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The Crucial First Week of College Classes: Get a Good Start

Develop good study habits and routines for learning and feeling in control

“Well begun is half done.”

That quote (or quip) is attributed to Aristotle, someone who knew a great deal about human behavior. As college students head to campus the next few weeks, that quote should be on the mind of all students, particularly members of the first-year or freshmen class. Why? Because the first week or so is often a bell-weather for academic performance across the crucial first semester of college, when new students adjust to the rigors and routines of dorm-life, campus, and classroom.

College and university orientation sessions, which can run for a day or two or as long as a week or so, are the time for students to focus on letting go of Mom and Dad and making friends, as well as learning to live alone (or, really, somewhat on one’s own) for the first time. It is also a time to forge a positive relationship with a roommate or roommates. Some first year students will make a lifelong friendship with their roommates while others will have a chilly, if cordial, situation. Many students are probably somewhere in between (still, it’s best to make the best of it—I think learning to live with another person is a great way to learn respect for others as well as a bit of humility). But my purpose here is not to focus on that aspect of the first-year experience—let’s assume that orientation goes well as does “first contact” with the roommate.

Instead, let’s focus on the first week of classes. Here are some guidelines to help you start well and to form good habits that see you through to final exams (which, like the holidays, will be here before you know it):

Arrive to class on time. This sounds obvious, but students often trail in after a class has started. This is annoying to all, particularly if the instructor is mid-sentence, as all eyes will turn towards the tardy parties. You may not realize it, but being late is rude, as it behaviorally implies you couldn’t be bothered to be on time or the class didn’t matter enough for you to get up a little earlier. Some students will say, “But I didn’t know where the classroom was located the first day . . .” Really? Why not scope out where your classes meet during the orientation period so that you are not surprised. Know where to go.

Come to class prepared. Be sure you have done the reading and homework or other assignments for that day prior to coming to class—and then everyday before coming to class. Again, this obvious, but as Voltaire said, “Commonsense is not so common.” Some students, especially the first week, assume they will play catch up later and, in any case, perhaps they will switch into another section of the class or even another class altogether. Mistake. Do you work and develop good habits of preparation that will serve you well. Get your books before the first class unless you are certain you may switch sections or classes—it is not the professor’s responsibility to share a book if your Amazon order is still in transit.

Sit towards the front of the class. You need not occupy the front row but neither should you choose the “nosebleed” seats in the back, especially if the classroom is a large lecture hall filled with hundreds and hundreds of your fellow students. Ideally, you want your instructor to recognize and to call on you—to even learn your name. In turn, you want to get to know your professor. That won’t happen in the classroom’s highlands. Also, you are less likely to futz with your smart phone, iPad, or laptop if you sit towards the front.

Don’t use electronic devices unless the class requires them. Why? It’s disrespectful. If you don’t want to listen to a lecture or participate in discussion, why come at all? Digital devices will also distract you (and your seated neighbors) from learning and listening. Turn them off or put them on silent. Oh, and in case you are thinking of taking notes on a table device or laptop, think again. Psychological research shows that students learn and retain more information when they write their notes—they tend to put ideas and terms into their own words rather than simply typing verbatim what they hear.

Take notes—always. Many things that are discussed in class are not found in assigned readings, yet they are an important part of learning and often end up on exams. Take good notes. I recommend having two notebooks for each class. One is for the quick (and in my case, often sloppy) notes taken during class. The other is for rewriting notes carefully, clearly, and thoughtfully—that is, translating the points from the class notebook into the one you will use to study. Is it a little extra work? Yes, a bit. Will it help you learn material better? Well, it certainly won’t hurt and you will be able to fill in the blanks as it were after class when the ideas are still fresh—they will fade by the first exam and you may not recapture them intact from the (sloppy) classroom notebook.

Go over your notes and readings a few times a week. Doing so will save you from cramming before an exam (cramming rarely works and it is certainly not an effective way to learn). Ongoing review will also make you feel less stressed when the work piles up, as it inevitably does, as midterm approaches. Pace yourself—college is like a marathon—it is not a sprint. Planning, preparation, and practice all matter. Visualize yourself being calm as you study for tests—it is possible and even pleasurable if you work consistently rather than at the last minute. But—you need to develop the habit. Why not start early?

Realize that college is a new beginning. Drop your old high school habits, yes, even those you are convinced (rote memorization, underlining everything, doing papers the night before), probably erroneously, work for you (research shows they really don’t). Learn to work ahead, even just a little ahead, and reap the rewards of always feeling in control.

Get a good start—well begun is half done. Good luck.

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