Field of Science

To my charming nieces and college freshmen everywhere.

Two of my nieces are going to start college in the next week or so; both are above average in looks and intelligence, and both will probably make some of the usual freshman mistakes in adjusting to college before becoming a successful student. Can Uncle Phactor offer some advice? Oh, he can, but shall he? Will it make any difference? Probably not, but please grant me this, on the subject of how to really succeed in education, freshmen are clueless because high schools do little to promote the right types of behavior, and having been a successful student, a professional student if you will so allow, for over 40 years, and having observed nearly countless students flounder (A word that can be used as both a verb and a noun.), some things are known to me to be true. Like many things, success in college is not rocket science, unless you are actually studying rocket science, and these days many other things are more intellectually challenging, but since neither of you have shown any proclivity for engineering, or sadly botany, the queen of sciences, we can move on. Understand this: most students don’t fail at college because they aren’t smart enough; you’re plenty smart enough, but learning to be disciplined, learning to use your smarts effectively, learning to use your time efficiently, that’s what it’s all about, and of course, these are life skills, so these are skills that will be useful to have. Naturally you ignore parents and high school teachers, stupid fools that they are, but you do understand the necessity of coaches don’t you? As athletes move from high school, to college, to professional levels two things are certain: only a tiny fraction who are successful at each level will be a success at the next level, and they still have coaches. Uncle Phactor coaches professional students, and those who may aspire to be so.
1. Get a good night’s sleep – You need your rest, probably at least 8 hrs of sleep, and if you don’t get it, you trudge into my class like a hung over zombie. Not only does this make quite an impression, but people like the Phactor are pretty fast company for you intellectually, not because of more smarts, but because of having professional level skills, even when you’re rested and alert. Why make it easy on me and handicap yourself? It was an unfair contest from the beginning. All-nighters just don’t work; you lose the next day, so timewise it’s break even at best. Now on this matter and the next, Uncle Phactor thinks perhaps the redhead will do better because she is more disciplined, more amenable to coaching, and the brunette still thinks she can burn the candle at both ends and get away with it, granted it’s your family’s way to attempt to do way too much in too little time so this will take some serious coaching to unlearn these bad habits.
2. Eat breakfast – In addition to rest, you need some energy to function well, and some time to wake up and get functioning in the morning. Don’t eat sugary cereal or creamy crisp donuts; the sugar will metabolize too quickly and you’ll be even hungrier later. Telling yourself you don’t need or want breakfast is just another bad habit that needs to be broken. Use the time to think about what you need to do today, and review you plan for the day.
3. Get a little exercise – OK this one is really just a fantasy because it really isn’t going to happen since basically number 1 and 2 were a stretch, but again, you need to have your metabolism going. Even if you just walk briskly from place to place it helps (and please do not do the student shuffle!).
4. Start things immediately – Projects get done not because of some super human effort all at once; they get done bit by bit, piece by piece, day by day. Start with an idea or just a paragraph, and then add to it every day. Oh and that’s how you study to learn something too.
5. Study day by day – Do you need the long-term versus short-term learning lecture? If you sleep on it, most of your short term memory is erased so to speak for a new day, and maybe only 20% was saved in long-term memory. A single repetition on the same day will double the long-term memory learning. This is using your time efficiently because that one review will save you so much time down the road.
6. Be ready for class – Where did you leave off? Scan your textbook material for the class and try to identify what you think is one key or important point. Why? Because professors like me call on people to see if they have anything going on. The deer-in-headlights look and nothing to say is just so impressive.
7. Read and study in quiet solitude – When you read or study do so in absolute solitude, so this means turning off your laptop computer, email, cell phone, ipod (gasp, incredulous looks), TV, and then gag and subdue your roommate (probably just a communications major anyways) for at least 25 mins (You may not have heard of the Pomodoro Technique but stressed students who have used it say the technique works.) . After 25 min of uninterrupted study you can take a 5 min break to check that your cell phone and email are actually still working, that the world did not cease to exist. Then do another pomodoro (25 mins.). Of course this techinique would appeal to a botanist; who can resist a tomato timer? This is the hardest rule of all because today’s students have convinced themselves that they can multitask, and they can’t. Interruptions are concentration and time killers; follow this rule and in the long run you’ll spend less time studying and have more time for screwing around.
Seven rules is enough for now, six really because we discounted # 3, and if you get these going life will be so easy you may have time for a social life, like going to a movie or something once a month. Take it from me, majoring in frisbee and chasing women can be fun, and you do learn a few things, but it doesn't help your grades. Perhaps some of my faithful readers will have a tip or two to share with you.

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