Improving Understanding And Increasing Grades: 4 Tips For Fall Freshman At Columbus Day, An Open Letter To My Son At College:

Paul J. Vermette

In a memo originally meant just for his Freshman son away at college, an Education Professor details four learning strategies (and a pre-condition) that have great promise for improving academic achievement. The precondition is a recommendation that students go see the Professors during their office hours: this shows genuine concern for their achievement, begins to connect the student to the institution AND begins to help the professors see the student as an individual … and assess how much the student has already learned in the course.

The four tips include the following: (1) the DISTRIBUTION of study and reading/writing time, thus organizing a schedule AND increasing the efficiency of the work; (2) the ELABORATION of one’s notes, through the processes of summarizing, identifying, chunking, comparing or transforming the ideas; (3) MARKING one’s books, in effect, interacting with the author’s presentation of evidence; and (4) EXPLAINING ideas, theories, information and concepts to someone else, either in a study team format or just as a tutorial. (The one who explains is usually the one who learns.)

Examples of the various strategies are offered and active responses are called for. The techniques are sound, research based and should help everyone, not just the first-year students.

Dear Matt,

Please notice that this is the first letter that I have written to you that has a title!!!!! Thinking about your situation at St. John Fisher made me think

about all the Fall Freshman at Niagara that I have taught … and perhaps failed to help as much as I could! If you let me, I will share this note with other Freshmen in other colleges … and maybe help them too.

This weekend (the second one in October) is infamous at College: some of us always fear that many of our students simply would NOT come back from their trip home on the extended break … or … they would feel so bad about all the difficult adjustments that they’re facing that they would come back feeling “defeated”. Many talented students don’t negotiate all the “firsts” that they encounter in college and end up being down on themselves. Having a few strategies to use may help you weather the inevitable storm that is coming.

Things are going well for you and I think that you can the make the best out of these suggestions. I offer you a few simple pieces of advice that (a) you can implement easily and quickly (b) will make your school work different and perhaps more enjoyable and (c) no doubt will raise your grades!!!!

Now, first of all there is a precondition to this set of 4 TIPS. Most of the time we parents offer ideas such as “get enough sleep”, “eat fruits and vegetables”, “go to class” and “don’t get in trouble”. These are wonderful suggestions and valuable: take note of them. However, the precondition that I offer is different: Go talk to your professor about your work and your efforts, preferably during her or his office hours AND before a big test (Don’t be late or fail to show for an appointment). This short chat assures the prof that you actually are serious about your work (which you are), puts a name on a face, gives the prof a chance to assess how much you do know about the course AND provides him or her with an opportunity to offer advice about study techniques for that specific content.

This last point is important. If you ask a prof “Do you have any suggestions that would help me do better in the course?”, the answer often is “study more” or “do the reading”. These hints are fine, but you already know these things. What might be offered is something like this: “make sure that you understand the chapter subtitles–they’re critical”, or “l make all my test questions similar to the samples offered in the book, so look at those” or “There is at least one question about every term I put on the board on every test” or “Note that in the syllabus, there is a key question for every class: you might want to be able to answer them!”. When a prof says something like this…. you ought to take serious note of it!!! They all want you to pass (and prosper); very few, if any, really want the students to fail. Trust them; they won’t lead you astray.

I once did a study of college profs with Dr. P here at Niagara back in 1989…. almost everyone of them gave definite in-class hints as to test items every day!!!! All I had to do was look for emphasis during class and I could identify these examination points. Later, in discussion, I found out that the professors hoped that the students would be able to identify them too.

So, the precondition is simply: Go and have a chat so that everybody is a little bit clearer about your willingness and ability to do well. Oh, yeah, and eat the green vegetables.

Now here are the four (4) tips that are guaranteed to raise your achievement. I anticipate that you will face ESSAYS and PAPERS that require you to use information to defend an argument and MULTIPLE-CHOICE TESTS that expect identifications of causes or results or which seek comparisons. These tips all are useful in getting ready for those kinds of challenges. Give them a chance (or two). As they use to say in an old TV commercial, “Try them…. you’ll like them”.

(1) DISTRIBUTE YOUR PRACTICE AND STUDY TIME. This is simple: set up a schedule so that you have a plan! (remember Fred Ward in “Tremors”; he was always making a new plan, but at least he had one!) If you are going to do three hours work, you’re better off spreading the work across three one-hour sessions than doing all three hours at one shot. Organize your very busy schedule so that you have a few work times for each course spread across the week. (Note that your football coaches break practice into shorter work periods and that you review and extend new plays and old plays every day: this is the same principle at work in sports.)

This is a powerful factor in learning: spreading out your study time gets you organized, keeps you attentive, makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something, increases efficiency, and means that you are using knowledge all the time. Note, too, that these distributed practices are ACTIVE…. where you DO something to learn each time. The next three tips are all examples of sample activities that could be done during the study/learning sessions. To start, know that putting things into your own words is a good idea. So, in the space below, transform this first hint (about distributing practice) into your own words:

(2) For a second tip, TRY ELABORATING YOUR NOTES, which means of course, having some notes! These can be from lecture (which is tough), discussion (which is almost impossible) from reading (which can take forever), or from someone else’s notebook (which can help you make friends or be illegal): if you choose this last suggestion, TAKE NOTES on his or her notes, DO NOT just copy them! Taking your own notes (and in you own words) helps because it makes the mind active and aggressive. Copying notes is passive (Bart Simpson writes 100 times a day that he will not do something, yet I bet that he never can remember those sentences!)

How can you elaborate on your notes? First of all, you can IDENTIFY main ideas and extend their meanings. For example, if the notes say “South Vietnam never did have a democratically elected leadership,” you could jot down “key point #1” or “bet this had to be hidden by the US government” or “LBJ would disagree”. In all three cases you’ve identified something, and in the final two elaborated on them. This also works for text material as well as notes.

Another way to elaborate is to BUILD CHUNKS of notes: you look down at what you wrote and put it in sections. CHUNKING can really help because OFTEN one’s notes are a mess … just a bunch of stuff written down during class For example:

“Religions … satisfy human needs for … big picture … Man doesn’t know … animism in Africa … wounded buffalo? Five pillars tell Moslems how, but what tells them why? And why do they believe? All Christianities are Ok with after- life concept … fear of nothingness … human self-delusion or self-assurance? People need to know why they exist and what they are for…. the reason for humanness”.

Making sense of this could result in chunking about “big questions of humanity” or “ways that different religions help”. Thinking about what chunks to use makes your mind try to make sense of the notes.

My favorite way to elaborate on notes is simply to TRANSFORM them, usually into drawings. Putting the notes in your own words is helpful, but drawings stick in memory better (for most of us). Try your hand at it right now. Read the following statements, then draw them in the margin.

“The US fought a ground war against an invisible enemy, one that would “hit and run” its enemy and then blend into the people and the countryside like ghosts.”

“Films showed Viet Nam metaphorically, as if it couldn’t have been a real event (like WWII). For the families of the 50,000 dead US soldiers, this might have been the ultimate injury, the pinnacle of despair for their losses.”

Another elaboration technique is to INVENT COMPARISONS, especially analogies like “ghosts” used in an example above. Having to think about comparisons requires deep processing of material and leads to comprehension. For example, generating or answering the question, “how is football the same (or different) from a ground war?” would help you grasp important relationships bout the US use of ground power in Viet Nam.

In regards to religions, you could make a note in the notebook margin that says “Hinduism is like straitjacket: all binding rules” … or “Koran is like Bible: both tell stories, give big picture, set rules … and promise a future to the good people.” Another example would be as follows: Your notes state that “The US was split down the middle between hawks and doves: hawks wanted war to prove we’re right and doves thought peace could only be brought along by stopping violence. Hardly anybody was in the middle”: try your hand making a comparison or an analogy (hint on this one: the concept of fences come to my mind!)

3. If you like to distribute your active practice and use elaborations, you might also like this piece of advice: MARK UP YOUR BOOKS!!! Adler calls this “an act of love” and it means that you were actively reading the materials. DON’T be super cheap and try to make your used book appear to be clean and new so that you can an extra $1.23 back from the bookstore next semester!! You can underline, yellow out or number parts of your book, and here are a couple of other ideas:

(a) Identify information in a paragraph as EVIDENCE for something, and try to figure out what that something was … the clues will be in previous paragraphs. Authors don’t just put stuff in a book sort of randomly; everything in there is either a major point (a thesis statement) or supporting EVIDENCE. For example, the lead sentence in a paragraph in the middle of the page says. “Furthermore, the TET offensive also made the US war publicity machine look bad. People had thought that the US was winning … and now doubt was raised.” Before going any further, you can try to make sense of this point. This statement is evidence that (a) publicity was important; (b) some thing called the TET offensive had several implications; (c) there was some kind of sequence of events that TET was part of.

If you can finish connecting those ideas, you’ve learned some important content and prepared for a test item seeking to examine those connections.

(b) You can also mark up your book by ARGUING WITH OR CHALLENGING the author: remember books are written by people trying to convince readers of their theories (as I am trying to do in this letter). Try arguing or questioning the following statement … and do so by scratching your ideas right in the margins of this paper.

“Obviously, the opposition to the WAR was fostered by communists living in the United States and who had been frustrated by their own inept attempts at a local revolution.”

As I calmed down, I would write stuff like…. “name three such opposition leaders”…. “does this mean they were hired by USSR?” “what local revolution” or “I though dissent was freedom of speech … communists don’t like personal freedoms.”

All of these strategies make you actively deal with the knowledge, using it for some purpose and changing it somehow. You will remember and understand more if you do these things … and if you distribute your sessions, you’ll see your grades fly high. But, I promised you four tips; here is the last one:

(4) If you really want to do well in college, go EXPLAIN these TIPS to another human being. This is a good way to make friends or to meet people. You can always claim that it is part of a psychology or education project (“My father is doing research on `explanation’ and he’d like you to give me twenty minutes while I explain …”). If you do this explaining thing twice, you will (a) have distributed practice (b) remembered and understood all the TIPS (techniques) and have (c) have several new acquaintances. IF those persons are also classmates and join you in using these strategies (perhaps in a cooperative study group!) you all will see your grades rise.

In this space, tell the name of the partner(s) and a brief summary of how the explanation process went:

It’s been fun writing to you and I hope you enjoy reading the letter and trying the ideas out. Also, I await your reply as to whether I can share it with other students. You know that my first two years in college were dismal academically…. and things didn’t improve until I changed my study habits (patterns and strategies). I’ve done pretty well in school with average ability … but I have always used good technique since my personal “turnaround”.

All my best…Love always…. you’re always in my mind and in my heart…. let me know how these ideas work out, especially the “explaining to others” one.


PS. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the letter has an introduction, a precondition, 4 tips (including 4 types of elaborations), 2 ways to mark a book, and a challenge (assignment). Try to identify each of these and you’ll see my chunks (and the outline of the letter). Moreover, you could take a pen and use the “marking” strategy to argue with me in the margins … which would help you remember the strategy (and my point).

COPYRIGHT 2000 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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