Computer Owl

Written by: Anne Bolender

This is the time of year when a lot of people, both those who are young and those who are perhaps a bit more worldly, head to University for the first time, or know of someone who is heading off to University for the first time.

Stepping into the unknown and feeling the doubts, the fears, the insecurities that live there.

For the past 20 years, I have been helping first year University students transition into the university environment.

Every year I watch far too many of these students struggle, trying to cope with systems they don’t really understand, a culture and a language that frustratingly unfamiliar. In fact most students who do not do very well at University struggle, not because they can’t do the work (all University students are very intelligent), but because they are not aware of the specific academic skills they need in order to excel.

Once struggling students know where to focus, and how to focus, they usually end up doing so much better with far less effort.

So what are these magical academic skills? Well, for starters there is:

  1. Time Management. There are only 168 hours in a week. Full time students should spend roughly 40 – 60 hours a week on their studies, not including travel time. Assuming that an average student spends an hour a day travelling, that’s roughly 67 hours a week on studies. Then there is time needed to eat, sleep, shower, work (most students now work about 20 hours a week at a part-time job), that leaves roughly 10 hours a week to do other things like shop, spend time with friends and family. For full-time students, effective time management makes a huge contribution to their success.
  2. Reading for Information and Understanding. Most people skim read, they don’t take the time to actually read articles and understand what they are reading. Reading at a University level requires the student to understand the context of what they have read, and how what they have read fits with the topic they are reading about. Information such as, where the material was written, when the material was written, who wrote the material, all impacts how relevant the material is to the topic that is being studied.
  3. Essay Writing. One of the greatest challenges new University students have is in understanding what an academic essay is. The 5-paragraph essay taught in high-school, or the report writing techniques taught for business purposes, do not make a good University papers. Plus, not all University essays are the same. You could be asked to critique, to analyse, to describe, to defend, to compare, to define and each type of essay is looking for a something different. To do well with essays, you need to know what the specific difference is for each type of essay.
  4. Note-Taking. Most lectures follow a specific pattern – a major point is made and then examples and other ways of stating the main point follow, until another main point is made. When students come to lectures prepared, when they have done the required readings for the lecture before the class, it is fairly easy to pick out the main points and then only make notes as needed on those main points. When students come to lectures unprepared, everything the lecturer says is new and feels important so these students are the one’s who are busy scribbling or typing through the whole lecture and often miss the really important information.
  5. Research. First year students are often unaware of what the difference is between an academic journal and a consumer magazine. Not knowing the difference can result in some significant grade loss. Even using Wikipedia as the main source of research for a major paper is not acceptable in most cases. Students should familiarize themselves with their University’s online library  and draw most of their research resources from there. Most people I know who mark essays are suitably impressed when a student uses high quality, relevant academic research materials for essays.
  6. Exams. There are two important skills related to exams. The first is exam preparations (studying). Most successful exam prep work is done all semester, basically learning the material as you go. Constantly reviewing reading and lecture notes, summarizing these notes, understanding how the lectures relate to the course topic and to the other lectures, all help increase your chance of good grades. Exams themselves, often expect students to contextualize material learned, or apply the material in ways not covered in the lectures or readings. Even exams for Nursing courses often catch students unprepared by asking student to apply materials they have learned in new ways, and not just reiterate memorized materials.

Students who know and use these 6 academic skills are usually the same students who consistently receive the highest grades at University.