How to Study and Succeed in School: Part 1: Organization & Communication

Rivet has his pencil and paper ready for school (or for a snack).

In school and college, we assume that students know how to succeed. Yet, as a parent and a professor, I’ve come to realize that many students have never been taught the preparation and study skills that have little to do with intelligence or the actual subject: proper organization, note-taking, group work, communication, and test preparation. These components make up the “rules of the game,” so to speak. While teachers and instructors have their own styles, preferences, and pet peeves, these general tips will set you up for success overall (or your kids, if you are a parent). For part 1, I will discuss preparation, organization, and communication.

Even before Day 1, you can get a head start. Gather the materials and organize them in a systematic way recommended by the school/what works for you. Have a place to write down due dates and assigned tasks (i.e. a calendar with space to list out “things to do” or a digital calendar). Buy notebooks or binders with blank, lined paper and writing utensils. Label your stuff with both the class and your name. Bring these items to class.

Acquire the book (unless the instructor advises that you wait). If you have the syllabus, read it, jotting down the dates of assignments and exams in your calendar. Do any preliminary work that the teacher/instructor assigns.

Check the online platform for the class, if there is one. Become familiar with the content, announcements, boards, and other important features.

Staying Organized
It’s easy to start somewhat organized. It’s harder to maintain it. Keep papers divided by subject/class, placing graded items in binders or folders. Never throw out graded papers. You can learn from your mistakes and need them as documentation for grades. If you are in middle or high school, bring all materials home. Do not just shove papers in your lockers and forget about them.

Check your school/university email at least twice daily during the week, if not more. Also check the platform site (D2L, Teams, etc.) throughout the day.

Build a professional relationship with your teacher/instructor. College students, email or stop by the offices of your instructors just to introduce yourselves. You don’t have to write much or stay long, but a friendly “Hi! I’m ________ and in your _______ class. I just wanted to introduce myself” goes a long way.

Throughout your semester, ask questions if something confuses you, let your teacher/instructor know if you will be absent, and be polite in your communication. If there’s a problem, address it immediately, rather than letting weeks pass. Familiarize yourself with the instructor’s class policies, especially in regards to make-up assignments. Across levels, students should email first before parents get involved (which they can’t in college at all).

Elements of a good email to a teacher/instructor:

  • A subject line that specifies the class/section and the specific need
  • A greeting that includes the appropriate title (“Hi Dr. Foss, . . . .”)
  • A brief explanation of the problem or issue (“I will be absent on Wed. for marching band”).
  • The request or solution (“May I please take the scheduled exam early?”).
  • A closing (“Thank you”)
  • Your name

Avoid accusations and generalizations and go for the more polite and neutral phrasing (i.e. “Why haven’t you . . .,” instead of “Could you please. . . .?”). If you do not get a response within 6-12 hours for something pressing (like an impending exam) or 24 hours for an issue less urgent, follow up with another email. If you are in middle or high school, this is also an appropriate time for a parent to email the teacher.

The trick here is to stay on top of communication with teachers/instructors. Alert them about absences before classes are missed (when possible). Find out and submit work a.s.a.p. It is your responsibility to communicate with your teachers/instructors.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Taking Notes and Navigating Group Work.