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.

5 Tips to Overcoming the Jitters to Give Your Best Presentation

This presentation was for middle schoolers. You better believe I was a little nervous.

Most people become nervous right before giving their presentations. Even seasoned scholars feel a bit of a rush right before it’s time to be “on.” In other words, the butterflies are a natural indication that you care about what you’re about to do. Here are a few tips to transform nervous energy into productive energy so that the jitters don’t overtake you and hinder your presentation (none of which is picturing the audience naked).

  1. Practice your presentation out loud before the big moment. Reflect on your practice presentations. What is flowing well? What feels choppy? Add a bullet point, slide, or segue to help guide your delivery. How are you doing for time? When in doubt, slow down your pace. If this change-up makes you exceed the time, your presentation needs to be cut down. Preparation helps to build confidence.
Pets make great audience members for your first run-through.

2. In addition to practicing the actual presentation, informally tell another person about the subject for your presentation. Talking about your topic in a conversation is the best way to a). Make sure you understand it. and b). Make sure other people understand what you are saying. This practice will bring out what words need to be defined, concepts that may need more background, and/or points that need to be addressed more clearly. (Also a great tool for doing job presentations or book pitches).

3. Check out your settings beforehand. If this presentation is over Zoom, open a Zoom room to practice, making sure that the lighting and camera angle work well to highlight you. For in-person gigs, look at the space before you give the presentation, trying out your technology. You will feel less nervous if you know what your presentation in the actual setting will be like.

Presenting in Zoom to yourself may seem awkward, but it’s important to practice.

4. Use the time right before your presentation to get ready. If you are in person, arrive early to set up your technology. Check your notecards (if you use them). Have a spill-proof (trust me) bottle of water handy.
For virtual presentations, open your Power Point ahead of time. You can have a few notes out, but DON’T read just read your paper. You’ll have more energy and audience engagement if you speak extemporaneously.

No one wants to stare at you reading on Zoom.

5. Okay, it’s SHOWTIME! How can you calm your notes in the moment? I recommend focusing on the info that you are about to deliver. What will you tell others? Why does it matter? Think about the presentation as a teaching experience. You have the knowledge that the audience would like to attain. Take a breath. Try to slow down. If you stumble, it’s okay. Just move on to the next point.
Remember that most people are not there to judge you or critique what you are doing or saying. They are rooting for you!

Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Snow in Pollyanna (1960).