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    Maximize Your Learning

    Six tips for doing your best.

    Elesha Coffman

    Life at CollegeAcademically, college is almost nothing like high school. The good news is, most college students figure out how to have a positive educational experience. The bad news is, some of them don't "get it" until their junior or senior year. By then, they've already missed out on some great learning opportunities. So that you don't accidentally fall into this trap, here are six tips to help you start off right:

    1) Don't overload

    Your college's course catalog lists dozens of classes that look really cool. And since you need what seems like a million credits to graduate, you should probably take as many classes as you can every semester, right? Wrong.

    While you might not be able to avoid a couple of maxed-out semesters, you'll be much happier—and less stressed—if you can keep your course load in the light-to-medium range (around 15 hours per semester). You'll also learn more since you'll be able to spend a decent amount of time with each of your subjects.

    How can you keep your schedule manageable and still graduate on time? Explore your options. Maybe you can test out of some basic classes with competency exams or CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) tests. Maybe you can take some courses over the summer or during breaks. You may be able to find a summer job that can count toward internship credit.

    One rookie mistake you'll definitely want to avoid is overlooking "hidden" course requirements. Courses with lab requirements are the big offenders here. For example, a lab science class might only register as four credit hours, but you'll also be required to spend two to three hours per week doing experiments, plus whatever time you need to prepare your lab report—in addition to the four hours you'll spend in class each week. Foreign language courses, computer, math and performing arts classes usually require lab work, too. Make sure to check for these in your course catalog. Try to schedule no more than one lab class per semester.

    2) Come up with a plan

    When you first sit down with a course catalog, you won't be able to accurately map out your schedule for all four years at college. But there are a lot of benefits to looking ahead and sketching out a general plan.

    What does a smart plan look like? Freshman semesters should be heavy on core classes—ones needed to complete the general education ("gen-ed") requirements most colleges have. If you're leaning toward a certain major, mix in one or two classes from that area too. A schedule like this allows you to investigate several different subjects—any of which might become your major, since most students change their major at least once. And no matter what your major turns out to be, those core classes will count toward your graduation requirements.

    When it's time for you to choose your courses for the semester, spend some quality time with your academic adviser. Plan out your years on campus as accurately as possible. You'll need to plan very carefully, because some courses are only offered during alternating years or must be taken in sequence.

    As you become more familiar with your campus, try to take classes from profs who have been recommended by upperclassmen. Once you find a prof you really like, take two or three classes from him or her. You'll take some of the guesswork out of scheduling, and you'll also have an opportunity to build a relationship with this person. When it comes time to collect references for a job or graduate school, you'll know exactly who to ask.

    3) Keep up

    What's the difference between high school homework and college homework? You usually don't hand in the college stuff. Some classes might only have one paper or exam that counts for your entire grade.

    Does this mean homework is optional? Not really. When a professor types up a syllabus (a schedule of all of the work you'll do during the semester), each assignment is there for a reason. Every class session is important, too, even though profs rarely take attendance. These things give you a chance to participate in discussion, prepare you for the final, and make sure you actually learn something in class.

    A syllabus can also help you work ahead. For example, let's say you've signed up for a European literature class. You know you'll have to read War and Peace by week 12. Just because the book doesn't appear on the syllabus until week 10 doesn't mean you'll want to start reading it then. It's a long book. Start early.

    4) Speak up

    It's pretty intimidating to walk into a college class and hear students ask brilliant questions and quote people you've never heard of. How did they get so smart?

    These classroom superstars aren't all geniuses. What they probably have in common is a willingness to speak up, especially after class. For them, learning never stops.

    So what after-class opportunities are out there? Lots. Most professors have office hours so students can make appointments to discuss assignments, topics they don't understand or whatever's on their minds.

    Some schools set up e-mail discussion lists for various classes. So even if you can't connect with the prof during office hours, you might be able to join a helpful online discussion.

    Talking with other students from your class can also be a huge help. You can chat over coffee, work on homework together (unless your prof specifically forbids it), study for exams or critique each other's papers before handing them in.

    5) Don't obsess about grades

    In high school, you had a very good reason to strive for straight A's: They'd win you scholarships and a spot at your dream school.

    News flash! Your college G.P.A. isn't quite so important. That doesn't mean you can slide by with a .01 G.P.A.—there are things like academic probation and losing scholarships to worry about. Also, students planning to attend graduate school will need to prove themselves to admissions folks once again. But generally, the difference between an A, a B and a high C is pretty minor.

    So what does this mean? Take challenging classes. Don't sacrifice a learning opportunity for the sake of a high grade. If you can't get A's in every class, decide which ones to focus on and relax a little on the others. Don't freak out at the sight of a grade you never got in high school.

    6) Hang on to your notes

    When you turn in a final, it feels like a five-ton weight leaves your shoulders. The temptation is to sell the book, toss your notes, and wipe that folder off your hard drive. Thank goodness it's over!

    Not so fast. College courses aren't like sticks of gum you chew for a while and then spit out. Courses build on each other, which is why you have to take Geology 101 before Geology 435.

    So, here are a few suggestions. First of all, unless you're totally strapped for cash, don't sell textbooks from courses in your major. If some gen-ed books were particularly helpful as references, you might want to hang on to those as well.

    Next, keep all your assignments and papers on a memory stick. Electronic files take up a lot less space than paper copies and can be retrieved any time you want to rework an old assignment for a different class (as long as your prof is OK with recycled work).

    If your class notes are a hopeless jumble that you'll never read again, don't clutter your room with them. But if your writing is legible and your words make sense, these notebooks will be your best review resource when you take another class in the same subject or prepare for graduate exams. (By the way: If your notes are a hopeless jumble, you need to start working on neatness and legibility.)

    These tips might sound like a lot of extra work. But it's absolutely true that the more effort you put into your classes, the more you'll get out of them. Getting an education is a student's job and calling. And as it says in Colossians 3:23, "In all the work you are doing, work the best you can. Work as if you were doing it for the Lord, not for people" (NCV).