Five Principles For Student Success In The Classroom

February 4, 2022

Year after year, millions of soon-to-be high school graduates tap their feet nervously as yet another head of school rambles on about this new chapter in their lives. A dozen Hallmark cards filled with cash and a few months later, it’s time to head off to school. Mom orders anything and everything at Target’s Deck Out the Dorm Room sale, Dad stoically navigates the autumn traffic, and siblings say awkward goodbyes. The summer before college begins is a blur, with every relative, neighbor, and salesperson advising on what it takes to truly succeed at college regarding supplies, skills, and habits. Despite all of this unsolicited advice, few college students hit the ground running. Clearly, Target left a few items off the shelves. 

The transition between high school and college is laden with trapdoors, many of which have nothing to do with academic prowess. A student’s organization, time management, study habits, and impression management often determine how well he or she acclimates to the new surroundings. However, these crucial tenets of collegiate success go overlooked because of the focus on the other aspects of college life. In this post, we want to set the records straight.

First, let’s talk about what actually throws students off course when they make the jump to the big leagues: excess. High school students learn how to deal with distractions, freedom, social challenges, and self-advocacy issues, but college ups the ante. Students leave an environment of intense supervision in the classroom and at home to venture into a land where no one is watching. Studying becomes a matter of discipline rather than intellect. Further, students enter a world of new distractions. Orientation week, dorm life, Greek life, and the ubiquitous social calendar crowd out Introduction to Psychology with relative ease. Students go from few choices to hundreds as the problem of excess rears its ugly head. 

The trapdoors don’t end there as the academic environment students are accustomed to gets flipped on its head. Gone are the days of one class after another with bells to announce the interlude, with lunch, physical activity, and social time built into the routine. Instead, students need to balance their time independently, and learning to say ‘no’ arguably becomes a more critical skill than note-taking. Students also go from 40 hours of classroom time per week to slightly over 15 hours. That makes a huge difference. Time is one factor; teachers are another. The college professor is a different breed from the helpful high school teacher. Where high school teachers provide near-constant feedback and encouragement, college professors are often aloof and unapproachable. Students go from daily feedback in the form of homework and quiz grades to intermittent glances with two exams and a paper each semester. 

Lastly, if a student falls behind, which is likely given the feedback issue mentioned above, the high school safety nets and self-advocacy pipelines are nowhere to be found. Colleges don’t send academic progress reports home to parents, and very rarely does a professor or school official arrange a meeting with a struggling student. No, the struggling student must take responsibility for seeking help. However, once the student makes that choice, it can be challenging to figure out where to go, with a wide array of tutors, teacher’s assistants, testing centers, and counseling centers flooding the school directory page. Self-advocacy thus becomes a two-part battle: 1) knowing when to ask for help, and 2) knowing how to ask for help. 

Succeeding in college is hard, but it is not impossible. Millions of students do it every year because they intentionally manage the forgotten aspects of the college transition enumerated above. Although the trapdoors are plentiful, forward-thinking students can stay the course by following these principles. 

Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail 

Students don’t do enough research about their new school. More so, students don’t do enough research on their new city. Think about it. If students only spend 12-18 hours per week in the classroom, where do they spend the other 150 or so hours? 

Outside of the dorm room and the library, students must make time and make plans for the other factors of adult life. That means making a plan for haircuts, groceries, places to eat at different price points, pharmacies, transportation, and more. Solving these problems on the fly is stressful. Whether the school is in a college town, a suburb, or a major city, some research beforehand or during the first week is crucial to success.

Did Someone Say Calendars?

College ups the ante on free time, and there is way too much to remember. The loose structure and multi-dimensional lifestyle of college make calendars a necessity rather than a luxury. So, pick your tool (we love Google or Apple calendars) and start designing the semester. Start by inputting these scheduled, repeating events: classes, study times, dorm meetings, extracurriculars (Greek life, sporting events, etc.). 

Next, input some “self-scheduled non-negotiables” because if it’s not in the calendar, then it’s hard to say ‘no’ to something else. These include work time, sleep, mealtimes, and exercise. Students who set a time and location for a goal (i.e., studying) are more likely to succeed. Why not expand this thinking beyond academics? Schedule meals and exercise to keep yourself healthy, as those often go overlooked when students leave the rigid structure of high school living at home. Sleep is another critical non-negotiable. College students need not go to bed at 9pm for the sake of their academics. That’s unrealistic, but simply adding awareness of sleep quality and quantity can make a big difference. 

After that, add any remaining one-time events: school holidays, test days for all your classes, parents weekend, etc. For extra savvy students, add some “invisible calendars” to your arsenal. For instance, input professors’ office hours into the calendar in advance, but mark it as invisible. This way, when students need to find time to meet with their teacher, they can quickly unmask this calendar and find a meeting time that fits their busy schedule. By taking away one more roadblock to getting help, students can streamline their success. 

The Plan is Nothing, but Planning Is Everything

Successful students make time for planning, meaning “Plan the day” is on the calendar. The art of time management often boils down to momentum and perceived control. It is impossible to control every second of the day, despite what some productivity gurus claim. However, if students don’t make an effort to plan at least some of their time, chaotic days turn into chaotic weeks. On the other hand, students who plan out each day notice small wins and keep their momentum through the challenges of the college semester. 

The practice can be simple. Throw a few items on the calendar around the structure explained in the preceding paragraph. Add some extra study time because midterms are coming up, or schedule time to meet a professor. These daily goals don’t have to be academic, though. Go ahead and schedule time to meet a friend for coffee or play video games in your dorm room. The key is the act of planning. Students who succeed in college are intentional with their time. 

executive functioning skills

Let’s Talk about Learning Differences

Students with learning differences often struggle uniquely with the transition to college. The lack of supervision, loose structure, and added distractions make it hard to get off on the right foot. Furthermore, students often forget to set up the accommodations that helped them succeed in high school. Before school starts or during syllabus week, students with learning differences should contact the testing center or the center for students with disabilities. With fewer exams per semester in college compared to high school, taking a test without the necessary accommodations could be disastrous. Hit the ground running by taking care of this weeks before the first exam. Professors are happy to provide accommodations, but students must proactively make these arrangements themselves.

Find Your Bunker and Use It

Where a student studies is often just as crucial as how or what he or she studies. In high school, students usually have class time to work or scheduled study halls throughout the day in a pristine academic environment void of distractions. College is different. Professors lecture for 98% of the class time, meaning the work put in outside the classroom is vital. The problem is that students, at least initially, don’t put in enough independent work because they are not used to this new academic paradigm. As a rule of thumb, students should spend two hours studying independently for every hour of classroom instruction.  

That time needs to go on the calendar, but it needs to have a location attached. There are countless options when choosing a college study location: libraries, dorm rooms, coffee shops, etc. The key is to pick a productivity spot students can rely upon, which may be different from student to student. Do you need silence or a bit of background noise? Do you need to be somewhere convenient and nearby or far from possible distractions? These are questions best answered before the semester begins. Some introspection and research can yield the perfect study bunker for a successful semester. 

Looking for Additional Support?

Succeeding as a modern student is about much more than raw intelligence. The principles discussed above all relate to Executive Functioning (EF) skills. Executive Functioning skills like organization, time management, study skills, impulse control, impression management, and prioritization separate good students from great students. In other words, EF skills are the key to succeeding in school and beyond. The good news is that these foundational EF skills can be taught. 

At Illuminos, we provide one-on-one academic coaching and tutoring services for college students all over the world. Whether virtual, in-person, or a hybrid of both, we specialize in teaching students the critical Executive Functioning skills that represent the foundations of success. Put simply, we help students thrive in the new college environment.

For more information about our company and our proprietary, research-driven, and award-winning EF Coaching program, please visit our website.

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Evan Weinberger, Author

​​Evan Weinberger is the CEO of Illuminos LLC, an academic coaching and tutoring company he co-founded with his cousin Wendy in 2016 after a decade of success growing the sister company he founded in Texas called Staying Ahead of the Game LLC.

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