I’m an expert in doing well in school.
I was in the top ten academically in high school, and I got As all through my higher education years. I worked full-time during graduate school and while writing my books. I teach a course on Research Methods for graduate students to help them develop skills that will last them through their careers as historians.
I am by no means brilliant. But I am smart enough, work hard, and have developed habits that achieve the best results for me.
I want to share some tips to help you get better grades in less time and with less stress and effort.
A caveat: my suggestions are written primarily for undergraduates in the humanities who attend school in person. Most of what I suggest is transferable to students in high school or graduate school, those who study STEM subjects, and online students.
Befriend a Librarian
I learned at a professional conference recently that a one-hour session with a librarian can save up to nine hours of individual research.
Talk with the staff at your library and develop a rapport with them. People became librarians because they want to help people discover information. Librarians can help in a pinch when you have overdue fines, need a book ordered, or have an obscure research topic.
Before you start a project, talk to a librarian to develop a research plan. A 15-minute conversation will set you on the right path quickly.
At the beginning of the school year, most schools offer bibliographic instruction classes, where a librarian discusses all the sources of information that are available to students. Many classes are in person; some are online. Take advantage of this opportunity before the school year gets underway. The class allows you to see the scope of materials that available to you, so you’ll have a better understanding of where to start your research.
Basic Bitches Use Google
A client of mine told me that almost half of their academic library’s budget is devoted to database subscriptions. A chunk of your tuition is put towards scholarly databases; if you only use Google for research, you are throwing away money.
It is possible to do good research on Google, but you would already have to be an excellent researcher. All too often, people only use the results that show up on the first page, which are not always the best.
Instead, use the scholarly databases that your library subscribes to which will give you better quality sources such as peer-reviewed articles and better search options.
Depending on your subject, one or two databases may be the ones that will find the best material. Ask a reference librarian which ones would be the best for your project and how to search within them. Each database offers different options and filters to refine your search.
Develop a Study Routine
As you mature as a scholar, you will discover what study and research options work best for you. For example, I like to write notes by hand and read them to myself to retain the information better. Through trial and error, I’ve found this method works the best for me.
Set the stage for your best work. What do you like to drink as you study? Do you play music or is it quiet? Where do you like to study? What can you do to maintain your concentration? Do you study best in a group or individually? What time of day works for you?
There’s no single best way to study, only one that syncs up best with your learning style and preferences.
Attend Office Hours
If a professor has office hours, stop by. This is especially important for subjects that may not come easily to you.
As a first-year, I took a 7:00 am Calculus class; I still don’t know what I was thinking. I had a hard time understanding some concepts from class, so I visited my professor during his office hours so we could work through my calculations. I received one-on-one attention, and he became more comfortable teaching me. I did better in class, and I imagine I was graded better—as much as there is some wiggle room in grading a math class—because he knew that I was putting in the extra effort.
Teachers teach, so let them. Take advantage of their wisdom. It’s helpful for them to know what you are struggling with, because you are probably not the only one in class who is having that problem.
Visit the Writing Center
Everyone benefits from writing better and having an editor.
If your campus has a writing center, visit it before your next assignment is due. You’ll be able to work one-on-one with another student to refine your paper. They will pick up on ideas that need more clarification and fix the awkward phrasing and grammatical errors that take away from what you’re trying to express.
Many students come to college without the ability to write well, and professors don’t often have the time to copy-edit your writing. Use your time as a student to develop your writing skills; no matter what career you ultimately land in, being a good writer will always help you.
As an undergraduate, I used to work at the campus writing center. A nursing student began meeting with me because she was having difficulty completing her assignments.
For example, when she read her writing out loud, she inserted words that weren’t on the page. She “wrote” perfectly while speaking, but her written communication was choppy. She didn’t see the omissions until I pointed them out.
It wasn’t easy working with her. Sometimes she was frustrated and angry. Who wouldn’t feel uncomfortable when someone is pointing out your errors? I admired her because she kept on working. We discovered ways to improve her writing while still retaining her unique voice.
After a few weeks, she told me that her professors noticed her progress and her grades jumped. She radiated pride. It was all on her; I was just there to facilitate her growth.
Use the Pomodoro Technique
Francesco Cirillo invented a time management system called Pomodoro after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work as a student. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for “tomato”).
The methodology is simple. When faced with a large task, break the work down into intervals (called “Pomodoros”) which are interrupted by short breaks. This structure trains your brain to focus and rewards it with a pause.
Typically, a Pomodoro is 25 minutes, and a break is 5 minutes. When you are procrastinating, promise yourself you will complete a Pomodoro. You will be amazed at what you can complete during that period, and you may find yourself eager to complete more Pomodoros.
Learn Editing Tricks
When you are nearing completion of your assignment, print it out. Make your edits on paper, and read it out loud. Editing on screen can catch major errors, but editing on paper reveals minor mistakes.
Reading your assignment out loud allows your ears to find errors that your eyes can’t see. You detect awkward phrasing, misused words, and other quirks. I use text-to-speech readers online discover more issues to correct.
Grammarly, Hemmingway App, and Expresso can also be used to fix grammar and style mistakes. Take their suggestions with a grain of salt; not everything they find needs to be changed.
Many schools offer health and wellness programs to their students. Seek professional help if you find yourself overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, or physical or mental problems. Develop ways to stretch yourself academically while also spending time relaxing and recharging.
A friend of mine was in a rigorous architecture school, which required endless hours of working, rendering, and studying. Even during the craziest of deadlines, she took a 20-minute walk daily. She needed that short period to clear her mind before she could continue working.
The most important part of becoming a better scholar is to become a better person, holistically. No grade is worth overworking yourself or becoming unbalanced in life.