College can be tough for students these days: often they have to work full-time jobs to support their families and/or put themselves through school, enroll in accelerated programs to minimize the time and cost of degree programs, and struggle through courses for which their previous education did not prepare them. This partly accounts for the increased number of college drop-outs recently. According to Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic,
“Just 56 percent of students who embark on a bachelor’s degree program finish within six years, according to a 2011 Harvard study titled ‘Pathways to Prosperity.’ Just 29 percent of those who seek an associate’s degree obtain it within three years. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, just 46 percent of Americans complete college once they start, worst among the 18 countries it tracks.”
Students are clearly up against the wall when it comes to college completion. Sadly, though, it’s not always economics or under-preparation that causes students to fail academically. In my many years of teaching, I’ve noticed several common ways that students undermine themselves, even when they have the best intentions to work hard and do well.
Check out this list of common student mistakes and see if you make any of them:
- Communicating badly with your professors. I can’t even begin to list the number of times students have failed to communicate crucial information to me, such as the fact that they are having trouble understanding a concept, cannot locate a required text, or are going through a major trauma and need assistance. Your professor needs to have complete information in order to help you achieve your academic goals. Students who have been very clear with me about their needs tend to do better in their schoolwork overall, because it shows that they have not only taken their responsibilities seriously, but have allowed me to do what I can to help them. If you are unsure how to talk to your professor, check out this guide from Santa Monica College.
- Overloading your schedule. I know this from my own undergraduate experience. Before my first semester at the University of Connecticut, I thought it would be a good idea to take all my most difficult requirements and get them over with. I also had a work-study job and … well, let’s just say I had an active social life. Looking back, it should have been obvious that this was a recipe for disaster. When the semester ended, I had earned a 1.9 GPA and was on academic probation. I had quite a bit of work to do to recover from that. Don’t let this happen to you: speak with your advisor, pick your courses carefully, be realistic about your workload, and plan accordingly.
- Ignoring the syllabus and/or not following instructions. Before every exam, I tell my students to read the directions carefully, because at least one of them will pay no attention to the instructions and just dive in. They end up losing a huge number of points because they miss part of or even an entire question. Sure enough, when I sit down to grade the exams, at least one student has clearly not read the instructions thoroughly. I am convinced that many student errors are the result of careless attention to instructions. Check out this wiki on good test-taking strategies to minimize the chance that you’ll do this. Similarly, failing to check the syllabus can result in missed assignments.
- Permitting distractions in class and while studying. It never fails: students who are the most active in class in non-academic ways are always among the least successful academically. They text, read their email, frequently leave the room to take phone calls or use the restroom, and chat with their fellow students. All of this takes away from their ability concentrate on the material. I’ve also noticed that students are often hesitant to establish firm boundaries with friends and family. Many times those in-class phone calls are from parents and students feel obligated to answer them. But as a college student, you need to take control of the situation and establish your priorities with everyone in your life.
- Avoiding classroom engagement. Study after study shows that students who sit in the front and middle of the class tend to have higher academic scores. I’ve regularly witnessed this phenomenon myself. There are always students who undermine themselves by sitting far away from other students, way in the back of the class. They literally and figuratively distance themselves from their academic commitments. Similarly, students who don’t ask questions are not as engaged with the material as those who do, and engaged students perform better academically. So be careful about your own classroom behavior and do your best to develop productive habits that will help you engage with the material.
- Skipping class. The most common way students avoid classroom engagement and undermine their own chance at success is to skip class altogether. As Minnesota State University cites one study demonstrated that “by far, the most valuable and important time commitment in a course was the time actually spent in the classroom. That time was the most important determinant of student success..” It’s very simple: if you want to increase your level of academic success, go to class.
- Procrastination. I hear from students all the time that they “work better under pressure,” but not only have I seen the poor results of procrastination in student work, I’ve been as guilty of procrastination as anyone else. The truth is that it really-really-doesn’t help you. According to one study, “procrastination is closely linked to “avoidant coping styles” — the tendency to neglect problems that cause anxiety rather than confront them.” This seems logical-of course you’re going to avoid things that are stressful. But it’s not logical to purposely avoid tasks that you need to complete in order to advance your own academic or professional goals. When you put off writing that paper until the last minute, for example, you don’t have time to edit or proofread it before turning it in, have the professor look at it to make sure you’re on the right track, or even reflect on its contents and improve your work. When you cram for an exam, you are not permitting the material to sink in and become part of your general body of knowledge. The best way to complete academic work is slowly and thoughtfully. Start studying in advance.
- Neglecting technological requirements and needs. I’ve noticed that students, as tech-savvy as they are about their cell phones or other mobile devices, fail to plan in advance for the tech needs they will have in their academic lives. In many classes, not being able to download a required program is not an acceptable excuse for failing to turn in an assignment. A printer malfunction is not an excuse in my courses, for example. It’s your responsibility as a student to make sure that you do everything in advance to make sure that no last-minute tech glitches will hamper your progress.
- Cheating and plagiarizing. This one is clear-cut: if you are caught cheating or plagiarizing, you fail the assignment and sometimes the course. If you are not caught, you’ve cheated yourself: when you’re on the job, or in a more advanced class, you are not going to know the skills or material you need to succeed. Don’t risk it.
- Partying too much and/or failing to take care of yourself. Students tend to burn both ends of the candle. Maybe you’re experiencing freedom from parental supervision for the first time, or are working and raising a family. Either way, you’re pushing your personal resources to the limit. Think about your priorities, be realistic about what you can achieve, and call in some extra resources.
Think carefully: have you done any of these things in your courses? Did you do well that semester or in that course? Think about ways you can stop these bad habits, and follow my suggestions for alternate actions. You’ll probably discover that your overall learning increases along with your grades!