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How to be a Good Student: Strategies for Success

Female student reading a book on a blanket

No matter what stage of life you're in, it can be a challenge to understand what it takes to excel in school.

You may have felt discouraged in the past, thinking you just aren't cut out to do well as a student. The truth is, being a good student is a skill that anyone can learn. Like anything else, it takes a bit of patience and a lot of practice.

Whether you're returning to your education after some time away from school, juggling family and work, or embarking on the college journey for the first time, there are tips and resources to help you build a personal toolkit for success. Let's focus on three broad strategies:

  • Determining what kind of learner you are
  • Prioritizing your time
  • Getting help

Most importantly, keep an open mind. You can do this!

Determine What Kind of Learner You Are

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. First, you need to determine what kind of student you are. Everyone learns in different ways. Sometimes, you may have struggled in the past simply because you haven't identified the way you learn best. The Study Gurus recommend considering:

  • Are you a visual learner who likes to create charts, diagrams and color-coded study guides?
  • Are you an auditory learner who learns best by listening?
  • Are you a kinesthetic learner who likes to use your body, hands and sense of touch to learn?
  • Or, are you a verbal learner who likes to learn by reading and writing?

Think about the things that have been easiest for you to learn or remember in your life.

Do visual arts like drawing, design or photography come easily to you? That's a good sign of a visual learner. Do you easily remember phone numbers or directions when people tell them to you the first time? That's an example of auditory learning. Do you easily pick up new sports or dance moves? You might be a strong kinesthetic learner. Do you easily remember information that you read in a book or magazine? That's a good sign you might be a verbal learner. Some people are very strongly one type of learner, but many people are some combination of these, and these three categories are not the only types of learning, just some of the broadest and most common. If you are not sure how you learn best, there are many quizzes online that can help you figure out what type of a learner you are.

Understanding how you learn best is a powerful tool when it's time to organize information, work on a project or study material.

Take a look at these study strategies, broken out by learner type by The Study Gurus:

  • Visual learners: Highlight and underline important lines in your reading, create diagrams and charts to help understand important information, use flashcards.
  • Auditory learners: Record audio of lectures so you can listen to them later, read material aloud to yourself, participate in class discussions, create songs or mnemonic devices to help you remember facts or concepts.
  • Kinesthetic learners: Use flashcards, get up and move around the room while studying, create games to help you study.
  • Verbal learners: Take plenty of written notes, print out reading assignments so you can write on them.

Prioritizing Your Time

The transition to full- or part-time schoolwork can be overwhelming. Suddenly, you have new responsibilities that you need to fit into your day, new deadlines to meet and new concepts and skills to learn and demonstrate.

Don't get overwhelmed by the big picture. Instead, break your to-do list down into "big rocks" and "pebbles." This is what Stephen Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" recommends in his third habit, which he calls simply "putting first things first."

Say you want to put all your rocks into a bucket. If you start with your pebbles, your big rocks won't fit. But, if you start with the big rocks and then add the pebbles, most of the pebbles will fit into the crevices between the big rocks.

Your big rocks are your absolute most important tasks for the day or the week. Pebbles are things that would be nice to accomplish, but that are not too important. They can be delayed for awhile without causing anything more than a minor annoyance, and they can fit into your day around your other, more important tasks.

So instead of a huge, scary to-do list, using Covey's method, your list might look like this:

Big rocks: Accounting project, English paper, parent-teacher conference

Pebbles: Study for next week's accounting exam, do reading for history class, get an oil change

Formatting your to-do list like this will help you prioritize your time and effort. Some people like to use a similar concept to rate their tasks on a scale of one to ten in importance, or to color code their list.

It doesn't matter how you create your list, but taking a moment to set your priorities before diving in can make a big difference.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions - or Ask For Help

What's one thing that good students have in common? They know when to ask for help.

In a recent article in Education Week, a panel of teachers identified reluctance to ask questions as one of the challenges they face in classrooms when helping students understand material. The teachers noted that some students may be afraid to ask questions because of a past humiliating experience, because they think their question is dumb or embarrassing, or because they are trying to use problem-solving strategies to figure the question out for themselves. Or, they might be hoping that another student asks the question they really want to ask.

If you are finding it hard to understand the concepts in class or to balance your workload, don't struggle in silence. Your instructors are available to answer your questions, and your counselor or advisor may be able to help you if you are feeling overwhelmed. Speak up in class if you don't understand the material, or ask your peers in a study group or discussion board to help you.

Before you throw up your hands and say "I don't get it!", look a little deeper at whatever is challenging you. Take a step back and try to identify exactly what is giving you trouble. Whenever possible, ask concrete, specific questions when you contact your instructor. Just the act of formulating a question and discussing it with another person may help you grasp a tricky concept or skill.

Gaining the confidence to ask questions will empower you as a learner and help you be a more effective student.

Identifying the best strategies for you as a student is a powerful step you can take in your education journey. Once you have a rock-solid foundation of personal strategies for organizing your time and learning new material and skills, you'll be positioned for success which will carry over into the other areas of your life.

Jennifer Brady is a subject matter expert in higher ed marketing and student recruitment. Follow her on Twitter @whereisjenbrady or connect on LinkedIn.

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