College is short; study hard

My, my, my. Fall semester of 1995 has rolled around already, and here we are, bright-eyed and eager to begin the new academic year. A warm greeting to those who were here before, and especially to those who were not, the Class of '99.

You've heard it before, but I'll say it again: freshman year is a big change. New living situations, new food, and the new "campus" atmosphere can be at first exhilarating and intimidating. But the biggest change of all comes from the reason we are all here in the first place: academics.

College is tougher than high school for several reasons. The material is harder, we cover it faster, and a good deal more responsibility falls on the students. No one will look in on you to be sure you do your homework each night. When the fraternity down the street throws a kegger the night before your exam, no one will hold you back but yourself.

To help you do it, I have prepared some sage advice (using as my qualifications a Stanford degree, experience teaching trig and calculus at the UA for three years, and memories of being a former freshman myself):

The most critical rule comes in four words: don't let it slide. The faster pace of college work means that you must keep up with your classes day by day, as you can fall behind before you know it. Don't think you can neglect a course for a few weeks and then pick up the slack. Students of mine have tried it. They do not recover.

To keep up, go to class. Take good notes and read the book. (It's not the optional extra many think it is.) Do your homework, for Heaven's sake. This may seem obvious, but as Margaret Thatcher once said, "Of course it's the same old story. Truth usually is the same old story."

If you do get behind, catch up as fast as you can. I knew someone who had a differential equations exam in the morning but spent the night reading a 3-week-old philosophy assignment, determined to do everything in chronological order. Make up missed assignments, but not at the expense of present ones.

Plan ahead. Try to start assignments before the night before they're due. Realize that doing the homework well now makes it much easier to prepare for the test later.

Get to know your instructor, and ask for help if you need it. It's no more shameful to ask for help than it is to take notes; the help is part of the course.

Never accept something just because a teacher says it. Think independently and ask questions.

Deeper than study technique, though, is your attitude about learning. A great many educators these days are talking about "self-esteem," lowering standards hand over fist, "dumbing down" textbooks, making everything easier and easier in the name of happiness. Everyone gets As, in their world, because As make everyone happy.

I don't buy that (as a student or a teacher), and neither should you. Instead, I'd say we could all use some good old-fashioned Puritan work ethic, including high standards, discipline, self-denial, and delayed gratification.

Why? Because if you set your own standards high and work hard to attain them, you'll have reason to be proud of yourself. You will have achieved something worthwhile, you'll know you can do it and you will earn real self-esteem. At the same time, you will truly be learning well.

This is not to say you should burn yourself out, of course. You should make time for just plain fun. But learning and working hard to do it brings a deep well-being that can't compete with the instant gratification of the MTV culture.

In one form or another, it's why you're here. In college, learning is your responsibility. But it should also be a reward and a pleasure in itself, not just for the future marketability and prestige it can bring. Set your mind to enjoy the learning you do, and keep those standards high.

John Keisling believes that you gotta fight for your right to study. He is a Ph. D. candidate in mathematics and his column appears every Tuesday.

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