Timeless Strategies for College Success

By Dr. René Díaz-Lefebvre

photo of Dr. Rene Diaz-LefebvreIn a few weeks thousands of Arizona students will be embarking on one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of their lives, beginning a journey through the world of higher education. Exciting, daunting, challenging, and downright stressful may be adjectives permeating the thoughts of those seeking an avenue to pursue vocational dreams and become productive members of society. They will attend a community college, a public or private university, or other educational/vocational choices. Having worked with many students who have successfully maneuvered and completed college, I am often asked by parents and students for advice and recommendations in preparation for this life-changing opportunity. In this day of instantaneous information (e.g., Internet, Facebook, Twitter, apps, etc.), it is tempting to suggest to them that they review various websites and apps available for information and orientation on college and university life. Even college catalogs are a thing of the past. If you want your own copy of a catalog, you can download it from the institutions official website.

Yet technology, like any other tool used in education today, provides an excellent resource for exploration and is not a substitute for developing character strengths like conscientiousness, responsibility, determination, and perseverance. Melissa Roderick has identified critical components of college success she calls “noncognitive academic skills,” including “study skills, work habits, time management, help-seeking behavior and social/academic problem solving skills.” It is these skills that will help students learn how to think deeply, develop internal motivation, and to persevere when faced with difficulty—all the skills needed to complete college. Other skills like resiliency, punctuality, dependability, reliability, resourcefulness, and grit are also highly predictive of success in college. “Grit” simply means having the courage, desire, tenacity, guts, or ganas (as we say in Spanish) to continue on with something no matter how overwhelming or exhausting it is. It is a belief in the ability to overcome any obstacles that may get in the way of achieving one’s goal or dream. The idea of building grit and self-control is that you get that through confronting the challenges that may include failure to learn from your mistakes.

Another topic worth mentioning is the importance of study time outside of the classroom. Whether students are enrolled in face-to-face courses or on-line classes, study time represents a time when students can quietly engage in reading, absorbing material and reflecting upon what they are studying.

This process which is crucial in the development of deep learning and understanding in college, takes time to accomplish. Nevertheless, over the years there has been a steady decline in the hours students are spending studying outside of class. In my opinion, studies that have been conducted on this topic reveal some disturbing trends. In 1961, the average full-time college student spent twenty hours a week studying outside of class; in 1981, that had fallen to twenty hours a week; in 2003, it was down to fourteen hours a week. Where did all those extra hours go to? To socializing and recreation, mostly. In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that students today spend fewer than 13 hours a week studying, while they spend 12 hours hanging out with friends, 14 hours consuming entertainment and pursuing various hobbies, 11 hours using “computers for fun,” and six hours for exercising (including utilizing the Wii). Time spent on technological gadgets has increased exponentially leaving very little time to stop, reflect upon, and truly appreciate what is being studied. Another culprit in the diminishing amount of time available for outside-of-class studying is time spent working at a part-time or full-time job. One of out every five college students works full-time, 35-plus hours a week, all year long, according to the most recent census figures.

Unfortunately, there is the possibility that something will suffer from this type of work load; motivation and desire to continue in the course, performance in class, quality of worked turned in, and ultimately the final grade earned. I realize many students have to work while in college (as I did). Caution needs to be taken in monitoring how much time is being spent devoted for college and time spent at an outside job. Schedule adjustments can be made to maximize and enhance the student’s well-being. Students who attempt to study while at the job lose out on devoting all of their attention-uninterruptedly-to fully absorbing, understanding and enjoying the material they are “studying.” Add fatigue to the equation and the results are not promising.

Finally, I can’t over-emphasize the importance of working diligently in building relationships with professors. I am always impressed with the student who has taken the time to contact me; who makes an appointment and spends time asking questions or clarifying something. This dedication and desire to learn tells me a lot about the character and determination of the student’s commitment to succeed in college. Emails, phone calls, and texting is convenient; yet it is the human connection and face-to-face interaction that makes the most impressioning and long-lasting effect on us. Seek out and get to know your professors and be a regular at office hours.

Much of what I have been referring to in this article has to do with character building attributes and strengths needed for college completion and success in life. One of the most challenging noncognitive capacities facing students today is the ability to delay gratification for the distant prize of a college degree. Nothing can be a substitute or “quick fix” in acquiring something that can only be earned through hard work, perseverance, and determination toward completion.  Navigating through the world of higher education can be one of the most enjoyable, rewarding, and profitable endeavors one can experience.

René Díaz-Lefebvre, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Glendale Community College, North Campus. He is the recipient of numerous teaching awards, including Arizona Professor of the Year.

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