Working Smarter Introduction: Smart Shifts

Almost everyone struggles in college. Most students have their first “academic wake-up call” in their first semester. Some who had stronger backgrounds in high school may skate through that first semester, but they hit a wall when they’re introduced to new material in the spring. Regardless of when it happens, you will be challenged. If struggle hasn’t come your way, then you’re either in a program that’s not stretching you enough (and you should consider transferring), or you should get ready because it’s about to happen.

Your college entrance scores have little to do with predicting whether or not you’re going to earn your degree. Barely more than half of all college students earn a four-year degree within six years of entering as freshmen, and 28 percent don’t return after their first year! And if you’re a male or a person of color (African American, Native American, or Latino), your odds of obtaining a bachelor’s degree are even worse.

And success is not just about how hard you study either. After all, across your school career, you’ve probably heard your parents and teachers repeatedly tell you to “Study harder!” Even now in college when you get a poor grade or fail to grasp the work, a professor, or a teaching assistant will offer that sage advice: “Study harder!” And it’s true. Students need to work harder by putting in more hours to prepare for class. According to one recent study, the average number of hours college students spend doing schoolwork outside of the classroom has dwindled over the past 50 years, from 24 hours to 15 hours per week. [i]

However, just putting in more time doesn’t always translate into better grades, or deeper learning. You may have already realized this.

The core problem, I’ve discovered, is a lack of a clear definition of what studying harder really means for you as an individual. Only about half of all college students polled said they had developed effective study habits in college. [ii] The word “effective” is the operative word here. The problem is not just working longer, or harder, it’s learning how to work smarter.

This blog will guide you through the learning approach that helped to turn things around for me as an undergraduate, an approach that I refined as a doctoral student, a freshman advisor, and a college dean. It will help you get smarter. Not just smarter in knowing the material, but smarter in the way you approach your work.

Vince Lombardi, the late Hall of Fame coach of the Green Bay Packers, famously said, “The only place that success comes before work is in the dictionary.” Unless you’re attending a college where you are not being challenged, I know you’re working hard, or at least you believe that you are. However, if you’re like me, your hard work is not getting the results you expect.

The main differentiators between successful and unsuccessful students are the winning mindsets, relationships and productive behaviors exhibited by those who succeed. I call these differentiators “shifts” because most students have to dramatically change or shift their thinking and their actions in college in order to be successful.

These shifts are as fundamental as changing gears in a car. Do you remember when you first learned to drive? (If you don’t drive, think of a similar experience, such as riding a bicycle.) Eventually, you became comfortable driving at low speeds in and around your neighborhood. Whether you used a manual or automatic transmission, your car probably could remain in second or third gear most of the time without straining the engine.

At some point, however, your parent or driving instructor told you that you were ready to drive onto the highway. Remember that experience? Getting onto the highway for the first time was rough. Cars and trucks moved so fast and every decision had to be made at hyper-speed. And while second gear was acceptable for low-speed driving in town, it no longer cut it on the highway. Without shifting gears, it may have sounded like you were going fast (because your engine was revving at higher RPMs), but you couldn’t keep up with the traffic that by now was whizzing by you, with drivers probably shouting expletives as they passed. All because you were in the wrong gear.

The learning strategies that used to work in high school no longer work in college. Like driving in the wrong gear on the highway, doing the same thing harder and for longer periods of time won’t necessarily lead to success. Your intellectual engine is revving at high RPMs, but you’re still not moving fast enough on the college superhighway. Those cars – those other students — are whizzing by you. You need to shift gears.

This blog (and the upcoming book) is all about how to shift gears. In the next few posts, I’ll show you how making three specific “shifts” will help you succeed in college:

The first one, The Attitude Shift, focuses on developing a new mindset about your intellectual ability, and about the importance of confidence and how to build it up, especially after you suffer setbacks.

The Connection Shift will show how important it is to engage your faculty members and peers on campus, and how to do it. It will teach you how to approach teachers even if you’re shy, and how to utilize study groups of fellow students to maximize your learning.

And finally, The Behavior Shift will offer practical steps for improving your grades and deepening your learning.

By applying these “shifts”, you’ll learn how to work smarter and see to it that your grades and overall satisfaction with your performance dramatically improve.

I mentioned in my very first lines that every student struggles at some point in college. These posts are designed to help every student face down that challenge and learn to work smarter.

I did it, and you can do it too.


[i] Arum, R. & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

[ii] Ibid, p. 133

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