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Eric Charles, Ph.D.
Eric Charles Ph.D

The Secret to College Success: What Smart Kids Do

You do your part of the deal, and I'll do mine.

There is a new trend in college teaching, the workshop instructions are clear: connect with students, make the material relevant to their lives, engage them, blah, blah, blah.

Some professors have always done this, but the pressure seems ever growing. Over the course of your college career you will have some teachers who do these things masterfully. Heck, with particularly obscure material, even I will go the extra mile every so often. But not too often. I reject, wholly and completely, that it is my job, as a professor, to do these things.


Because that is exactly what the student's job is, and it is what the smart and successful students have always done.

What do the smart kids do?

I know ... you are used to thinking that smart kids are smart because of something deep inside of them called "intelligence" or "IQ". Well, you are wrong. Sure, some people have things like brain injuries, literally inside their heads, that make it much more difficult for them to learn things. But people do not have "intelligence" stuffed somewhere inside their head making it easy for them to learn things. For most people, the difference between excelling and failing is almost entirely determined by what world you live in, and how you act in that world.

Most smart kids are smart because they live in a world where being smart works and being dumb doesn't. If you want to be smart too, you should spend as much time as possible in that sort of world. Be surrounded by the right kind of people and avoid the wrong kind of distractions, and you will start to reflect the world you are part of.

Here are five important behaviors characteristic of smart kids:

1) They do not attend school as tourists. Smart kids take part in school activities outside of the classroom. They attend campus events, they check out campus clubs. The activities you enjoy will be very dependent upon the other people and the exact details of the event, if you do not try out different activities, you will never know what you like. A huge part of success in college is creating new networks of friends. This doesn't mean that you cut off contact with your old friends; it means expanding your network. Some of that expansion will be intellectual, not necessarily academic. Check out the theater shows, concerts, speakers, shows. Be a part of the community.

2) They do not attend class as tourists. Smart kids don't just sit in class; they interact in class, even in lectures. If they cannot interact with their professors, then they interact with their peers or they interact with themselves — guessing what the professor might say next, trying to tie points together, trying to make connections with other things they know and other experiences they have had. Sometimes it is a struggle to pay attention in a class, but that struggle is often virtuous. Find ways to keep paying attention to things, even if the speaker is not going out of his or her way to engage you, you need to put in the effort to engage. You have no idea how important this skill can be for the rest of your life.

3) When they study, they just study (most of the time). Smart kids study by not doing other things. Let's say you have five classes, and that each class requires two hours of real studying out of class, per week, to do well (probably a good bet for your freshman classes, but a bad bet for your senior-year classes). That's only 10 hours of studying a week... no problem, right? But now let’s say that while you study you gossip with friends, text, and watch TV. Now only 1/4 of your effort is going towards studying, and you need 40 hours. That is not going to happen. Ditch the distractions. If you have friends who won't let you ditch the distractions — who can't leave you alone for 10 measly hours a week to get your work done — ditch the friends, because they don't care about you.

4) They talk to their friends and family about what they are learning in school. If you do not want to spend some of your free time talking about school, you are doing something wrong. How is it that smart kids get in so many hours of studying? Some lock themselves in their room, true. But many just have friends who like to talk about school. No, I'm not joking. In college you have new-found freedom to learn about things you want. If you are a psychology major, join the psychology club, approach professors after class, find ways to talk about the stuff you are learning in class with other people who are trying to learn the same thing. Not interested in doing that? Then why on earth are you a psychology major? To flip that around, if you have friends who are super interested in what you are learning in psychology classes, especially if they seem more interested than you, tell them that they should be psychology majors.

5) They understand that different courses require different types of studying. Smart kids know every course isn't the same. In college, you will need to adjust to many different professors who have different ways of running their class and different ways of evaluating your accomplishment. This is just like in real life! (Except substitute "boss" for "professor.") You should try to determine how class is run, and how you will be graded, and plan your studying accordingly. There were classes where I never read the book and classes where I always read before class. The type of studying that lets you have a meaningful in class discussion and write a good essay is different than the type of studying that lets you fill out a factual multiple choice test. And by the way, if you are in a class that grades with essays... don't expect to do well if you were not keeping up with the discussions.

So that's it, that's your part of the deal. Don't be another student who expects class time to be wasted doing what you should be doing outside of class. It is your responsibility to become part of the wider campus community. It is your responsibility to be actively present in my class. It is your responsibility to arrange your life so you can get out-of-class work done. It is your responsibility to bounce ideas and thoughts off of those around you. It is your responsibility to study and show up to class prepared, whatever that is in my class.

At this point, you might fairly ask "Well then, what the heck is your part, oh great professor?"

My part of the deal is to create an environment in which those trying to learn things can thrive. Depending on the subject matter and the class size that might be lectures or it might be small, intense discussion groups. We might use a textbook, we might read research articles, we might struggle though cutting edge books that I have never read before. In any case, my job is to push you. My job is to never give you anything you are fully comfortable with from the start: New material, new assignments, new ways of thinking. My job is to be part of a team, of a community, of a culture that will, among other things, make the "you" that leaves college a more complete, more aware, more able to deal with challenges than the "you" that arrived.

You do your part of the job, and I'll try my damnedest to do mine.

About the Author
Eric Charles, Ph.D.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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