus’s “best practices” undertaken “to help ensure student success and completion.” His article lists an impressive array of student outreach and support efforts: a clear demonstration opposing the notion of a “terrible job of helping students” (and I might add these types of efforts have been repeated in community colleges all over the country).

Or, at least, these efforts reflect a valiant goal to help students as much as is possible.  Here’s the kicker, and perhaps a dirty little secret for those who don’t work with students every day: students have to do their part. To succeed, students must be responsible, own their decisions, and choose to come to class and study. No amount of money invested in higher ed or complaining about higher ed will change this basic fact.

So I was pleased to read President Dunn’s campus has embraced, on a broad level, the excellent self-help book for students titled On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life by Skip Downing. The book explains that one must approach life from a creator and not a victim mentality; and Dunn claims it’s working for them:

“We now move very quickly to a student’s personal responsibility for their actions and find that as we do this as an entire campus (from security guards to advisors to instructors to general staff) that students’ behaviors are changing. They are accepting more responsibility and they are now more quickly looking for ways to intrinsically accomplish their educational goals.”

Wonderful news!

Those headed to college would do well to understand that their behavior, indeed, will make the difference (and that attitude flows from beliefs and mindset). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has established that American students, for surely a multitude of reasons, aren’t performing well in school and don’t know what they should know coming out of high school. That deficient knowledge base (in many cases) certainly includes study skills and general life attitudes conducive to success.

So of course, we have students coming to college utterly unprepared, and some folks wring their hands about how these students don’t graduate from those colleges. How can “the United States” increase student success?  By encouraging students to empower themselves and thereby, as much as is possible, own their own destiny.

Articles discussed above:

(1) “Only Half of First-time College Students Graduate in 6 Years,” NYTimes.com, Economix blog, 2/26/13, Catherine Rampell.
(2) “Time to Hold Students Accountable For Their Own Success,” Community College Week Point of View, 3/18/13, Hank Dunn.

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7 Things to Do Your First Week of Class

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toy ducks

Put ’em in a row

The advent of the college term brings a flutter of activity and anticipation . . . but wait! Before you nestle down into your new routine, take a gander at this checklist and help yourself make sure the semester goes swimmingly:

  1. Buy all books and necessary e-supplements for class. This might seem obvious, but it’s important to have your materials in hand as soon as possible so you don’t fall behind in your assignments.
  2. Read the syllabus very carefully. Make note of your professor’s availability (office hours) and contact information; policies on attendance, late work, and computers or cell phones in class; and which projects will be assigned and when. The latter will help you to . . .
  3. Figure out how you’ll organize your time. I suggest using a calendar to record every assignment deadline right through the end of the semester. (See here for more on managing your time in college.)
  4. Figure out how you’ll organize your notes and study materials. Now is the time to purchase notebooks, binders, folders, and electronic storage. No one magic organization method will work for everyone, but I have observed, over the years, that my best students have been organized students. (See here for more on free organization and planning tools.)
  5. Form a technology “Plan B” in case your primary computer fails. Computers are not our friends, and many profs don’t accept late work. Thus you must have a plan in place for the last-minute crash, file corruption, or internet outage. Perhaps you have access to a roommate’s or family member’s computer; maybe you live on campus and may use a computer lab; perhaps a public library is nearby. In any case, plan your emergency computer backup plan NOW – before you get too far into the semester. I can’t stress this enough!
  6. Make note of resources your college offers, such as tutoring, organized study groups, library services, academic advising, counseling, and financial aid. These resources probably are easy to find on your college’s website; I suggest noting appropriate contact information and keeping it in a place you visit often. You may need to use those resources come mid-semester.
  7. Jump into the first week’s assignments right away! This is particularly important for online classes, in which students sometimes feel a lesser sense of urgency but in which deadlines tend to be frequent and intense. It’s a bad idea to be behind at the very beginning of class, so be sure to stay on top of your commitments.

Good luck and happy learning!

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High Standards in Education? Heck Yes!

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You must raise it before it’s worth jumping over

You must raise it before it’s worth jumping over

What happens in K-12 doesn’t stay in K-12, and speaking particularly of low academic standards, that’s an enormous problem.

The blog “The Quick and the Ed” recently published a piece titled “High Standards: An Essential Tool in Equity for Education.” The author, Mr. Peter Cookson Jr., discusses public schools in particular, and his point is distilled in the title.

I agree with the article that academic standards in schools should be raised – but my sights are on what happens after K-12, as my experience lies in working within community colleges. There, I’ve observed that low standards in lower grades absolutely creep up to the college level. The “collective mediocrity” Mr. Cookson mentions stays with many students, unfortunately, as they move on to post-secondary ed.

Here’s how low standards in K-12 transfer up to the college level:

  1. Low standards transfer in the students’ attitude toward learning and toward the classroom (Mr. Cookson’s recollection of visiting a school in the South Bronx portrays students, despite having an apparently enthusiastic and dedicated teacher, who simply rudely* ignored the lessons). (*Speaking as a teacher, yes, I believe in-class texting and inattentiveness are rude and disrespectful. I think a classroom should be a place of attentiveness and respect for the classroom environment, the teacher, and the other students. In fact, I don’t think much learning occurs otherwise.)
  2. Low standards transfer in the students’ skill levels. (As I highlighted in a recent post, the majority of US high school students are unprepared for college-level work.)
  3. Related to the above: low standards transfer in that community colleges are forced to deal with the skills deficit by investing significant resources in remedial education (covering material at a high school, middle school, and grade school level).

Furthermore, when a community college purports to educate mostly underprepared students accustomed to low academic standards, it will, inevitably, have frustrated students, faculty, and support staff. That’s not to say many students and education professionals aren’t hard-working and dedicated to achievement; that’s not to say community colleges don’t celebrate some successes. But it is to say the students come in the door with significant setbacks on an academic level alone – starting “in the red,” as it were. And it is to say that it takes a strong character to overcome those setbacks and persevere to attain a degree of any kind. Many students drop out along the way (one study cited students’ overconfidence as a large factor – it seems they believe they are college-ready, even while their skills may be lacking).

If students believe they’re college-ready, perhaps it’s because no one has had the heart to tell them otherwise. As the article notes, “Myths persist in some quarters that high standards can hurt struggling students because they reveal their lack of preparation and low level of achievement which, in turn, can cause under-performing students to become discouraged and drop out.” [Emphases mine]


Okay, let’s consider that persistent myth. Let’s say we don’t want to hurt students’ feelings by being honest about their “lack of preparation and low level of achievement.” For instance, let’s consider their lack of writing abilities (I am thinking of the many college students I’ve taught who’ve struggled to write a complete sentence). Those students will not learn if they aren’t challenged to do better, no? So if they do end up in college, they will become rudely awakened in short order. Sure, at that point they may step it up and work hard to overcome their deficiencies; but it’s also quite likely they “become discouraged and drop out” – this time, out of college. And if they never go to college at all, they still have weak literacy and numeracy levels, and it doesn’t take much imagination to envision those negative consequences. So I would argue that so-called “social promotion” and the intentional propagation of low standards is actually cruel to students; it’s certainly flat-out dishonest; and, of course, it’s harmful to all of us, education having a ripple effect on society.

Low standards create big messes.

But now for the good news: the hopeful message that students themselves, independent of policy makers, politicians, and even teachers, can realize . . .

First, this very topic of high standards is the topic that compelled me to start this blog a year and a half ago. I have witnessed, as someone who’s taught college English and been involved in higher ed for over 10 years, the fact that our high school graduates are, in many cases, severely undereducated. What can they do? One thing they can do is work to prepare themselves for college.   

If that seems a tad overwhelming, remember libraries, the many superb resources from universities, and even whole college-level courses that are available free of charge on the internet. With these tools at our disposal, we independent learners have a great deal of power and potential.

If you’re a student, maybe your school doesn’t encourage excellence, and that’s unfortunate; but you can fight the tide of mediocrity and low standards. You are free to challenge yourself above and beyond any classroom; and quite frankly, in many cases, you need to.

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Road to College Success Paved with More than Academics

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Follow rules & rule your own learning

It’s not just academic readiness that prepares a student for college.

As a recent study argues, college students also must possess certain “non-academic skills, behaviors and attitudes” to meet with success.

The study, authored by Melinda Mechur Karp and Rachel Hare Bork, published at the Community College Research Center’s website, and noted (and linked to) in Inside Higher Ed, is directed at community college faculty and administrators. But as a new or returning college student, you may be interested to read it, and you can become cognizant of these “unspoken rules” – they include

-using your resources (such as the library or tutoring services)

-knowing how to manage your time and workflow

-knowing how to take good notes

-knowing when to ask for help

-making college a priority

I’ve long noticed that a number of my own community college students would have met with greater success had they entered my classroom with stronger study skills. I looked out, for instance, and saw them neglecting to take notes or even failing to have a notebook with them; I noticed some would skip class and fail to turn in the “little” assignments that were so critical in skill-building up to the large lessons. Unsurprisingly to me but not, perhaps, to them, these particular students generally washed out of class (that is, they ended up withdrawing or failing, or simply disappeared).

I strongly believe a “College 101” success course would benefit many of them, and I highly recommend such a course to all (student success courses are mentioned in the study, as well). As a DIY college prepster, though, you can read up on topics such as college-level note-taking and studying; a few articles on this site can get you started:

What Really Makes a Successful Student?
Libraries & Librarians: Academic Lifelines
Your Academic Well-Being May Hinge on This
Are You Taking Notes on This?

*The study discussed here is linked from “Clear Expectations on Readiness,” Inside Higher Ed, 9/18/12.

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7 Things Not to Do in College


irritated cat

We do not recommend

First-time college students, as you head off to class, try to avoid these common transgressions against one’s own academic interests . . .

1. Don’t read the syllabus or directions for individual assignments. Be sure to read through your syllabus on day one, and keep it close at hand for future reference. Also, print and scrutinize your individual assignment directions.

Questions are usually welcome, but when you have a question, always read over what you’ve been given to see if you can figure out the answer yourself first.

2. Skip class (or don’t log in regularly for an online class). Sure, you have the freedom to skip class – but is that the smartest thing to do when class is designed to teach you the material? Answer: no. You’re severely shortchanging your education when you don’t attend class, and you’re likely to fall behind, get frustrated, and even drop the class if you miss much.

3. Come to class, but throughout class, text, browse on Facebook, chat with neighbors, etc. It’s great to come to class, but sitting there whilst multitasking or socializing probably isn’t going to help you. Even a once-a-week night class or lab isn’t, in truth, interminably long; so remember why you’re in school and concentrate on the moment, take notes, and soak up the learning (not to mention respect others in the room!).

4. Expect good grades as a “given.” To first-year students, college is frequently a shock in terms of its expectations and standards; if you’re dismayed at grasping this, you are in very good company. Of course, good grades in college are achievable; but keep in mind they’re reflections of performance on particular assignments for particular classes. They’re not reflections of you as a person or even, necessarily, of your academic abilities. Keep working to improve and learn, and above all don’t expect high marks for mediocre work – in other words, eschew the so-called “attitude of entitlement.”

5. Have your parents call the school to straighten out your issues. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon that puzzles professors and administrators: parents of adult children contact college faculty and staff to serve as students’ agents. This is generally seen as irritating and unnecessary: you, as a student, should take ownership of your education and all related responsibilities.

6. Complain straight to the Dean rather than going to your instructor when you get a grade you don’t like. This is not to say you should stay away from visiting professors and tutors in order to discuss and better understand class material. I’m talking about students who suddenly spring to life when they have a complaint (many times about a grade or about rigor of the class), and go straight to “the manager” instead of approaching their professors. This is counterproductive and only serves to annoy and waste time of everyone involved. That’s because the Chair or Dean is generally going to send you back to your instructor anyway. Expend your energy on learning the class material, not on complaining about how hard it is.

Now, students of course may have legitimate complaints about the course, such as when a professor habitually cancels class or does not give clear directions – but even in these cases, always, always approach the professor first if at all possible; and approach in a friendly way, establishing that you’re trying your best to learn and learning is your chief concern.

7. Cheat. Don’t plagiarize; don’t be academically dishonest. It’s wrong, plus penalties may include failing the assignment, failing the class, or being expelled from the school.

And finally, some words of encouragement: in general, although it’s probably true that some of your professors will be better than others at teaching and communicating, and some of your classes you’ll enjoy more than others, try to keep your head up and basically, act with dignity as you seek out learning. You always have options when you get stuck, such as visiting the instructor during office hours, using tutoring services, or forming study groups. Good luck!

Feel free to add other ways students act against their own interests – and solutions . . .

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Summer Class: What You Should Know

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The water’s fine

Taking the summer-course plunge? Refresh yourself with the cool encouragement and success tips below!

Advantages of summer courses are numerous:

*Summer courses can be huge helpers in scheduling your degree – for instance, if you take a prerequisite course now, you may be able to take a certain course as early as next term.

*Some students like the academic continuity summer courses offer; in other words, they like to stay “fresh” in the subject, and summer courses allow them to keep working.

*In the traditional semester system, another attraction is that summer courses are typically short courses, perhaps meeting only six or eight (as opposed to 15-16) weeks. At the end of the short course, you will have earned full credit in about half the time.

But you’ll want to ponder these preparation pointers:          

Of course, the time aspect also means a summer course is particularly challenging, and not for the academically squeamish! If you’re ready to dive in, heed the following:

1. Clear your schedule; prioritize!

First, consider your life’s goings-on outside the classroom. I’ve taught students who must work alongside students for whom a summer job wasn’t as critical; as a college student myself, I worked part-time on campus while I was enrolled in a summer class.

Individuals have different life circumstances, but a short course offers a constant: it will be time-intensive, and most likely will require a re-prioritization and sacrifice of other non-academic activities.

2. Count on spending ample time on your course.

If your course is half as long as a traditional semester course, it follows that you will need to devote twice the time to the class on a weekly basis. If the class is three credit hours, you’ll spend about 10 study hours a week during a normal semester; for a short course, plan on about 20 hours a week.*

(In other words, one summer course is a part-time job.)

3. Don’t miss anything.

Attend every class, and while there, take good notes. Ask the prof when you have questions. If you’re taking the course online, log in every weekday, and stay active. It should go without saying that you do all the work ASAP, as well – you’ve no time to procrastinate!

4. Have a positive attitude.

Summer courses are intense, but scores of students complete them successfully each year. It’s extremely possible to enjoy the intensity; just make sure you hit the water with plenty of scheduled time and determination.

*For time management tips, see here.

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