It's not what you know that's important, but how you know it and how well you communicate it to others. Whether you're majoring in Anthrozoology or Japanese, you need to master the same essential skills: How to learn and how to communicate. The best students (and graduates, for that matter) can write and present well. They participate in class, take good notes, and study effectively. This chapter will help you become not just a successful student, but a master
student. It will:
- outline the critical reading, writing, and speaking skills
- explain the importance of participation and give you strategies for partici- pating in a meaningful way
- provide essential tips for note taking and studying
- identify resources that will help you master your studies
Professors have observed a steady decline in college students' basic writing skills. All students— including math and science majors—need to know how to write well in a variety of contexts. If a student hasn't mastered the basics before college, he or she should seek remediation even before he or she unpacks the new mini-fridge. Colleges usually provide entry-level composition classes, workshops and specialized sessions on writing, in addition to well-staffed writing centers. Some schools, like Purdue University, have top-notch online writing resources—which can be particularly helpful if you're working on a paper at 3 a.m., when no tutoring centers are open. You can help yourself by taking advantage of these resources and learning the essentials of good writing.
Whether you're writing for a science class or an English class, good writing has clarity, focus, voice, fluency, and follows the rules of standard conventions.
Be clear and specific. Use precise language, not overblown verbiage or filler material. Edit out any ambiguities or awkward sections.
To check for clarity:
- Take a break. Come back to your paper with fresh eyes.
- Read it aloud. Listen to the meaning and rhythm of each sentence, as well as to the way the sentences work together.
- Make sure the style is consistent. Common inconsistencies include shifting verb tenses and nouns/pronouns (people shifts to a person or one or everybody or you)
- Don't use jargon. Avoid vocabulary words you don't fully understand or don't need.
- Kill the filler. Read the paper again, this time looking for fluff or filler material. Frequent fillers: adverbs (Examples: It was a(n) incredibly rich experience. I sincerely hope you'll respond.); redundancies (At this point in time.... It was a very unique opportunity); and general wordiness (Seeing as though she was wanting a change.... or Despite the fact that Harriet was wanting a change for the better... becomes, simply, Harriet wanted a change.)
Your reader should be able to follow your thoughts from a compelling introduc- tion, through logically organized ideas in the body paragraphs, to a resounding conclusion. Hypothetically, a reader should be able to pick up random sections of your essay and piece them back together in the correct order. How? Because the argument will flow from one idea to the next, you'll have used transition words to signal shifts in ideas or topics, and there will be nothing extraneous to distract from your ideas. Another, more likely, test is if another classmate or your professor could read your paper, then easily respond to the questions, "What is
this paper about? What are the author's main ideas?"
To check for focus:
- Take a break. Come back to your paper with fresh eyes.
- Check your thesis statement. Is it clear, specific, and arguable? Do the ideas in the rest of the paper spring from it?
- Identify the main idea in each paragraph. This is usually the topic sentence. Each sentence in the paragraph should connect in some way to the topic sentence. If a sentence doesn't connect, it needs to go, no matter how attached you are to it.
- Ensure each paragraph is distinct. If you find yourself restating ideas and even quoting the same material in different paragraphs, that's a sign that you need to pull all of that related material into the same paragraph and cut the rest.
- Ask a friend to review your paper. If your friend can restate your thesis and main ideas, you've succeeded. If your friend is confused by parts of it, go back to the paper and rework it until it will pass this test.
Or, more appropriately, control of voice. Know your audience, purpose, and topic, and write accordingly. Your voice will vary depending on your audience and purpose. The tone you take should be intentional and effective.
To check for voice:
- Reread the paper out loud. Ask yourself, Is there a clear audience, purpose, and topic? and Is the tone consistent and appropriate to the audience, purpose, and topic?
You want your reader, whether it's a professor, a teaching assistant, or a classmate, to pause only to reflect on your insights and ideas. You want them to think, "Ah!" and "Hmm, I hadn't thought of that!" not "What?" or "How much longer must I endure?" Fluency is how the paper flows. It should move naturally from one idea to the next. Your sentence structure and word choice should highlight your ideas, not distract from them.
To check for fluency:
- Take a break. Come back to your paper with fresh eyes.
- Check the introduction and conclusion. Are they compelling? Clearly connected to the topic explored in your paper?
- Identify transition words and phrases. Make sure you smoothly transition between each body paragraph or between sentences within a paragraph.
- Check for common sentence structure errors, including run-ons, comma splices, and fragments.
Mastery of Conventions
If you're a phonetic speller or an inveterate comma splicer, now is the time to kick the habit. Conventions should not be noticeable to your reader; if you've mastered them, no one will say, "Wow, excellent use of the semicolon!" Or, "I love how her pronouns always agree with their antecedents!" If you haven't mastered them they will distract from your ideas.
To check for conventions:
- Give yourself time. Make sure you have enough time between the paper's final printing and its due date to go over it and look for errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
- Find fresh eyes. Ask a friend or tutor at the writing center to proofread your paper.
Now that we've described what the final product should entail, let's talk about how to get there: the writing process. You've probably learned at least a couple of different methods for approaching the writing process. These constructs are helpful, especially when a writer recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for writing. The writing process depends on the individual student and the writing task at hand.
One crucial thing to remember before you write any paper: Writing is just a part of the process. Thinking of the ideas, researching and reading, taking notes, deciding what to include and what to exclude, developing an outline, then revising and editing—the work of writing is so much more than putting words on paper. Expect to rewrite. Expect to end up with a different product than you aimed for.
Here's a general overview of the writing process:
- Pre-write. The tasks: identify an interesting topic, determine the position you'll take in the paper, brainstorm ideas, develop an outline, research, read, and gather evidence. If your instructor has provided a rubric, read over it carefully at this stage of the writing process. Rubrics are designed to give students a clear writing target; in other words, they show you exactly what your instructor will consider when he or she evaluates your paper. If time allows, ask for feedback on your outline from a friend or tutor.
- Write. The tasks: Develop a thesis statement, a conclusion, write the body paragraphs, and craft an introduction.
- Revise. The tasks: Review your first draft with a critical eye, revise it, and then proofread it.
Here we'll add a step missing from the popular model of the writing process:
- Reflect. The tasks: After your instructor returns your paper, reread it and any comments he or she made. Keep a critical distance from your own work so you can fairly appraise its strengths and weaknesses. Use any feedback you get to inform the way you write your next paper.
Some words of advice: Stay flexible throughout the process and you'll end up with a better paper. For instance, expect your thesis to change and develop as you write. With research papers, expect to keep researching in the latter stages of the writing process. Also, take notes on your readings and sources as you go so that you won't have to backtrack or, even worse, get stuck without proper records of your sources.
Public Speaking Skills
Public speaking, both informal and formal, is another important part of the college experience. Some might use the term "unavoidable," as the mere thought of speaking in public is a common source of anxiety and fear. If you are one of those people, it might be startling (or humorous) to realize that here you are, paying thousands and thousands of dollars to have instructors insist you do the very thing you most avoid doing. Take the long view: College is supposed to challenge you, and rising to these challenges now will make you feel more confident later, when the stakes are higher. For those of you who like public speaking, here's your opportunity to polish those skills.
Many schools have speaking labs, similar to writing centers. Speaking labs are staffed with people trained to assist students in preparing for public speaking and video presentations. They often offer one-on-one assistance as well as all the necessary equipment and technology.
The public speaking you do will vary depending on your area of study, but most likely will include the following types: Impromptu speaking, presentations, and speeches.
Impromptu speaking is in class and on the spot, hence the most informal of the types of public speaking. Your preparation for speaking in these cases will be minimal. That is, you'll have read the material and prepared for class, but you probably won't have speaking notes. Here are some tips for responding to questions and sharing ideas on the spot in class:
- Listen well. Your classmates' and instructors' ideas will inform your own. When you listen carefully, you'll be able to add meaningfully to the discussion. Also, you'll be less likely to be caught off guard if your professor calls on you. If your instructor does call on you and you don't fully understand her or his question (or if your attention was wandering), rephrase the question in your own words or ask him or her to repeat it.
- State your opinion. In the course of a discussion, your opinion will change and develop, so state your opinion as it is in that moment.
- Explain your reasoning. Why do you think the way you do? What evidence supports your opinion? Anticipate these questions and use them to develop your point.
- Show respect. Acknowledge the validity of previous speakers even if you disagree with their arguments. Restate what you hear and use "I" state- ments. Example: "I agree with Travis's point about the Supreme Court's decision. However, I see it from a different angle...."
Presentations, informal and formal, are often required in college classes. To give successful individual or group presentations,
- Define your audience and purpose. A persuasive presentation for a small group of faculty and students requires a different style than an entertain- ing presentation for a group of peers.
- Put content first. Before you think about visual layout and other style considerations, decide what you want to say, how you want to say it, and what you want your audience to take away from your presentation.
- Keep it lean. Get your audience's attention at the very beginning and make sure each subsequent part of the presentation gives them something valuable, whether it's information or entertainment.
- Keep it clean. Stay focused on your topic and make sure your visuals add to your presentation without cluttering it. Visuals should support the content, not be the content. If you're tempted to read the text on your PowerPoint to the audience, that's a clue that the slides are too text-heavy.
- Make visuals visible. Choose appealing colors and make sure text, images, and charts are large enough for the audience to see easily. Use bullet points and spare text. You want the slides and/or images to emphasize what you say, not take over.
- Be the presenter. This seems obvious, but sometimes students will spend weeks creating a PowerPoint presentation, then stand in front of the class on the day of the presentation and let the slides do all the work. Or, some students will back off too much when a co-presenter is speaking and become like one of the audience members.
- Face your audience. Make eye contact with people in all sections of the room, not just the instructor. If you need to write on your flip chart or smart board during your presentation, pause and then resume speaking.
- Practice. Practice your delivery and practice with any technology you're using so you'll feel confident on the day of the presentation.
Presentations ultimately depend on knowledge and preparation. No number of quirky slide transitions or funny YouTube clips can cover weak content.
The process of organizing a presentation with a group usually takes longer and involves more discussion of each step; however, the collaboration can be fruitful if the group members are committed to doing a good job. If you are assigned
a group presentation project, try to meet up with your group members as soon as possible so you can map out a plan and preparation schedule that allows all group members to participate fully.
Often, instructors will assign group projects that include a presentation component. In such cases, the presentation is usually worth a big percentage of the overall grade, yet groups often fail to plan well for it. Make sure that you and your group members spend an adequate amount of time preparing for presentations.
Speeches are usually the most formal (and, for some students, the most anxiety- producing) of the three types of public speaking, though some professors will require extemporaneous (spur of the moment) speeches. Here are some tips for writing and presenting a speech:
- Define your audience and purpose. An oral presentation needs to be laser- beam focused in order to keep your audience engaged.
- Prepare your message. You'll need to start with a good hook, some compelling anecdote, question, statement, or even a joke that engages your audience right away. Decide on your main points and choose the best evidence to support those points. Decide to what extent you want to appeal to your audience's emotions or logic. Make sure your conclusion is clear and effective.
- Edit. Once you have a draft, read it out loud at a good public speaking pace several times to hear the rhythm and the message. Read it to a friend and ask him or her to reflect what he or she hears: Are the main points clearly stated? Are transitions between ideas easy to follow? Edit based on any feedback you get.
- Practice. Read aloud, first with the entire text in front of you, but later with just those notes you'll have on the day of the actual speech. If you can, film yourself so you can watch your delivery and make changes as needed. Watching yourself on film might not be the most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, but it will definitely make you aware of any quirks that need to change.
- Know the rules of good delivery. Speak loudly and clearly enough to be heard in all corners of the room. Vary your speaking rate (pace), pitch, and volume to keep your audience engaged and to emphasize certain points. Use pauses. Avoid verbal clutter, such as "um" and "like." Practice making purposeful physical gestures that underscore your message. Make eye contact with audience members—not just the one who'll be grading you!
- Use visuals and other media effectively. Use only those parts of the film or audio clip that relate to your message. Make sure visuals are large and clear. Don't allow your media to replace your content.
These tips are just a starting point. Your professors will give you more specific information about what's expected in their classes and in their discipline.
Like public speaking and writing, participation is a skill to develop and master. Participation is a bit different, however, because instructors don't always overtly insist on or evaluate it. But they all value student participation.
When you actively listen and respond to class discus- sions and lectures, you're not just demonstrating curiosity (which instructors love to see, of course!), you're actually activating your curiosity, which in turn leads to true learning. Finals week will be a lot less stressful if you participate fully in class every day because you'll remember the material better and you'll already understand it.
Here's what good participation looks like:
Be prepared. A OK student does the assigned work on time. A good participant completes the assigned work (and suggested readings, whenever possible) and notes questions she or he has about the material, or connections between the material and something else the class has studied. These notes may become in-class questions or comments.
Be there. Attend class regularly and on time and make it your focus for the hour or however long it lasts. Limit distractions for yourself. Turn off your phone and commit to using your laptop for notes only.
Sit in the "teacher's T"—the front row or middle section of seats—where your instructor will notice you and where you'll be more likely to stay engaged in the lecture or discussion.
Listen well. A good participant tracks the discussion and takes some notes on other students' questions and comments, as well as his own ideas and questions. Note taking during discussion helps you stay focused and interested. It also comes in handy when you're ready to speak because you'll be able to refer specifically to what others have said. You'll also have something to say.
Add to class discussions. Ideally, every student should add to a discussion; that's what makes a vibrant, interesting class. The ideal is not always reality, however. Sometimes classes are too big and the time too short to allow for everyone to have a voice. More often, a few students are superstar participants—or dominators—and the rest stay quiet, unwilling to break into the discussion. If you are the type to hold back, set some goals for participation so that you don't lose out on the learning opportunity. Even a goal of speaking once every other class is better than staying in the background for the term. If you are the type to speak up a lot, see what you can do to help balance the class discussions. You might need to hold back sometimes in order to let others add their voices. Or, you could try asking questions of other students to elicit their opinions on a subject.
Ask questions. Pursue your curiosity and interest. Also, ask questions of other students to facilitate a dynamic class discussion. As we mentioned in Chapter 5, it's best to avoid asking certain questions, such as "Is this going to be on
the exam?" and "Did I miss anything?" In general, instructors want to engage students in learning, not simply to inform students how to perform for a grade.
Participate online. Many instructors require that students participate on listservs or online discussion groups. Such forums provide a great opportu- nity to those students who are shy or who need more time to formulate their ideas and questions. Your online participation should demonstrate insight, attention to detail, and true interaction with the other individuals involved in the discussion. Some students simply dash off their responses and comments online—and miss the opportunity for meaningful interaction, as well as a chance to improve their grade.
Participation is good for your learning and good for your grade. It's also one thing that can make or break a class. You could have the most engaging, interest- ed professor doing academic cartwheels at the front of the room, but all of her or his efforts are for nothing if the students in class don't bring their own engaging, interested selves.
Note Taking Skills
This is one area that tends to separate the college student from the high school student in a big way. High school lecture classes are for good reason broader, slower, and more supportive than college lecture classes. Do you remember a high school teacher ever telling a student to take out her notes? Probably twelve times a class period, right? In college a professor is unlikely to remind anybody to do anything. Unlike high school teachers, college instructors are teaching adults who are paying a lot of money to attend classes. They assume their students know how to take notes and will do so if they're interested in doing well in class.
Of course you are interested in doing well. However, many first-year college students need tips on how to take notes effectively at the college level. Here are the basics you'll need to get started:
Why take notes?
These days, it's possible to go through some classes without taking notes. The instructor or other students might post lecture notes online and instructors often hand out copies of their presentation slides. These are all helpful, but they won't necessarily accomplish the main objective, which is long-term learning. Being in class, actively listening and participating, and taking thoughtful notes will activate your brain and help you encode and store the information and concepts presented that day. Another reason to take good notes is that the printouts you receive do not usually contain all the information and ideas actually conveyed during the class period.
What is note taking?
It is not simply recording a lecture or chapter in writing. When you take notes you decide which ideas are important enough to write down, how they should be organized, and which examples best illustrate them.
What are effective notes?
They identify the main ideas of a lecture or text, identify pertinent supporting details, and are organized and arranged in a way that enhances your understanding of the material at the time and later, when you're studying for the test.
How do you take good notes?
Note taking is a skill and an art. You'll develop your own system eventually. In the meantime, here are four note taking formats to consider:
1) The Formal Outline. This format looks just like you'd expect a formal outline to look: Roman numerals denoting key ideas, other ideas represented by uppercase letters, etc. In essence, you recreate your presenter's outline for her lecture.
2) The Paragraph or List Format. These are similar systems that entail summarizing the key points and supporting details. The list format is distinct because it has more bullet points and indentations to separate information.
3) The Cornell Format. This popular format adds a study helper to the formats listed above. Draw a vertical line about 2 1⁄2 inches from the left edge of your paper: this will be your "cue" column. At the bottom of the page, about 1 1⁄2 inches from the bottom edge, draw a horizontal line: this will be your summary space. In the right-hand column write your notes as you listen to a lecture or read a text. As soon as you can after class, write in the cue column questions and main ideas that relate to the material in the right-hand column. In the space at the bottom, summarize the notes on that page. The Cornell Format is a great way to review material. The split columns are also a ready-made study guide, as you can easily cover one side up and test yourself.
4) The Mind Map. Some students prefer the mind map method, where a central idea sprouts "branches" of related ideas and details. This enables one to visualize how concepts are related to each other. The mind map is better for notes on texts than lectures.
Other things to keep in mind about note taking:
Print out PowerPoint slides in advance. Many professors make their lectures available online before the class period. Whenever possible, print out and preview the lecture notes and slides so that you'll be prepared for class. Doing so will also ensure that you don't waste time taking unnecessary notes during class.
Use abbreviations. You can't possibly write everything down—nor should you—but it will help to keep up with your instructor if you use abbreviations whenever possible.
Review your lecture notes soon after class, preferably by the end of the day. Don't wait until the end of the semester to pull them out and study. Reviewing them right away will ensure that you remember the material. Also, you'll be able to see where you have gaps in knowledge—and formulate questions for the instructor the next day.
Keep your notes organized. Title and date your notes and keep them in chronological order in a binder.
Take notes in your textbook. Write summaries, questions, and ideas in the margins of your text. When you read with a pen at the ready, you interact with the text more and stay focused.
Create a formula and definitions sheet or note cards. This helps you memorize the formulas and definitions in two ways: 1) the practice and repeti- tion of writing them out, and 2) a handy study sheet you can refer to through- out the semester.
Go light on the highlighter. The problem with highlighting is that it doesn't provide any other information. When you write in the margins of the book you can record your responses and ideas. When you highlight, you simply record lime green color.
You'll probably have a few months of trial and error with note taking before you hit on a system that fits your learning style. Before you know it, though, you'll have your own series of abbreviations and an enviable stock of notes to draw on as you prepare for finals.
In a way, all the sections that came before this were also about studying. When you take good notes, you are studying. When you actively participate in class, you are studying. When you use the memorization methods discussed in Chapter 7, you are studying. To study is "to apply oneself to the acquisition of knowledge, as by reading, investigation, or practice" (Random House Dictionary definition, 2010). Through study you own your knowledge.
A narrow view of studying is that it's just for the days before the test. Not so. If you are attentive in each class period and review your notes regularly, you should theoretically get the best sleep of the semester during finals week.
The goal of studying is to own your knowledge–to remember and understand what you've learned–and, of course, to demonstrate that mastery on exams. Here's how:
Create a study plan. As a first-year college student you might have more "free" time than ever before–so it's especially important to learn how to provide structure for that time. Look at your weekly calendar and determine when you'll review notes for each class (we recommend doing so later the same day of the class), when you'll practice skills, when you'll work on assignments, etc. If you break down the work into smaller chunks of time–say, 1 to 2 hours–you'll stay more focused and you'll learn more than if you try to do everything in marathon study sessions. Pace yourself!
Study frequently. Review your notes and readings on a regular basis.
Know what you don't know. After you've reviewed your day's (or week's) notes, identify any holes in your knowledge and figure out who can help you with those missing pieces. You might ask your instructor, a study buddy, or a tutor in the department.
Quiz yourself. Use flashcards, double-sided notes, and other means to test your understanding and memory.
Teach someone. If you can explain the material to someone else, you've mastered it.
Collaborate. Study partners and groups are an excellent way to further under- standing of material. They can teach you, you can teach them, and together you can figure out ways to remember ideas.
Commit. Effective studying requires concentration and time. Determine your purpose for wanting to do well, then commit to yourself.
Before you get too far into your first year, figure out which study conditions work best for you through a combination of trial and error and self-reflection. Be honest with yourself as you answer the questions on the next page. You might prefer to study in a bustling café filled with attractive people and pastries, but is that the optimum place to work?
Once you've filled out the Personal Study Conditions Inventory, we recommend you keep it handy. You'll have plenty of opportunities to get distracted in college and this inventory might remind you of your personal optimum study conditions.
Academic Support Resources
A hallmark of a master student is the ability to seek and obtain assistance. We recommend you get help before you even know you need it. Especially for your first term assignments, you should draw on available resources: do your math homework in the math lab, ask for feedback on your essays from the writing center staff, and get advice on preparing presentations from the staff of the Speaking Lab. Doing so can only help you—and it might prevent problems.
Potential resources include:
- Your instructor
- Teaching assistants
- Your advisor
- Academic Support Services
- Math, Writing, or Speaking labs
- Tutoring Center
- Computing Center
- Supplementary Instruction (SI) groups (study groups led by trained educators)
- Online tutoring, labs, and writing resources
Don't fret if your writing skills are a little rusty or if your study habits have been lax in the past. A successful student always seeks improvement, never a perfec- tion that does not exist. Being your own best teacher means challenging yourself, trying new approaches, and sometimes imposing discipline. The skills we discuss in this chapter are vital and well worth the effort it takes to master them.
Communicstion, Note Taking & Study Skills Exercises
- Try a new routine: If you usually study in your dorm room, try studying in the library. If you usually study in the evening, try doing it in the afternoon. Note the pros and cons of each studying situation.
- Create a 5-minute individual or group presentation on a topic related to this course. Ideas might include Study Habits, Places to Study, and the Most Valuable Resources on Campus. After your presentation, write a one-page reflection on the presentation's strengths and weaknesses.
- Reflect on your participation skills: What are your strengths in this area? What are your weaknesses? Give yourself three specific challenges related to participation. How will you assess if you've been successful in meeting these challenges?
- Try two of the four note-taking formats in one of your other classes this week. Write a reflection (outline form is OK) on which format you think was most effective and why.