The 4 keys to college courses

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Grades not what you expected? You’re not alone. I see countless students each semester who have that shocked look on their faces when they get their first midterm back. (In some cases, they’d thought they aced it.) Many students tell me stories of little work and decent grades in high school; they sincerely want to pick up their performance in college but don’t know how. I have whittled down my advice to the four “Ps” (and “party” is not one of them).


Problem: If you’re always putting something else before your classes and schoolwork, that’s a major red flag. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, one in three students who responded said that prioritizing their studies is often or sometimes a struggle.

Solution: Your academic life and tasks need to be very high priority. Paid jobs and downtime are important too, and call for careful, ongoing time management. If hanging out with your friends routinely trumps your studies, you need to make a change. Much of what you do each day should have to do with class work.


Problem: You won’t be able to focus if you don’t have a place to do it. Roommates, group meetings, and social media will destroy your time management strategy. In our survey, one in three students said finding a place to study is sometimes or often a challenge.

Solution: Find a quiet place where you can think and do. It may be the library. It may be the coffee shop. It may be an empty classroom. It needs to be a place that you associate with getting down to business—the business of doing the work.


Problem: If your study habits aren’t effective, you won’t retain what you’re learning. In our survey, nearly half of respondents said this is sometimes or often a struggle.

Solution: It is not enough to passively read a chapter for sociology. You also need active learning strategies, like taking notes, creating flashcards, and sketching diagrams. If you don’t have a product, whether it’s a completed assignment or a summary of a reading, you haven’t done the work necessary to build the knowledge base you need.


Problem: Other people can work with or against us. In our survey, three in five students said they are sometimes or often distracted from their studies by others.

Solution: Ask at your tutoring center about academic coaching, and/or find an “accountability partner” to check in or study with each week. This person should be at least as responsible as you are, if not more so. These students seem to know what is going on in class and they’re making good grades, which means they often have good habits you can learn from. Also, don’t be a distraction to anyone else.

Amy Baldwin

Amy Baldwin, MA, is co-author of The College Experience (Prentice Hall, 2015) featuring realistic student scenarios and strategies.

Get help or find out more

The College Experience: Amy Baldwin, Brian Tietje, Paul G. Stoltz
2nd edition, Prentice Hall, 2015

The A Game: 9 Steps to Better Grades: Kenneth Sufka
Nautilus Publishing Company, 2011

Tip sheet for college success: New York Times

Resources for studying by subject:

Time management & studying resources:

Learning strategies: Dartmouth College