Admit it, even smart kids need help studying

Special Section: Education / Getting Smarter


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It used to be that avoiding study distractions was as easy as finding a quiet corner of the library and hunkering down.

But in the wireless age, that's no longer a guarantee. Even a student so conscientious that he hides from friends won't necessarily escape the unending blitz of text messages, blinking e-mail alerts or his or her own urge to keep up with Facebook.

In fact, one Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate was so haunted by temptation he approached the campus study center in the basement of Cyert Hall with an unusual request: Take my computer away, please.

"He gave me his laptop to keep for him because it was so distracting," said Linda Hooper, director of academic development. "I kept it in my office for him, locked, mostly on the weekends. He would come in and use it when he needed to."

That's not a solution many would choose. But it does show the increasing number of obstacles that a college student faces when trying to build a study regimen that can be the difference between getting a degree and dropping out.

And it explains why Ms. Hooper suggests what some might consider heresy. When the course work starts to get heavy, she tells students, "Take the instant messaging off the computer. Turn off Facebook."

Social networking has exacerbated what was already a difficult challenge.

In fact, some of the best advice about good study habits hasn't changed in generations. Along with managing time wisely, say staff at campus centers that help students survive academically, a critical early move is getting to know professors well enough that asking questions and seeking extra help outside class are not intimidating.

Take advantage of campus resources like tutoring and supplemental instruction, Ms. Hooper said. Try to understand that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

That's not always an easy concept to swallow on a highly competitive campus such as Carnegie Mellon, where three of every four freshmen graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

"For some students, it's really hard to walk in and say, 'I need help,' because they've always done really well," Ms. Hooper said.

At Carlow University, Michelle Leibach, a nursing student and peer tutor, tells students she works with that they must be brutally honest with themselves about their learning strengths and weaknesses.

Study groups, for instance, are great for expanding an individual's knowledge. But if the student does not work effectively in that kind of situation, then perhaps an alternative method makes sense.

"Find out what your learning style is," said Ms. Leibach, a 19-year-old junior from Allentown. At the University of Pittsburgh, junior Sean Malloy, 20, a math, Spanish and music major, said his study method depends on the type of work. If the assignment involves simply filling in answers on a sheet, he's fine working on a sofa as he talks with his roommates.

But if it's a term paper, or something else requiring more involved thought, he's likely to go to a coffee shop just off campus, typically in the afternoons after class.

"I can take a table and spread myself out without as many distractions," he said. "I'm able to justify buying a cup of coffee by staying there for an hour."

Few would dispute that most students work harder once they get into college. But is the time they invest enough?

On average, students during their first year of college study about six more hours weekly than they did in high school, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement. Even so, that total is three hours less than what students expected they would invest, according to a related survey that polls beginning college students.

That may be because students "often figure out what they need to do to get by," whether it be securing an A or a more mediocre grade, said Jillian Kinzie, associate director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. She said it may also mean those students would have preferred to study more but "were not as effective at managing their time, given all the different enticements and demands."

For many freshmen, the campus experience is the first time they are completely responsible for their daily schedules.

"You start out your first semester thinking you have all this free time, but it's really not free time. You have to spend that time studying," said JoAnna Male, 18, a University of Pittsburgh honors student from Eudora, Kan., who is majoring in chemical engineering and political science.

"You figure it out by your first test, your first mid-term," she said. "If you don't, you're not going to have a good semester."

Andrea Beranek, director of Carlow's Center for Academic Achievement, said the adjustment can be especially hard for the millennial generation. The students now must handle on their own ordinary tasks for which their parents eagerly provided support in high school.

She said current students' learning styles are different, too, the result of being bombarded from early childhood by all sorts of media.

They operate "on a sound-bite level" and are accustomed to drawing in all sorts of material from every corner of cyberspace, a skill useful in many situations. But she said they have less of an attention span.

Even discerning between solid and dubious information on the Web can be tricky.

"It may be hokum, but you can get it quickly," she said.

Dr. Beranek said students are inclined to listen to people closer to their own age, so her center, like others, encourages students to make connections with successful peers.

Her center and Ms. Hooper's at Carnegie Mellon offer students personal help with their study strategies and use printed materials to drive home the advice.

The tips range from no-brainers -- like showing up for class and meeting assignment deadlines -- to more involved suggestions on coping with stress, test anxiety and maintaining a proper perspective as workload grows.

One Carnegie Mellon tip sheet on managing time reminds students that each week offers them 168 hours: "How you decide to spend this valued commodity is up to you, but you want to use your time wisely so that you won't feel regretful about wasting it."

The tip sheets suggest study places, be it an empty classroom (having a companion is advised for safety) or the library. But exactly what an acceptable sound level is can vary greatly by individual.

"I either need complete silence, or complete noise," said Sharon Wang, 21, a Carnegie Mellon materials science and engineering major from Ellicott City, Md. "I can't work in a room where I can overhear one or two conversations. That's too distracting"

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Malloy sat, binder in hand, at a table inside a William Pitt Union meeting room. Nearby, another student performed Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8, "Pathetique," on an upright piano.

In this case, the sounds that all but drowned out his voice were anything but a distraction.

"I'm doing music homework," he said. "In fact, I'm analyzing this piece, so I figured I might as well listen here."


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977. First Published February 9, 2010 5:00 AM


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