The Two Secrets to Success in College

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 12, 2012
Original Version: July 20, 1995 

1. Take two pages of notes for each hour of lecture.
2. Study at least two hours outside of class for each hour you spend in class.
3. Read each chapter or reading assignment twice.
4. Study for each test in at least two sessions.
5. Study in two's--have a study buddy.
6. Go to bed before 2:00 am.
7. Arrive two minutes early to every class.
8. Find at least two sides to the issue before you speak or write anything on one side.
9. Write two drafts of each paper before you write the final version.
10. Exceed the minimum requirements by two: two extra examples, quotations, pages, sources.
11. Finish your papers two days before they are due.
12. Remember that many statements have two interpretations--that's the secret of the title.

1. Taking notes serves several functions. An obvious one is that you can review them before a test. And if they are skimpy, what's to review? Don't fall into the trap of writing down only the notes the professor puts on the board. That's why the two pages secret. Elaborate, define, connect. Include sufficient detail and some examples so that you can get a good understanding of the concepts. So, if taking notes is so great, why not five or even ten pages of notes per hour? It comes down to attention. If you spend all your time furiously writing notes, you won't be able to listen and think about what is being presented. Interestingly enough, taking notes helps you remember the material better than not taking notes even if you never review them. There is something about taking notes--handwriting is probably best for retention but typing should work, too--that helps fix the ideas in memory. Finally, taking notes encourages you to process the ideas as you write, putting them in your own words, perhaps adding an example you can think of, jotting a question here and there in the margin. A good test of the quality of your notes is to give them to someone not taking the class and see if they make sense. Can the other person recount the gist of the presentation just by reading over your notes?

2. It has been guesstimated from anecdotal evidence and personal experience that only about 25% of needed course content is delivered in class. The other 75% comes from textbooks, research, writing, study group participation, and even thinking. So, students who rely on the lectures to get them through and who never open the textbook are missing the majority of what they should be learning. Some don't care. All they want to do is get through and get a degree, thinking that a college degree is the ticket to nirvana. But a college degree doesn't get you on a train where you can just ride along; a degree only opens the first door. After that, if you can't perform, you're stuck. Take your education seriously and put in those hard hours of study that will pay off for the rest of your life.

3. There is disagreement over the value of double reading. Some studies have indicated that reviewing notes, summaries, underlinings, and highlightered passages actually improves retention better than simply reading a second time. The best advice here, then, is to read actively--write notes in the margin, underline important sentencess, or even make your own summary or outline notes of the chapter. Then, later on, review the notes or skim the chapter.

4. It's easys to remember a dramatic, one-time event, but repetition is needed for more ordinary information to get into long term memory. And repetition after some time passes is actually a form of relearning. Each time you relearn something, it becomes easier to recall and the more deeply it gets planted in your mind. Cramming one time to learn everything, or even any one thing, is less effective that visiting and revisiting the material.

5. A serious study buddy, not a time and attention waster, can improve your learning through the benefit of discussion. With a study buddy you can (1) recite what you know while your buddy listens and checks for accuracy and clarity of thought, (2) quiz each other, (3) alternate using flash cards, where first one of you and then the other holds up a card and discusses the other's answer, and (4) work together on homework problems (assuming this is permitted by the professor), such as answering questions or working out calculations. When one of you gets stuck, the other can often help get the answer. When one doesn't understand a concept, the other can often explain. And remember that those who teach a subject learn more than those who are taught.

6. Actually, in bed by midnight is better. The point is that the brain needs processing time, and that occurs only during sleep. "Pulling an all nighter" hampers test performance because (1) the brain doesn't learn well when it is tired and has trouble paying attention and (2) the brain cannot process the material adequately if it can't get some sleep time. Two o'clock in the morning is the very latest (earliest?) you should get to sleep if you have an 8:00 am exam. Staying up all night to study is not a cure for procrastination. It's a recipe for mediocrity at best.

7. I always like to arrive plenty early to classes and other events, to cover contingencies (What if there's traffic? What if I get delayed? What if the room  has been moved? What if all the good seats are taken?), but in keeping with contemporary folks, and to harmonize with the Two in Two Secrets, I recommend arriving at least two minutes early. Arriving late is rude to the professor and the rest of the class (or audience), creates an embarrassing disturbance, and you feel stressed and need time to calm down. And if the professor started on time, you've missed something. Oh, yeah, what could you miss that would be that important at the beginning of class? How about, "The midterm has been canceled," or "The paper is now due next week instead of the week after," or "The answers to the odd problems are posted on my office door."

8. You might have heard the proverb, "There are two sides to every issue--except when there are three." Even if you have a strong opinion about a position, find out what the differing opinions are and how they are supported. If you're writing a paper, bring in some of the more important objections or counterarguments and respond to them. This actually strengthens your case because you show that you know about these opposing views and you have thought about them and responded to them. If you don't bring them up, your reader might think you are ignorant of them or dishonestly suppressing them.

9. How many papers have professors received that cause them to think, "This reads like a paper written in an hour last night." The point is, when you take the time to revisit your writing, you see areas that can be clarifed, reworded, strengthened with an example, reorganized or otherwise improved. Your brain has had some alone time to think over what you wrote so that on the next visit, it probably has some ideas and suggestions for you. Multiple drafts are good for you. Time consuming, yes, but great for your learning--and probably, your grade.

10. In the old days, before grade inflation, doing the minimum requirement was considered average, and the grade for average work was a C. Maybe these days you can do better than that with average, mediocre work. But if you exceed the minimum requirements, think how much more you'll learn. Even more importantly, you'll be developing the "above and beyond" habits that when translated to the workplace and even your personal life will be the steppingstones to success.

11. If you want that calm, relaxed feeling instead of that deadline hysterical rush feeling, get your papers done early. No time? It's really about planning. You have exactly the same number of hours in a day as Leonardo Da Vinci--and look at what he wrote, invented, and painted. Go ahead and ignore my advice. I'm just sayin.

12. So now you know the secret of the twos.

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com