Buckle Down, How to Study When You Don’t Really Want To

This weekend I ran into one of my son’s friends, who is starting his first year at college. He told me that he’s having a tough time buckling down to study during the hours he has available. Adapting to the looser, less-structured schedule of college can be a challenge for lots of first-year students.

Distracted Student

Here’s what I wrote to him:

Dear _____, It was great running into you the other day. I wanted to follow up on your question about how to study when you might not really want to study at that particular moment.

I mentioned that the first part of the answer lies in having a ritual to transition from the mindset you use to navigate everyday life to the mindset you need to focus and study. By ritual, I just mean a pattern of behavior that eases you out of a more outward-facing social mindset and leads to focus. It could include one last check of social media, getting a beverage or snack, tidying your desk, whatever. Just something that takes a few minutes and signals to your brain that you’re about to study.

Another part of the solution is to have a place that’s dedicated for study and works for you, such that when you settle into that place, your mind knows that it’s study time. Your study place should suit your study style. Some people study better when it’s quiet and they’re alone. Others prefer a low-level buzz of people and sound around them. If you’re unable to focus and persist in one place — whether it’s because the place is too serene or too buzzy — try another place until you find one that works.

Also, it’s important to have a sense of purpose for each study session, and a limit: Set goals (achievement goals and time goals) for each study session. For example, you might say to yourself: “In this study session, I’m going to identify the learning objectives for Chapters 1–3 and organize my vocabulary terms under each relevant learning objective, then make flash cards that ask me to tie vocab words to learning objectives, understand the definition, and link the concept to an example.” Before you get started, estimate how long it might take to do this (maybe 90 minutes for the sample study session).

With such a specific plan, and an end in sight, it can be easier to stay focused and motivated.

Finally, if you haven’t yet, you should check out your university’s tutoring or learning center.

Tutoring isn’t just for students who might be struggling. It’s for students who want to excel as well. More than 50% of first year students at elite universities use tutoring. You should too.

Peer tutors — people who may be a year or two ahead of you — can be really helpful. They’ve taken the classes, they know the profs, they can advise you with inside knowledge, hold you accountable, and be a great example of how really good students handle the logistics of college life.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do. You got this!

Dr. Eric Drown coaches writing at the University of New England in Biddeford, ME, coaches the high school-to-college transition at Camden College Success and posts on college success at fb.com/thriveatcollege. Contact: collegesupportservices@gmail.com

I got tired of watching 25% of college students fail in their first year. So I decided to do something about it.