Where There’s A Will There’s an A


by Claude W. Olney, professor, Arizona State University.


Recording of a live seminar, © 1990.

I checked this set of tapes out of the library for my older son before he left for college.  He listened to some, and asked me to listen to the rest and send him the highlights.  Here's what I came up with.  (Wouldn't it be great if students graduated from high school actually having practiced some of these?  What if a teacher made it a game, say by setting up teams to compete to see which one could come up with the most questions that would be on an exam that he had prepared before the class started?)

§         Take classes you are interested in, even if they’re “hard”; your interest will insure your best performance.  And seek out the best professors.  Do your homework on the available courses before you sign up.  Be looking ahead to next semester and next year and ask those who are in classes you might want about the course, the professor, etc.  Keep notes in a folder organized by course.  Then learn the tricks to working the registration process in your school.

§         Read early (before class).  If the professor lectures from the book, you’ll know it and can follow along making little notes and listening for emphasis, rather than focusing on note-taking.  If he doesn’t, you’re still ahead because you’ll pick up more on the things that weren’t in the assigned reading (and they’re likely important to the professor or he wouldn’t have mentioned them).

§         100% attendance.  Studies clearly show that missed classes correlate with missed points on tests. 

§         The first and last minutes of class are most important.  Professors often come out with the most important point first.  Then, if there’s something that’s going to be on the test that they didn’t get to during the class, they’ll “throw it in” right at the end.

·        Never just read; do “active reading”.

o       Write out exam questions and answers as you read.

o       Turn topic and sub-topic headings into questions

o       Throw away the highlighters – that’s just a promise to learn it later.  Learn it as you go.

§         Dr. Marshall Duke, Professor of Psychology, Emory University, in a talk to parents during freshman orientation for the Fall 2003 semester said that he has mostly freshmen, but also some sophomores, a few juniors, and a senior or two in his Intro to Psych courses.  He said he could tell what year a student was just by looking at their textbook.  In a freshman’s book, virtually the whole page would be yellow.  Sophomores would have only a sentence or two, usually the topic and summary sentences of a paragraph.  Junior would highlight a word or two, and maybe write a summary of the paragraph in the margin.  A senior would have no highlighting and “Bullshit!” written in the margin.  This, of course, drew a big laugh from the parents (he got a number of laughs; I suspect he’d be a great professor).  Dr. Duke went on to attribute this to the increasing intellectual power of the students as they learned to identify what was not important.

·        Use mnemonic techniques to achieve rapid memorization where necessary.

·        Multiple short learning sessions move material to long-term memory better than a few long sessions.

·        Memorize key information early in the course – you’ll retain much more of the rest, & you’ll then start learning to “think” in the manner of the discipline you are studying, and that’s the surest way to an A.  Professor Olney told of his son taking a Mexican art course, blowing the first quiz, then figuring out he could identify the artists by little things about the way the professor had taken the slides.  For example, in one museum, the professor had used the wrong filter and the slides were all slightly yellow – easy to remember the artist that was in that museum!  And, once he had that, he relaxed and really looked at the slides and listened to the lectures.  Not only did he get an “A”, he really learned to appreciated Mexican art and now has quite a collection!

·        Term Papers: 

o       Read some to find out what they should look like.  Check with students from prior semesters to see if you can read theirs.  Volunteer to read and comment for friends -- it'll make yours better.

o       Remember the garnishes.  Presentation matters.

o       Get it in on time.

o       Process

§         Quick outline (use mind map techniques if you know them)

§         Write topic sentences.

§         Fill in the paragraphs

§         Try to set it aside for a day or two.

§         Check the “flow.” Does your “hook” work? Does it make sense the way you thought it would?  Do some points seam weak?  Have you got a clear conclusion?

§         Edit each paragraph.  Strong sentences, active writing where possible.

§         Again, set it aside if you can.

§         Polish, refine, read out loud, ask for help.

·        Essay exams

o       Short paragraphs

o       Go for volume

o       Be neat (presentation counts)

·        Fill in the blank, True/False, & Short Answer

o       Answer them ALL!

o       Trust your instincts.  You’ve been studying smart and hard, go with your first impression