Kodi's Top Three Tips for Academic Success

Created 26 May 2010

An attack on such bad habits of college students as note-taking and studying, with a few bonus jokes at the expense of Waldorf education. I intended the snarky tone of this piece to be humorous, not offensive. I did, however, seriously mean what I said here. Mostly.

Tip the First: Don't take notes

Most kids, it seems, try to completely transcribe each class. They copy down everything the teacher puts down on the board and then, for good measure, write down some of the things the teacher only says out loud. This is a terrible habit. You can't wrap your head around difficult concepts while you're scrambling to write them down, nor can you hear much of what the teacher is saying while your phonological loop is busy reading and writing. Indeed, people are bad at multitasking in general, even when they don't perceive the performance deficit. I suppose you could use a strategy along the lines of "copy first, process later". But if you wait until you're in your dorm room to do that processing, you can't ask the teacher questions. You could seek them out during their office hours or something, but if you value your time, you're better off spending class time actually learning rather than practicing your penmanship.

You might object that without notes, you'd forget what you're supposed to learn. Well, who says you have to go without notes? I'm saying you shouldn't take notes. You already have plenty of notes; don't reinvent the wheel. They're exhaustive, carefully checked for accuracy, and lavishly illustrated, and you paid hundreds of dollars for them. You probably know them as "textbooks". And think for a moment about what you're really supposed to learn—that is, what you'll be tested on. Are you being asked to memorize cranial nerves or trig identities or French kings? Maybe a little, but unless your education is completely useless, your goal isn't to memorize lists nearly so much as understand concepts. Which brings me to…

Tip the Second: Don't study

Studying is another much ballyhooed bad habit. Now, let's get clear about what I'm pillorying. I'm not saying you shouldn't read your text (once, mind you, and without highlighting anything or taking notes) or do your homework. What you shouldn't do is frequently return to these materials (or to your class notes, which, you'll recall, you shouldn't have written) and try to commit them literally to memory, like an actor memorizing lines. If you're doing this, you're not only wasting your time, you're missing the point.

Sure, all bets are off when the teacher just wants you to rattle off facts, as even the best teachers are liable to do occasionally. Take notes and study them if you can't memorize those facts in one gulp. (In spite of the first tip, I usually end up writing three or four pages of notes a semester, between all four of my classes.) As I was saying before, though, this largely isn't your task; your task is to understand. So forget about memorizing the words "a subset A of a metric space M is totally bounded provided that for every ε > 0 there exist finitely many points in M such that A is a subset of the union of the ε-balls about those points" and just try to figure out what they mean. That's what constitutes learning mathematics. Once you know how to apply the definition, you'll be able to reconstruct it at will, as I just did. You might not phrase it the same way as the textbook, but this is mathematics, not poetry, so nobody cares.

Do you now see how backwards the "copy first, process later" approach is? You need to remember things and to understand them. Memorizing things you don't understand is really hard, in the same way that memorizing random digits is really hard. On the other hand, coming to understand something requires no prior memory of it, and once you do understand it, you get the memory for free. This is cognitive psychology in action, dudes and ladies!

Tip the Third: Don't procrastinate

My third tip isn't as delightfully counterintuitive as the first two, but it's no less important. Listen, college kids, I have a secret for you. College is easier than high school. What's that? Do you suppose I just go to an easy college? Well, read on. From ninth through twelfth grade, I attended the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City. Steiner is a private school, but it's no Trinity or Dalton or Brearley; it isn't one of those elite, rigorous prep schools that supply the Ivies with New Yorkers. Far from it! Steiner's curriculum is designed according to the principles of Waldorf education, a dippy pedagogy invented by German philosopher Rudolf Steiner which emphasizes sloppy interdisciplinary thinking and imaginary developmental milestones. Steiner kids aren't taught to read before third grade and aren't allowed to use computers before the ninth. In high school, many assignments are expected to be handwritten and decorated. All students participate in lots of art classes, particularly eurythmy, a practice best described as dance without dexterity and performance art without irony. And it is not uncommon for a history class to begin with group poetry recitation. What I'm saying is, I went to a school that didn't see academics as the purpose of schooling. Still, I felt I was constantly busy with schoolwork. I ended up in second or third place in my graduating class of, oh, twenty-eight. Now I'm a rising senior at Allegheny College. Allegheny has a reputation for overworking its students and for stubbornly resisting grade inflation. Tony Lo Bello, the professor from whom I took Calculi II and III, my first two math courses at Allegheny, is legendary for flunking decent students: he rejects the notion of partial credit, treating a tiny error in a problem's solution the same as not attempting the problem at all, and he computes each student's course grade using only two short tests. I've rarely felt as overwhelmed with work at Allegheny as I did at Steiner, and I'm at the top of my class of 470.

Why this discrepancy? Did I magically become a genius upon turning eighteen? No, the difference was the kind and quantity of work that high schools and colleges tend to assign. High school is relentless. You have to take lots of classes, not just four. Most of your classes meet four or five times a week. On any given meeting of any given class, you're likely to receive a homework assignment, which is likely to be due the very next meeting. And forget about doing assignments between classes—your day is packed solid from eight to three. Your life is a whirlwind of work, much of it busywork. Most of your work must be completed at night, after an exhausting day of commuting and trying to stay awake in class, less than twenty-four hours before it's due. Are you likely to be able to do this work as well as your skills and talents allow? Are you likely, if you have any standards for the quality of your own life, to even attempt all of this work?

Now think of college. You take only a few classes, they're mostly in the subject areas you're actually interested in, and they rarely meet more than thrice a week. Most importantly, the homework is different. Now, instead of a million tiny assignments due ten minutes after you learn they exist, you have textbook readings, projects, and problem sets. Thanks to the combination of more distant due dates and less time spent in class, you now have the luxury of taking your time and spreading things out. You can actually do your best on every assignment. How could you but flourish?

Here's how you could but flourish: you could, along with 99.9% of other college students, dutifully shoot yourself in the foot: you could wait until the last minute to do your homework. And then you could complain about how difficult college is—while procrastinating by hanging out with your procrastinating friends, no doubt.