Preparing for regime change! Getting ready for the step-up to college

What to look out for as you adapt to new ways of learning, note-taking and time management

Time management: students must learn to manage their time, workload and schedule independently

Time management: students must learn to manage their time, workload and schedule independently

 

Studying for the Leaving Cert and studying for college are two very different experiences. In school, there’s more emphasis on learning facts and information and writing it down in one final, terminal exam. In college, however, students will have more continuous assessment and there’s greater emphasis on research, critical thinking, group work and formulating an argument. Third-level lecturers and tutors regularly say that they spend a chunk of first year helping their students to adjust.

So what do students need to know and how can they best adapt to a new learning and study regime? We spoke to Dr Alicia Menendez Tarrazo, student learning officer at Dublin City University. She and her colleagues support students with study skills development, time management, note-taking, effective reading, active learning strategies and – perhaps a skill we could all use help with – overcoming procrastination.

“Engage with everything the university has to offer and try to stay connected with classmates, whether online, in person or over WhatsApp,” she says. “This applies not just to first years but also the second years who had not had the on-campus experience because of Covid-19.”

Time management

During secondary school, the lives of students are regimented, planned and scheduled for them.

At third level, however, students must learn to manage their time, workload and schedule independently. For first years who attended college in the 2020-21 academic year – a mostly online experience – this will have been challenging, but the hopeful return to campus will see more familiar time management considerations.

“There can be a lot of flexibility in the college day,” says Menendez Tarrazo. “This means they need to keep track of where they are supposed to be at any given time, whether they have a lecture or tutorial and what reading they should have done.

“We recommend that students think of college as like a workday, where they might start at a given time, take a break and do some work. Also, make time for leisure, activities and making and maintaining connections with friends.”

Is there a tried-and-tested formula? “It’s really about what works for the individual student,” she says. “I always advise students to know themselves. If you’re not a morning person, you probably won’t get up at 6am to study, but you can plan something fun in the morning and then you might be more productive to focus on your studies.”

Note-taking is an important skill that every student should master
Note-taking is an important skill that every student should master

In most colleges, the module specifications will advise students the total time they should spend on reading, lectures and studying.

“How each student manages that is up to them, but it’s generally better to have some flexibility – as long as it’s not so flexible that your study time fades into non-existence,” Menendez Tarrazo advises.

Note-taking

Sure aren’t the notes all available online? Why bother writing down what the lecturer says?

“Note-taking is an active learning strategy,” says Menendez Tarrazo. “It’s very important to take notes even if the lecturer has put the notes up on the virtual learning environment. Taking notes helps you process and retain the information.”

What do good notes look like?

“They should be brief. You don’t need to write down everything the lecturer says: focus on bullet points of the main ideas as well as examples and information that is not on the main slides. If a lecturer makes reading suggestions, you might also make a note of it, because it can come in handy later when you’re trying to make sense of the notes.”

Menendez Tarrazo advises her students to spend some time after every lecture going over their notes.

“Actively engage with them. Highlight the main ideas and identify gaps. Go to the text book and find an academic source for the information. Expand on your notes in your own words and try to write a paragraph at the end of this process, summarising the main takeaways in your own words. All of this makes it easier to move the information into your long-term memory, with studies showing that this strategy can improve your grade by up to 11 per cent – the difference between a pass and a fail. It is easy to do and it is not a big time commitment.

“If you can then make a plan to come back to your notes perhaps once a week or every 10 days, this will help ensure that the information stays fresh in your mind.”

Study groups

On several levels, being part of a study group is a good idea.

“First, the social aspect makes you part of a network and a community,” says Menendez Tarrazo. “Second, you mightn’t force yourself to read a paper in a normal circumstance, but if you’re part of a study group you’re more likely to, so this accountability helps with time management. Third, in a study group you engage in the active learning strategy of ‘retrieval practice’ which brings information back from the memory.”

Being part of a study group can be a help to students
Being part of a study group can be a help to students

In a study group, students are not passively reading notes but actively summarising information in their own words.

“You’re making connections, asking and answering questions and discussing the information with the group. When you explain things to other people, it helps you to understand and learn it better yourself. “If you find a chapter a little difficult, you can help each other.”

Students can form study groups composed of students in their lecture or tutorial, perhaps conducting them virtually over Zoom or, with restrictions lifting, in person. They might study for an hour and then have a coffee or break together. On YouTube, StudyWithMe channels see YouTubers record themselves studying and viewers can encourage and support each other.

Critical thinking and writing

This is a key skill at third-level, but it can seem daunting to students. Menendez Tarrazo and her team help students to see past that.

“We think critically in daily life. Critical thinking is when you listen to a friend tell a story and wonder what the other side is, or hear a politician and wonder what their agenda is. When studying, if you read a paper, it’s not just about questioning if the claims are logical and fact-based, but asking who is being left out of this and if there is any sort of bias you should be aware of. This is a healthy skepticism. Students may read an academic paper and think it is a source of authority.”

In developing critical thinking, it’s important for students to read a range of sources and perspectives to get a rounded view and to spot flaws in different approaches.

Learning strategies

“Make a list of everything you need to cover for your exams,” says Menendez Tarrazo. “For any given topic this might include lecture notes and readings. Two weeks out from the exams, have a plan for what you need to cover and a way of tracking what you have done. One particularly effective active learning strategy is called inter-leaving, alternating between different topics or different subjects and modules. There can be a temptation to work on one topic at a time until you feel you have mastered it, but research shows it is better to spend some time on topic one, then topic two, then maybe three, back to one, jump to four, back to two and so on. It makes the brain work harder which will help retain the information.

“It’s also more effective to spend half an hour over eight days on a topic than trying to learn it all in one session.”

Sources

Students who completed a PLC before college have a head-start on referencing and sources, but for everyone else, it can be intimidating.

“Lecturers will provide their reading list but this is only a starting point,” says Menendez Tarrazo. “Get familiar and comfortable with the library, which will have tutorials and resources to help students with sources and how to avoid plagiarism.”

Learning strategies: it is important to plan.
Learning strategies: it is important to plan.

Digital literacy helps avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism. “This means being aware what is a reliable source of information and understanding that not everything you read online is a reliable source. Many students are not aware that you absolutely have to acknowledge all the sources you use. Paraphrasing still requires citation and referencing. Libraries have excellent resources.”

Procrastination

“Procrastination can make us feel bad about ourselves, but it is normal when we find a task daunting, overwhelming or boring,” says Menendez Tarrazo.

The “Pomodoro Technique” is where you do 25 very focused minutes of work and then take a break.

“Then there’s SMART goals – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time limited. Don’t just say you will ‘study’ but instead, perhaps, that you will spend an hour summarising notes on a topic and, at the end, have something to show for it. If that seems overwhelming, it can also be okay to sit for an hour and do some work, so at least you know you got started.”