Guidelines for Improving your Performance
There's no quick or easy solution to improving your grades (short of stealing exams, bribing
professors, etc.). There's no pill that you can take (yet) that will make you smarter or allow
you to recall all the answers to exams (trust me). Intellectual laziness is a disease that
many people suffer from (including me). These guidelines, if followed fairly strictly,
represent my best answer to your question, "What can I do to improve my grades?"
- Don't miss class. Lectures are generally designed to elaborate, clarify, and
sometimes add to the contents of the text. Attending lectures may provide you with the added
insights to make a difficult-to-understand concept "click" into place in your thinking.
- Ask your questions NOW. Whenever something seems unclear during lecture, you should
ask for clarification. That's one main reason why you, your classmates, and the professor are
there! It is not a good idea to tell yourself that you'll be able to figure it out by yourself
later. Later may be too late (especially if understanding the new material
covered depends on your understanding of the material you are already having difficulty with).
- Answer questions. Even if the material seems clear to you, it doesn't hurt to answer
a question asked in class to test your comprehension of the material. If you aren't sure of an
answer, make your best guess. When corrected, I can almost guarantee that you'll remember the
right answer for the test. Push yourself to keep up with (if not ahead of) the material being
presented. Participating in class will also tend to keep you alert during lecture (less likely
to miss something).
- Take good notes. Even though a version of the class notes may be made available on
the internet, don't be lazy! Taking notes in class (at least by copying overheads, etc.) will
allow you to add your own thoughts, comments, or other relevant information that make concepts
easier to understand when it comes time to study for the next test.
People usually underestimate their capacity to forget material. The issues that seem clear to
you during class (i.e., the ones you decide that you don't need to write down) may be lost
come exam time.
Even if the information you are writing down doesn't make sense to you, you can tag it with a
question mark so that you can either ask the professor to clarify during class or (at least)
stop by during office hours to talk it through with the professor.
- Study one hour per class every day. (Then take weekends off!) It is a well known
scientific finding that spaced learning results in superior retention compared with massed
learning (cramming). In other words, five hours of studying for an exam the day before the
exam will not be as good as five hours of study time spread through the past week (i.e., one
hour a day for five days).
- Read the text before class. While reading your text, you should have questions
about the material, either in terms of clarification or maybe just elaboration. Jot down your
questions as they occur to you so that you can ask the professor when the topic comes up
during class. If it doesn't come up and you feel that the question may be too disruptive, then
talk to the professor during office hours.
- Study buddies. Discuss the text (lectures, etc.) with someone else - preferably
someone from the class. Test each other to see how much you actually understand the material
(you'd be surprised at how two people can each think they understand a concept, yet have
totally different ideas in their heads). Also, it is a good idea to vary your study locations
as much as possible (library, quiet-cafeteria, park, random classrooms, etc.). The more varied
the context of your learning, the greater the chances you will recall the information later
(this is known as "encoding variability" which is a good thing).
- Go beyond the information given. Try to think about wider applications,
ramifications, and implications of the material you are learning. Don't limit yourself to the
arbitrary boundaries set by the professor and the text.
- Study strategically. As you review your text and your notes, consider the types of
questions you would prepare for an exam if you had to create one (don't go easy on yourself).
Try to anticipate the questions you are likely to encounter on the exam.
- Know when to take a break. If you've followed the advice outlined so far, there
won't be much more to do except glance through your notes just before the exam to freshen your
memory a bit (while everyone else is cramming). It is important to note, though, that when you
are doing your studying (one hour or so per class per day) you recognize when you are just
wasting time. For example, it doesn't count if you spend the hour re-reading the same page
because you keep spacing-out.
If you find yourself unable to stay focused for the whole hour in one sitting, then stop! Do
something worthwhile and then get right back to it! Walk around the block or watch a 30-minute
television show, or go get a pizza, make a phone call, or whatever. But be sure to get back to
it! Show some discipline. As you get used to building good study habits, you'll notice that
your powers of concentration, your reading comprehension, and your grades will improve. Be
patient, it will happen.