Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Back to Pencils, Back to Books . . . Back to Campus

Some advice for adjusting to college for students and parents.

Labor Day has come and gone, and most college students have returned to campus. Quite a few of them are first-year students. Instead of focusing on teaching psychology in this piece, I want to focus on helping students adjust to academic life (which is teaching psychology in another form). Over a week ago my wife and I dropped our son off for his freshmen year at Wheaton College, a venerable liberal arts institution in Norton, MA. As we drove through Connecticut and then Rhode Island (he slept through New York and New Jersey), I fought the temptation to offer advice about how to study, keep up on class work, manage time, make good friends, and--wait for it--earn good grades. In other words, I did not want to be the sort of helicopter parent that I regularly complain about on my own campus. As you probably know, helicopter parents are those well-intentioned folks who hover incessantly around their children, bobbing, weaving, and endlessly intervening, offering everything from solace to money to fend off failure experiences, many of which would likely teach valuable life lessons.
So, as we raced past Providence (and I hoped for providence) and neared his new home, I kept quiet about how to adjust to the rigors of college classroom life. As we moved him into his "double," made his bed, and hung his shirts, I held back. As we prowled the aisles of a local Target for forgotten necessities of dorm life, I (mostly) held my tongue. When my wife and I left the next day after bidding the boy farewell (admittedly a bit teary), my parting comments did not include a guide for the collegiate perplexed. He has an academic advisor and he must learn things on his own.
But, had my son asked, here's the practical advice I'd have given him, what I tell students in my classes every fall. These are by no means blinding insights, but the members of the entering class on virtually any campus would do well to heed them (doing so won't hurt--and Mom and Dad, who have sacrificed so much, will feel better).

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Be there. Get up and go to class-every class. After all, someone is paying for it (or in the end you will). And college isn't all beer and skittles. You are there to learn and to become a more interesting person.
Become known. Don't just sit there, and certainly not in the back row. Sit down in front or close to it. Never be a face in the crowd. Ask and answer questions. Share your ideas. Smaller colleges expect it and, at bigger schools, you will stand out from your many peers (and the professor may learn your name).
Read the book. Surprisingly, many students never do assigned readings because they assume that professors will review the key items during lecture or class discussion. Not so. Reading is usually background for discussion, speculation, and debate.
Start early, start often. Do assigned readings before, not after, class. Begin review for a test several days before you are to take it, not just the night before. Whatever the topic, spreading out study is always, always superior to cramming.
Outline, draft, write, and revise. Begin a paper as soon as it is assigned-short but steady progress on a paper will always result in a better piece of work than last minute, night-before-it's-due efforts. (And no, last minute "pressure" does not result in "creative thinking" or better papers; they look and read like they were rushed. Trust me)
Eat, sleep, and exercise. Don't go to a morning class on an empty stomach (especially if there is a test!). Try to get the recommended eight hours of sleep (but avoid taking what one of my own pals in college called a "power sleep," one that exceeded 12 or more hours at a pop). And remember to get some exercise by using the state-of-the-art athletic facilities your tuition dollars are paying for!
When you need help, seek it-immediately! Problems in any class tend to snowball quickly. Don't wait, react, and remember that there is no shame in asking for help. Most faculty welcome the opportunity to offer advice about studying or the meaning of life, for that matter. But we are not mind readers. Seek us out.
This is the time in life when you get to reinvent yourself. Explore. Challenge yourself. Try new things. Drop those things that no longer interest you. And for heaven's sake, don't major in something someone else tells you to (even if that someone is Mom or Dad). Decide for yourself.
Want more on how to learn? Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, has written a helpful book on why students don't like school. Although it is aimed at primary and secondary educators, those parents who want to help their kids but "helicopter" less might want to read it and then slip a copy into their son or daughter's laundry bag during the next visit home. Of course, there is no guarantee it will be read . . . resist the urge to ask.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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