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How to Be a Good Student


The typical college campus is a friendly place; but it is also a competitive environment. The education you receive there, and the attitudes you develop, will guide you for the rest of your life. Your grades will be especially important in landing your first job, or when applying to graduate school. To be a successful student requires certain skills; but, these are skills that can be learned.

The Basics of Being a Good Student

  • Prioritize your life: Doing well in school should be your top priority.
  • Study: There is no substitute.
  • Always attend class.
  • Do all of the homework and assigned reading.
  • Develop self-discipline.
  • Manage your time.

Self-Discipline Made Easy

Human beings are creatures of habit. Therefore, form a habit of doing what you reason you should do. Is it not foolish for your behavior to contradict your own reasoning? And what could be more harmonious than finding yourself wanting to do what you know you should?

Train yourself so there is an immediate reaction-mechanism within you:

You reason that you should do something, and thus you do it.

Other people who seem to have less difficulty with self-discipline probably have simply had more practice at it, thereby making it less difficult; because, practice is what it takes.

Time Management

No matter how you slice it, there are only 24 hours in a day. Good time-management requires:

  1. Note taking on more than you can handle.
  2. Reasonably estimating the time required to perform each of the tasks at hand.
  3. Actually doing what needs to be done.

Only you can do these things. A couple of thoughts, though, that may help spur you on:

  • A minute now is as precious as a minute later. You can't put time back on the clock.
  • If you're not ahead of schedule, then you're behind schedule. Because, if you try to remain right on schedule, then any mishap or misjudgment will cause you to fall behind---perhaps right at the deadline, when no recovery is possible.


  • Understand, and be honest with, yourself. All else follows from this.
  • Be both athlete and coach: Keep one eye on what you are doing, and one eye on yourself.
  • Take command of, and responsibility for, yourself.
  • Face your insecurities head-on. Some common signs of insecurity: Asking a question to which you already know the answer; being artificially social with instructors or other students, when the real reason is to temporarily kill the pain.
  • Form a positive self-image: Those students who are first entering college will probably have doubts about how well they will do. Try to do well immediately to instill an expectation of continuing to do well. Settle for nothing less. Nevertheless, try not be restricted by your past performance and experiences, good or bad. Learn from the past, but don't be bound by it. Seek out your weaknesses and attack them. Be realistic about your limitations; but, don't let this lead to becoming satisfied with them.

Taking a Course

Each student's attitude is some mixture of the following:

  • He/She wants to learn the material.
  • He/She wants to get a good grade.
  • He/She doesn't care.

Each instructor's attitude is some mixture of the following:

  • He/She wants students to learn the material.
  • He/She wants grading to be fair and reflect students' knowledge and abilities.
  • He/She doesn't care.

In order to do well in a course, it is up to you (the student) to do two things:

  1. Learn the material.
  2. Learn the instructor.

As for the latter, pay attention in class to the instructor's patterns, to what he/she emphasizes, etc. Gather information about the instructor from other students. A good instructor, however, will present their course in such a way that it will be of little benefit for the student to try to learn him/her, thereby forcing their students to learn the material.


  • Keep in mind that your work is being graded by a human being. Thus:
    • Write legibly, orderly, and coherently.
    • Supply any commentary necessary to make it clear what you are attempting to do.

    Making the grader's job easier will more likely lead to you getting the benefit of doubt when it occurs.

  • Don't think that getting the right answer to a homework problem implies that you have mastered the corresponding material. All you have done is solve one particular problem; that does not mean you have necessarily learned how to solve all such problems (such as the ones to appear on your exams). It's up to you to view the homework problems from this wider perspective.
  • If available, always go over the solutions provided by the instructor, even if you did well on the assignment. He/She may demonstrate methods (perhaps more efficient) or provide useful information that you hadn't thought of.


  • Preparation:
    • Roughly prioritize material as to its importance (primary, secondary, tertiary), and concentrate your studying on the most significant topics. Remember, the instructor only has a limited amount of time to test what you know and can do. Thus, keep in mind when preparing for an exam that the problems cannot be too complicated if they are to fit within the allotted time.
    • Study in ways that are suited to you.
      • Study with a group or alone based upon which is really best for you.
      • Do your most strenuous and important work during those times of the day that you work best.
    • Summarize or outline the course or text material in your own words. Writing a summary not only forces you to examine the subject matter in detail, but provides a compendium to review just prior to the exam.
    • Play it safe: Memorize somewhat more than what the instructor says is required. Bring a calculator even if it's not suggested. Etc.
    • Study old exams if the instructor is known to give similar exams. But, don't be fooled into thinking that since you were able to work through an old exam, it means you understand all the course material in general, and can perform in a test situation.
    • Bring your own paper and a watch.
    • Fighting exam anxiety: Convince yourself that all you can do is all you can do; but, don't let that lead you to become complacent. Just be determined to be "on" for the duration of the exam. (Give yourself a pep-talk to this effect prior to each exam.)
  • Starting the exam:
    • Read the instructions thoroughly and carefully.
    • Skim over the entire exam prior to beginning work.
    • Don't necessarily do the problems in order. Instead, get those problems out of the way you feel confident you can do quickly and well. Observe how the problems are weighted, and direct your efforts to where you believe you can pick up points most easily. This does not necessarily mean attempting the most heavily weighted problem first; rather, it means first doing the problem for which you can accumulate points at the fastest rate. Indeed, there is a good chance that this is not the most heavily weighted problem, since many instructors dislike giving any one problem significantly greater or fewer points than the average, thereby underweighting the harder problems and overweighting the easier ones.
    • Before writing on any given problem, think. A small investment in time at the beginning can save time overall (for you might thereby choose a more efficient method of solving the problem).
    • Do precisely what is requested. In particular, don't waste time doing things that will not receive credit. For example, unless explicitly required, do not rewrite the exam problems on your paper.
  • Pace yourself through the exam. Example: On a 50-minute exam worth a 100 points, you should be accumulating 2 points per minute; thus, a 26-point problem should be completed in 13 minutes. Do this calculation at the start of the exam if the problem weights are given.
  • If only for psychological reasons, most graders use nonlinear grading by which the early points of a problem are easier to get:

    Therefore, always write something (meaningful) down for every problem, if only a little. At the other end, even with linear grading, there are diminishing returns in terms of points-per-effort in trying to squeeze every last point out of a given problem; if time is low, it may be better to move on.

  • Communicate with the grader. In particular, if you are running out of time, state the steps you would perform if you were to continue the problem.
  • Show your work and make clear your reasoning in order to have a chance to receive partial credit.
  • As with homework, and even more importantly, neatness counts.
  • In courses on subjective material (e.g., humanities), just regurgitate the material from class and the text(s). Supplying you own opinions may sound good in theory, but it has the risk of running counter to the opinions of the instructor or grader. Conversely, restatements of the class/text material are easy for the grader to recognize as something deserving credit. Remember: Unless the exam is multiple-choice, then a human being---who typically wants to grade the many exams in front of him/her as quickly and painlessly as possible---is doing the grading.
  • Always check over your answers if you have time.

Further Suggestions

  • Unify and simplify your knowledge: A textbook presents the subject in a particular form, as does an instructor. By their very natures, however, textbooks and lectures tend to present subjects sequentially. Take the extra step of understanding the material in your terms, which may involve recognizing relationships that could not be conveniently expressed in the order presented in the text(s) and lectures.
  • Remember, almost every logically consistent topic is simple at its foundation. Try to recognize the simple underlying relationships in the subject at hand; these are often left unstated by instructors and textbooks.
  • Try to learn general principles and methods. Learning by examples (putting the new in terms of the familiar) can only take you so far.
  • Learn as many methods of problem-solving as you can. This is especially helpful for exams, when time is of the essence.
  • Ask yourself questions. Why didn't the instructor or text(s) do this or that? Explore your own ideas. Try to understand the course material in detail.
  • It is often said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Do you know the subject matter well enough to explain it clearly and completely to someone else?
  • Learn by observing others. Notice what works for them and consider incorporating those methods into yourself. Ask yourself "Why didn't I think of that?", and try to develop the related ability.
  • Attempt to be methodical, neat, legible, deliberate, precise, knowledgeable, and reliable on the one hand, and creative, spontaneous, imaginative, smart, clever, articulate, and flexible on the other. The first mentality thrives on order, and inherently tries to do well what it already knows how to do; the second mentality thrives on disorder, and inherently tries to expand upon its abilities. Adopt the best of these two mentalities. Remember, every tool is a potential crutch. The first mentality may rely too heavily on already-mastered skills; but, the second mentality may fail to carefully apply those same skills.
  • Think about and question everything, even the statements appearing here (and, yourself!). But, realize that it is equally foolish to be different merely for the sake of being different, as it is to mindlessly conform to the norm.
  • For maximum efficiency, have several projects going at once. Then, if you get tired, frustrated, or bored working on one item, you can easily move onto something else, thereby staying productive as well as giving pending problems a chance to work themselves out subconsciously.
  • Anticipate. For example, you may need to ask the instructor about the present assignment, but he/she is only guaranteed to be available at certain times; therefore, you should look over the assignment early.
  • Forget pulling "all-nighters". These merely amount to borrowing from tomorrow, at which time you will find yourself considerably less functional. All-nighters are really an indication of not having properly planned your activities.
  • If possible, bring your textbook(s) to class.
  • Take your lecture notes in pencil, since any modifications can then be made quickly and neatly.


Overall, there is one basic trait that distinguishes successful students from those that are not:

Successful students force themselves to understand.

They do not merely go through the motions of attending class, reading the text(s), and doing the homework, expecting these actions to necessarily suffice. Rather, they are continually asking, "Do I really understand what's going on here?" They ask this question of themselves honestly, applying an internal barometer formed from experience to detect the slightest lack of understanding, be it ignorance or confusion. And, if the answer is "No", then the situation is viewed as unacceptable, and more effort is the response.

How to Be a Student ©1997 Jerome R. Breitenbach. All rights reserved.


Since December 1999 - last modified: February 22, 2012