A Letter to My Advisees: Let’s Make This a Good Semester!

– Jeanne M. Slattery

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Jeanne Slattery and some of her students

To my Advisees,

It’s the start of a new semester and both you and I want this to be a good one. Stop for a minute and consider what you’ve done in the past that have helped you succeed and what events or choices have caused you to struggle. These insights can help you frame your decisions this semester.

You might not know how to become successful, though. Maybe you think it just happens (I don’t believe that it just happens – your success depends on what you do and how you think. Considerable research supports my assertion.) The following suggestions are things that I’ve seen work – for myself and my students.

One of the first things you might do is pay attention to how much time you’re putting into your courses. In general, faculty believe you should be studying 2-3 hours per week for every hour you spend in class. That means you should be spending 9-12 hours per week on each course, in and out of class. If you are taking 15 credits this semester, you should be preparing for class and studying about 50 hours per week. Many students don’t put that sort of effort into their learning. Why? While there are many contributing factors, one is key – a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2006). Many people believe that if they are meant to learn something, it will come easily. When it’s difficult, they give up. Over and over, the research concludes that people who are successful, work hard – even those who are “talented” (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Rome, 1993).

It’s not just the number of hours that you put in that matters, but what you do in those hours. Ericsson and his colleagues (1993) say that those hours should be goal-directed. First, focus on learning rather than only the grades you earn. Next, focus on specific subgoals. If you are trying to become a stronger writer, for example, what specific skills do you want to build? Are you working on developing a stronger thesis, expressing your ideas in a more organized manner, or using APA format better? Knowing your goals will make your work more effective and your progress toward those goals more rapid.

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Figure 1. An example of a strong definition flashcard, which (a) breaks the definition into its central parts, and (b) identifies unknown vocabulary in the card (Mitchell, 2015).

Ericsson and his colleagues (1993) also say that it is helpful to use strategies designed to help you improve most rapidly. Many of your faculty present helpful strategies in their classes, syllabi, and handouts. They may give you mnemonics to help you remember complicated ideas easily (e.g., I learned the notes on the treble staff – EGBDF – by using the acronym Every Good Boy Does Fine). They may give you suggestions on studying (e.g., using flashcards more effectively or diagnosing the problems you have had on an exam). See Figure 1. I suspect that many students ignore these suggestions – and this has an impact on their learning and grades.

Carefully reading the documents your faculty provide is an important success strategy. Read your syllabus and refer to it frequently – your professor probably told you what you will be accomplishing this semester and how to best meet these goals. Use a planner or calendar to organize your semester and to identify when you will do your work.

Some students believe that simply showing up for class is enough. They may be in class asleep or studying for another course, neither of which will help them learn. Similarly, some students divide their attention in ineffective ways while studying. They may be texting friends, talking on the phone, and checking Twitter. While many people believe that they can do two things at once, the research suggests otherwise. Most people cannot study effectively while multitasking (Hembrooke & Gay, 2003) – and even run into problems when the people around them are multitasking (Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013). Instead, be mindful and engaged with whatever you do. Apps like Focus Booster, Anti-Social, and StayFocusd can help you recognize and prevent accidental multitasking.

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Figure 2. Revision of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

I see students studying using flashcards. Flashcards can be useful if used well, but if they are only used to help you memorize definitions, you aren’t using your time as effectively as you could. Move up on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning! See Figure 2. Instead of only knowing or understanding the concepts described in class, apply, analyze, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and create something new with them. The more actively and thoughtfully engaged you are with your course and the course material, the stronger your understanding will be.

Finally, consider your beliefs about doing better. If you believe that you are bad at math, writing, or taking multiple-choice exams – and always will be bad – you have a fixed mindset, which will interfere with your ability to persevere and succeed. Instead, Dweck (2006) argues that believing you can be successful if you work hard (growth mindset) will lead to greater success. When you believe you can become successful, you will engage in the kinds of behaviors that will make you successful – you’ll be more willing to accept challenges, take risks, and ask questions. You will work harder after a mistake, attempt to learn from your mistakes, and listen to and profit from feedback and criticisms.

College isn’t only about learning concepts, but building skills that will serve you well throughout your life. You are learning to solve problems, communicate effectively, present complex ideas so others can understand them, work well with your colleagues, and discover and evaluate information. Remembering this larger picture may help you actively engage in college and learn well.

When you do something well, be proud. When you learn something new, be proud. When you learn something but haven’t yet mastered it, be proud. Take pride in your hard work and your learning.

You can’t do this alone, however. Find your allies, those people who believe in you and will help you succeed. We might be your professors, advisor, success coach, parents, or best friend. Find us, talk to us – and make this semester an especially good one!

See you soon,

Your advisor, who really values your success

References

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Rome, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.

Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(1), 46–64.

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers and Education, 62, 24–31.

Many thanks to Melissa K. Downes who, as per usual, contributed in very thoughtful ways to the language and thinking in this essay.


Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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