Getting great college grades requires adaption, discipline and study breaks

Posted February 8, 2018

College can be a difficult transition for students, especially those who had school come easily to them in high school, according to Kathleen Hunzer, the director of the Honors Program and a professor of English at UW-River Falls. High school came pretty easily for her in Langhorne, Penn., but it went very quickly from “I got this” to “I don’t got this” once she started at the College of New Jersey, she said.

“I’m first-generation; my parents didn’t go to college,” Hunzer said. “I couldn’t ask them for advice, and I kind of had to figure it out on my own. That adjustment from high school to college can be difficult, because who do you ask questions to?”

According to UWRF institutional research, 43.5 percent of undergraduate students on campus are first-generation students. This means they’re trying to handle the increased workload and responsibilities of college without the benefit of having those close to them who have done it before.

Earlier this decade, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that about 34 percent of undergraduates nationwide were the first in their families to go to college. This leaves UWRF facing this problem at a higher level than the national average.

“If you’re really smart in high school, you have this tendency to not ask questions, because you think ‘I should know this,’” Hunzer said. “That transition can be difficult, because college is an entirely new study technique and assessments are different.”

Hunzer has gone all the way from being the overwhelmed student to being a person who advises students on how to overcome those same struggles. She has made it an emphasis of the Honors Program to use a tutoring network to connect students who have taken a class with those who haven’t and might be struggling. They also stress the advantages of the math and writing help centers.

“Some of our students do struggle with that, but I think with mentorship and guidance they can get through it,” Hunzer said. “But sometimes they just don’t like to admit that they’re struggling.”

No matter how well a student did in high school, changing study habits is an ongoing skill that can make students better learners for the future, according to Hunzer. This is usually thought of as hitting students the hardest when they first enter college.

Sonja Pearson, a freshman in the Honors Program, has clearly seen work is required to reach her goals.

“I was very studious in high school (at South St. Paul),” Pearson said. “I was an athlete, but school was also very important. I was definitely someone who would stay back and do homework versus going out with friends … and I’m passionate about doing well.”

Pearson said she has adapted to spending more time taking notes outside of class than just listening to what the teacher says. She also uses one notebook for in-class notes and one for textbook notes to keep herself organized.

While she takes her studies very seriously, finding a balance in her life is one of the biggest reasons that she has found success in her first semester, she said.“I’m into CrossFit, and it takes up just as much of my time as when I was in soccer. I plan my workout times, and programming and dieting has to go along with it. If I didn’t have my workouts, it would be hard to get through the day. My workouts keep me sane.”

The exercise and sports science major said that she realizes most other freshmen are busy always hanging out with each other in the dorms. However, she structures her day very strictly to make sure she goes to bed at a proper time and stays healthy and alert for each day.

While a structured schedule and detailed note-taking works for Pearson, almost all students have a different strategy for reaching the goals they strive for. However, some students expected the transition to be pretty easy, such as Taylor North, a junior animal science major. Taking chemistry her freshman year showed her that college was going to be very different and that she had to figure out how to study efficiently.

“In chemistry, I started doing all of the problems in the back of the book,” North said. “I started reviewing a lot earlier, and I had to start studying a week ahead of time.”

This increased workload allowed her to find three different methods that work for her: Quizlet, whiteboards and audio recordings. North enjoys using Quizlet because she can look at the online flash cards anywhere and run through it quick before classes or while riding in the car. She also started writing down formulas on whiteboards to commit things to memory.

“In chemistry, we have to name so many mechanisms, write everything down a million times, and it’s constant repetition,” North said. “In biochemistry, I also recorded myself saying the reaction, and then at work I would listen to it. I managed to get an A, so whatever it takes.”

Staying busy is a way that North also stays focused on her studies. North had a 4.0 last semester but still always enjoys having something to do, whether it be her Brock and Bridle work in the fall or one of her part-time jobs. This allows her to get out of the zone from studying.

“It’s good to forget about it for a couple of hours,” North said. “I know when my body says to stop studying. Whenever I come back, it’s way easier to remember, and I never stay up past 11. If you look over your notes right before you go to bed, it will commit it to memory … I will never stay up past 3 a.m. to study.”

Going into college with an open mind is one of the most important things you can do, according to Montana Lins, a junior animal science major who has maintained a 4.0 GPA.

“I knew if I have to study for five hours straight, I’m going to be prepared to do that, even though I never had to do that in high school,” Lins said.

Like North, Lins has found a variety of strategies to study, not relying on a single method. In his freshman year he mostly studied by himself, so he could avoid distractions and losing focus, which can happen when groups study. But as he reached higher level classes, he began studying with others to see different views on the topics and get instant feedback and higher thinking.

“I think I can count on one hand the number of classes I’ve missed,” Lins said. “I go through and physically re-write my notes before tests. Sometimes I will be writing them three times before I actually take the test.”

This extra effort is what helps Lins commit the material to memory and achieve the results he desires. While Lins spends more time than most of his peers studying, he still finds necessary social time.

“I enjoy people; that’s my escape,” Lins said. “If you have a good group of friends or even one friend to eat dinner with at the end of the day and wind down for studying, it helps.”

This theme of staying well-rounded is one of the most important aspects of overcoming initial challenges in college, the Honors Program director Hunzer said. She has worked with freshman every year that she has been at UWRF and has seen and experienced firsthand how to overcome the difficult times.

“(Students) need some kind of outlet and exposure to other ideas,” she said. “A lot of our students have one or two jobs or commitments at home. They’re trying to balance a lot of things and juggle a lot of balls, and you can only juggle so many at once before they start falling.”