Tips for Success in This Class

Academic success means many things. On the surface, it means getting good grades, and—despite Saint Anselm's reputation—I am confident that you can earn good grades that reflect your deeper learning: complex, engaged thinking, hard work, and well-developed study skills. Succeeding academically is both easy and difficult. On one hand, it's easy because everyone can make the changes necessary to succeed, if he or she chooses. On the other hand, it's hard because the commitment necessary for success involves a great deal of time, discipline and work—so much so, in fact, that many students do not choose to make the changes necessary for academic success. Others aren't realistic and don't face up to the amount of time and work necessary. Still others understand completely, but choose not to make the lifestyle changes that allow them to succeed as students. Yes, that's right—often nothing short of a lifestyle change will produce academic success.

This sounds like weighty stuff. What does it all mean? It means you need to live, act, and, most important, think like a college student. Kant wrote that enlightenment is achieved by leaving behind a type of immaturity—the inability to think for oneself. College is about leaving your childhood behind and becoming an adult who can think for himself and become his own person. Thinking for yourself comes from a curiosity that leads you to contemplate the new and unfamiliar. College is not about drinking beer, making lifelong friends, getting a diploma, or finding a job. Though all these things will probably happen to you in college, they are incidental to the most important thing you can do: learning. And the most important thing you can learn is how to learn. College provides you with many learning opportunities—inside and outside of the classroom. College allows you to study the works of great thinkers, leaders, citizens, and artists. It lets you work with other students and stretches you so you can accomplish goals far beyond what you imagined your abilities would allow. It exposes you to culture. Never again will art, music, and film be so cheap and nearby. So, see a talk, watch a movie on campus, go to an art opening, or attend an event at the Dana Center. Stay on campus on the weekends. Take your boyfriend to a play. Even if he is a Neanderthal and the play is lost on him, he will think you are sophisticated and classy. And you might learn something. Whatever you do, seize the intellectual life that the College offers.

The most important element in this intellectual life, of course, is your classes. Your classes must become a priority. They must be the single most important thing going on in your life. Your job for the next four years is to be a student. Our job is to help you reap the reward of your effort and your work. You need to spend as much time at this job as most other people spend at their jobs. The minimum time that you should devote to schoolwork would come to about 40 hours. That number might sound crazy to you, but you need time to listen, think, read, write and review. Contrary to what many students believe, intelligence alone does not produce success. Hard-working intelligence—that is, intelligence that takes the time to work away at a question—is what produces success.

If you devote the necessary amount of time to schoolwork, you still have time for other things, like whiffle ball, video games, reality TV, chatting in Davison, volunteering in the Meelia Center, surfing the web, acting in a play, working out, meeting with the Young Republicans, goofing off with your lady friend, working at a job, etc. You do not need to turn your back on intercollegiate sports, student government, community service or good ole fun. You can do all these things if you budget your time wisely. A minimum of 40 hours for academics and 60 hours for sleeping still leaves almost 70 hours for all kinds of other things.

Spend your study time efficiently. Here are some suggestions. Some may sound obvious, but think about them rather than dismissing them immediately.

Interest and Curiosity: Embracing the intellectual life requires that you show some interest and curiosity in your classes. Sure, you may not have a natural affinity for theology, but once you enter a Theology course, why not make a conscious effort to engage the big questions associated with that course? Who knows, you could actually learn something cool, and you might become interested. If you come prepared to work hard and learn something, you will enjoy yourself. On the other hand, if you are determined to dislike a course or cruise through with a minimum of effort, you will suffer through a long and miserable semester.

Initiative: Take some initiative in your education. If you encounter an obstacle, find a way to surmount rather than an excuse to succumb to it. If the problem seems insurmountable, or if you don't know how to solve it, ask us for help. People who learn to help themselves or seek out guidance meet with more success than those who complain, whine, or simply give up.

Attentiveness: Pay attention to the syllabus, to the web site, to your peers, and to us. Schedules and situations can change, so make sure you stay abreast of events. You know the one person who shows up to class not having realized that a paper was due that day. Do you want to be that guy?

Discipline and Organization: Discipline and organization are the most underrated elements necessary to success. Get organized. Keep a calendar or planner so you can stay on top of your assignments and provide yourself with enough time to complete all of them. Have the discipline to budget your time wisely. Everything of value requires time, except Pop tarts. Give yourself a chance by spending enough time on your assignments. The theme here is time: you have it; you need it; organize it; use it.

Attendance: Physically occupying a desk in class will not necessarily lead to A's. I've seen students with perfect attendance still pull terrible grades. Although attendance is not sufficient for success, it is still necessary. It is impossible to learn anything or obtain a more than mediocre grade unless one attends class. The following assertion may sound trite, but it remains true: those who come to class enjoy a huge advantage over those who do not. The reasons are obvious (duh!).

Reading: You must read to learn. If you do not read, you will not encounter ideas and perspectives that differ from your own and expand your own. Your mind will become insular and remain undeveloped, and you will defeat the purpose of the liberal arts education for which you have paid so much. At the same time, the skill of reading quickly and for content is immensely valuable. Many students do not accurately estimate the amount of time necessary to read an assignment well. Simply running your eyes over an assignment is not really reading it. Become an active, critical reader. That means that you should make notes as you read—in the margins of the reading or in your notebook; ask questions about the reading; try to uncover the assumptions, biases, and values of the writer; pay attention to the writer's use of language.

Thinking and Imagination: It is absolutely imperative that you think while you read and write. You should think deeply and for a long time. Do not satisfy yourself with the first idea that comes to mind. Use your imagination to explore different possibilities. If you want to improve your academic performance and your grades, move beyond writing papers that do little more than skim the surface of an idea. Ideas worth talking about and writing about are complex, and the discussions and papers about these ideas are complex, as well. Looking for a "recipe" for an "A" paper or trying simply to follow a set of rules that will lead you to the "A" paper won't be effective. Substantial ideas, in depth analysis, a vital voice, and clear prose are the elements of good writing. A liberal arts education teaches you to think well and to develop these academic abilities.

Care: Anybody can conceive of a great idea. Very few show the care necessary to realize that idea elegantly. You can only learn these qualities through practice, patience, and diligence. The more care you show for your work, the more you will achieve. And again, care requires time.

The Last Minutes of Class: Often, impolite or unaware students begin closing their notebooks and shuffling their noisy winter outerwear in the last three minutes of class. Savvy students keep listening while taking notes. Why? In the last several minutes of class, the professor usually summarizes the main points of the lecture/class discussion while making some important comments. Alternately, the professor may make schedule or assignment changes or other announcements in those last few minutes. The most successful students listen until the bitter end, but they're not bitter because they are the most successful students.

Sleeping: Sleeping? Yes, sleeping. You need your sleep to perform effectively. Set aside time for sleep, just as you would set aside time for schoolwork. A sleepy person is not intellectually primed.

Consultation: If you have ANY questions about the class that the web site or syllabus do not answer, please consult us. Send us email, come to office hours, or set up appointments to meet with us. One of the advantages of attending a small, private, liberal arts college is that you have easy access to the faculty. Take advantage of that access to ask your professors for help.

And Finally. . . The Will: Remember what I wrote at the top of this page? Academic success is both easy and hard. It's easy because everyone can do the things I've suggested. The problem, of course, has to do with the hard part: Are you willing to do them?

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Copyrighted by Hugh Dubrulle, 2008.