1 College Success Skills

Ann Inoshita; Karyl Garland; Kate Sims; Jeanne K. Tsutsui Keuma; Tasha Williams; and Christina Frasier

Learning Objectives

  • Develop responsible student habits
  • Prepare for deep engagement with classes and class materials
  • Compose effective, professional emails to instructors

It’s about Time: Attendance and ‘Presence’

In elementary school, children are reminded to “stay on task” and focus on classroom activities. But college students often need to remind themselves of this as well—to maintain focus and develop the set of skills needed to help them find success in college and later in the workplace.

College students are expected to demonstrate independence, responsibility, and relationship-building skills. While elementary-school students are dropped off and picked up from school by adults, college students are now the adults and are on their own. Adults make decisions about being early or on time to classes and meetings; balancing the shifting priorities of home life, work life, and school life; and reaching their destinations even when their cars won’t start.

For college freshmen, whatever their age, the first year in college is a big transition and a learning experience in itself. Many students find themselves unable to catch up after missing even a single class.

In every class session, instructors cover course content, and students are invited (and expected) to think about the information, take notes, and participate in class discussions. Instructors, regardless of the level and subject they teach, want their students to learn things of value and that extend beyond the classroom and grade into the professional and the wider world. Most instructors put concerted time and effort into what will become their teaching time, so they expect students to be in class to gain all they can.

However, sometimes students are absent when unforeseen events and challenges occur. So from the very first day of a student’s college career, the student needs to be conscientious, to contact instructors and proactively notify them in advance of every absence, to express regret, and to show a commitment to moving forward. This is particularly critical if colleges use an automatic drop or withdrawal system that cancels students’ registration if they are absent for two straight weeks.

Whether via email, phone call, text, or even in person, students should notify all their instructors about any potential missed day of class. Regardless of the notification method, students shouldn’t ask what they missed. For example, in the email text below, line 3 is a faux pas.

1 Good afternoon, Professor McKenna.

2 I had a family emergency today and was unable to make it to campus.

3 Did I miss anything important? If so, is there a time I could meet with you?

4 I look forward to your response.

5 Josh McDonald

6 English 100, Section 006, Tuesday & Thursday, 3:00 p.m.4:15 p.m.

7 Cell: 777-123-4567

Students can be certain that “something important” was definitely covered that day in class and that it’s not the instructor’s responsibility to teach it twice; however, reaching out with a politely worded email shows interest and responsibility on the student’s part.

Absences and Connecting to Help Each Other Recover Time Lost

It’s the student’s responsibility to connect with the class community and find out what she or he missed. Early in the semester, students should make acquaintance with at least one classmate, exchange contact information, and agree to share important information with each other if one is absent. It’s important. Whenever students are absent for any amount of time in class, they have lost important instructional time and content.

Attending and being fully present involves making a commitment of time. Students and instructors also commit to each other—students to students, students to instructors, and instructors to students. Class is time for mutual respect, thoughtfulness, and kindness. Students should aim to build a sense of community and belonging. They should enter the classroom each day with a positive outlook. It’s not always easy; sometimes it’s nearly impossible. But when things are difficult, a community cares for its members. All colleges are communities filled with people and programs to help students get the assistance they need.

Absences, Deadlines, Tardies, Leaving Early

Within some academic programs or courses, even one absence may result in failing the course. In general, college students must be aware of the attendance policies (i.e., policies regarding absences, tardies, and “leaving early”) indicated within each course syllabus and the college or university catalog. Double-check the syllabus for each course every semester of college.

A missed class does not necessarily change a due date for an assignment. Students should read the course syllabus and know their instructor’s policies for absences and late work. For example, if a student misses three classes without any reasonable explanations, notifications, or formal paperwork, what happens to the overall course grade? Students should know the answer after the first day of class.

Tardiness is often equivalent to absence. Critically important activities often happen during the first few minutes of class, including the taking of attendance. Some instructors will count all tardies as absences and/or deduct points for each tardy; make sure about your instructors’ policies, as each might be different.

Leaving early, for many instructors, is the same thing as being absent. Some students mistakenly assume that “arriving” means “attending” class and that it’s okay to leave class early at any time. It’s not necessarily okay. Even when students think their instructors don’t notice students leaving, instructors and assistants pay attention. Students not present in class could likely miss out on essential course content. However, leaving a class early may be acceptable in extenuating circumstances if a student requests permission and if the instructor approves.

Speaking of “presence,” students must be physically, psychologically, and intellectually present in class each period to learn everything they possibly can.

Don’t Let Electronic Devices Steal Time and Attendance

The student scrolling through websites unrelated to class content or completing homework for another course isn’t completely present nor attending to task. Such students sometimes fail their courses because it’s hard to truly learn without listening.; active learning occurs through notetaking and participating in class discussion—and it is helpful to turn off devices that distract and steal attention. If information about cellphones and other devices isn’t in the syllabus, ask or take cues from the instructor and from other students during the first couple of days of class.

Some instructors weave the use of electronic devices into their lessons through response and polling programs, which allow students to use their devices to participate in discussions. In addition, many instructors allow and encourage the use of laptops and tablets in class, when appropriate. However, not all instructors and situations allow devices, and some instructors deduct points for cell phone use during class, so students should know the instructor’s preference; their preferences should be clear in the syllabus.

Time Communicating and Attending to Email and Learning Management Systems

Before the semester begins, students should familiarize themselves with their campus email system and respective learning management system (LMS). Examples of LMSs include Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas. Instructors and students use their campus LMS in a variety of ways. It’s important for students to ask questions about how instructors will use the LMS and how they wish to be contacted.

The Syllabus: Words to Live By

Syllabi created for college-level courses are likely to be much longer than students have previously encountered. A course syllabus is a multiple-page document that instructors provide to students during the first few days of class. If one stays enrolled in a course, both student and instructor are expected to follow the syllabus, which usually provides the following critically important information:

  • Course number, title, schedule, and final exam date and time
  • Instructor’s name, contact information, and office hours
  • Learning Outcomes/Objectives (LOs) or goals (sometimes called Student Learning Outcomes [SLOs] or Program Learning Outcomes [PLOs], which vary amongst college and universities): Students should highlight these and keep them in mind as a checklist of goals they should meet, concepts they should learn, and skills they should demonstrate over the semester and certainly by the end of the course.
  • Required materials (e.g., books, email access, computer access)
  • General course tasks
  • Course assignments (e.g., homework) and assessments (e.g., quizzes, exams), including formatting of written work
  • Daily and/or weekly class schedule
  • General course policies (e.g., attendance and participation, academic integrity, grading and late work, technology policy, and suggested study times per week)
  • Campus-wide support services (e.g., a writing center, learning assistance center, counseling center, health clinic, Title IX support center, and LGBTQ+ support center, information about accommodations)
  • College and university policies, rules, and guidelines

Students should read each syllabus on the first day they receive it so they are clear about all that will be expected of them for the rest of the semester. They should also refer to it during the semester at key points (such as before midterm and before finals) to make sure they are still on-track. Instructors often prefer students to perform due diligence by answering their own questions from the syllabus before emailing the instructor.

Managing Time

Beginning college means an increase in being very busy! These days, increasingly more students can’t complete a degree without also having to work at least one job. Add family needs into the mix, and it becomes a situation in which time can seem difficult to manage, and responsibilities in life can feel overwhelming. “Overwhelming,” in fact, is a word college students often use. College is interesting, fun, exciting, and full of new ideas, and exists as a path to fulfill students’ dreams, but it requires time, attention, and energy.

To feel empowered and in control of one’s life, students need to proactively manage their time and life—instead of just letting life happen to them. It helps to be clear about expectations, to plan ahead, to stay organized, to anticipate any complications, and to create a schedule that works. It helps to use a planner to organize one’s time. Many students benefit from creating a weekly hourly plan. Organizational strategies help maintain control over time.

Staying Organized

Some people seem more organized than others. Regardless, everyone can use strategies that work to make sure that important documents are not misplaced and that the correct essay is emailed to the correct instructor. Students should organize all their syllabi and class materials, keep up with their planners or calendars, maintain checklists of assignments and due dates, schedule study and meeting times between classes and work (i.e., actively and weekly), eat healthfully, plan for self-care (i.e., body, spirit, and mind, including sufficient sleep). Studies increasingly show the importance of sleep to a strong body, mind, and spirit, all of which affect students’ ability to succeed.

Using today’s technology makes staying organized easy; that’s what it’s there for. Calendars and software applications on cellphones can be synchronized with other devices. Online calendars can email reminders and alert cell phones so nothing is forgotten or missed.

Making Appointments with Instructors and Keeping Them

Meeting with instructors helps students obtain or process content that is significant for getting the most out of a course, but they also demonstrate a student’s interest in the content and commitment to doing well in the class. Students should prepare questions beforehand and be prepared to take notes on anything the instructor offers that seems especially poignant or helpful.

If an appointment is missed, an apology is surely due. But it’s important to remember that everyone misses a meeting now and then, and all one can do is apologize and try not to miss a second one.

Be Your Best Reader

Every college course will include student readings. Sometimes they’re optional, but most of the time they are meant to either provide the foundation for course content or act as supplemental material. First, students discern how the course reading is meant to be accessed and used. Then, they create their own best practice including looking up, writing down, and memorizing definitions for unclear terms and finding the best places and times to read.

Close Reading

Practicing close reading can help lead toward college success. This means truly engaging with the words on the page and the content being discussed, and, most of the time, that means taking notes.

In the Inc. article “Here’s How Isaac Newton Remembered Everything He Read,” author Ilan Mochari explains that not only did Newton dog-ear the corners of pages in the books, he also filled the margins with words of his own . . . even if he had borrowed the book from the library (Mochari). Newton is known for his studies regarding gravity—the epiphanal moment with the falling apple. But the years of research that brought him to publish Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687 involved extensive jotting down of ideas as he crafted his genius.

These are some tips for notetaking:

  • Use a variety of colored pens and highlighters and, in front of the book, a legend detailing which color represents which kind of notes.
  • Take notes on a separate sheet of paper. Students should use methods that work best for them, whether using Cornell notes, informal bulleted notes, or formal outlines with Roman and Arabic numbers and letters.
  • Use sticky notes. Again, using a variety of colors is great, and thoughts or questions can be written on the notes versus the pages themselves leaving the book clean thus worth more money in the buyback.

There is more informational about critical reading in this chapter.

Growth Mindset

In 2007, Dr. Carol Dweck and her team of researchers studied students’ attitudes about success and failure. They noticed that some students were able to deal with failure better and rebound relatively quickly while others were crushed by even the smallest of setbacks. Essentially, they determined that students who believe they can become smarter understand that making the effort can get them there. Students who believe that their intelligence is already fixed fear trying in case they prove that they aren’t as smart as they think. They aren’t interested in working harder. As such, Dweck coined the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” to describe how people feel about their ability to learn.

Scientists and researchers continue to study human behavior and brain activity, seeking an understanding about how and why humans succeed or fail at their endeavors, be they academic, professional, social, or even romantic. Researchers consider the way habits are formed and can be broken, the reasons for and the effects of growth versus fixed mindsets, and the role of self-discipline in achievement.

In a 2015 interview, a year after her 2014 TED talk, Dweck revisits this concept. She states, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. . . . The key is to get students to tune in to that growth mindset (Dweck, “Carol Dweck”).

The takeaway from Dweck’s research and conclusions is important for all college students to consider. Where do they see themselves on the scale? They can think about ways to nurture themselves through challenging times, and reach out to instructors and anyone else who can show them how the “brains,” talent, and potential for growth already exists in every individual.

Discussing with Diplomacy

During class, as a way to create meaningful discussions and extract and build knowledge, instructors often ask students to respond to questions and ideas. They may ask questions directly, with students raising their hands to politely take turns speaking. Other times, students will meet in pairs or small groups and even follow up with a whole-group discussion.

That being said, individuals have a variety of comfort zones when speaking in front of others. The fear of speaking in public is the most common fear. The following tips can help students with any level of anxiety (or comfort) during classroom discussions.

  • Be confident. Most people feel timid. So most people empathize and are thankful someone got the discussion going.
  • Don’t dominate the conversation. Even if you know all the answers in class, others might too. Give everyone an equal chance to share. One good rule for an eager student to follow is to let at least two people share their ideas before jumping back in.
  • Not comfortable sharing an idea? Frame it in the form of a question. Others will perceive it as sharing knowledge. This technique will actually invite further discussion and extend the conversation.

College classrooms should be safe places for learning—hostility-free and honoring open and respectful discourse.

Letters of Recommendation or Reference (LOR): Ask!

Through the course of a student’s college career, many situations will arise for which the student might need a letter of recommendation (or “letter of reference”), sometimes referred to as an “LOR.” Whether it be for a scholarship, an internship, study abroad, a job, or a graduate program, letters of recommendation, reference, or support are key for students and should be written by someone whom the student appreciates and trusts.

Once a student determines which instructor might be an ideal letter writer, the student should craft a formal email that includes the following elements:

  • A pleasant greeting (e.g., “Good afternoon, Professor McKenna.”)
  • A sentence of well-wishes. (e.g., “I hope your week is moving along nicely.”)
  • An explanation of the email’s purpose (e.g., “I’m writing to you today because I am applying for graduate school, and I would like to see if you would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me.”)
  • An understanding of the instructor’s busy schedule (e.g., “At this point in the semester, I am sure that you have many important responsibilities that require your time.”)
  • A sincere wish for their assistance (e.g., “However, if you could possibly find the time to support me with such a letter, I would be sincerely grateful.”)
  • A closing line (e.g., “I look forward to your response. Regardless, please know how much I have valued you as a teacher and mentor.”)
  • On separate lines: a pleasant closing, student’s full name, course number and title, semester dates and times the student attended the instructor’s class (e.g., “Best regards, Jaden Bennett, English 100, Composition I, Fall 2020, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 a.m.8:45 a.m.”)

If the instructor agrees, it’s good practice to immediately send a follow up email with all important information including letter due dates and the recipient’s name and address, along with any other essential information.

The letter-writer should be contacted at least one week before the letter must be received.

It’s a good idea to deliver a handwritten card of thanks regardless of whether the overall results were as wished.

Works Cited

Dweck, Carol S. “Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.’” Education Week, 23 September 2015.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Random House, 2016.

Dweck, Carol S. “The Power of Believing that You Can Improve.” TEDxNorrkoping, November 2014.

Mochari, Ilan. “Here’s How Isaac Newton Remembered Everything He Read.” Inc., Manuseto Ventures, 2018.

Obama, Michelle. “Remarks by The First Lady at National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards.” The Obama White House Archives, Office of the First Lady, The White House, U.S. Government, 15 November 2015 at 2:31 p.m. EST

Adapted from English Composition: Connect, Collaborate, Communicate by Ann Inoshita; Karyl Garland; Kate Sims; Jeanne K. Tsutsui Keuma; and Tasha Williams, CC BY 4.0 


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College Success Skills Copyright © by Ann Inoshita; Karyl Garland; Kate Sims; Jeanne K. Tsutsui Keuma; Tasha Williams; and Christina Frasier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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