General Education

Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #2: Learn How to Learn

Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #2: Learn How to Learn
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Jonathan Plucker January 4, 2016

Students may take for granted the amount of support they receive in high school, but things are different in college. Read Noodle Expert Jonathan Plucker’s advice to learn how to approach this new environment and get the most out of your experience.

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Let’s kick this post off with a poem from my collection, “Haiku for New College Students":

Great adventures

In learning; I’m in class with

300 of my closest friends

An Entirely Different Beast

That haiku will hit close to home for some of you. Many college students will have classes that are larger than their high school graduating class (that was the case for me in my first year in college). Even those of you who went to large high schools almost certainly didn’t have huge, 300–500 student lectures. On the flip side, there are others who attended big high schools and may now find themselves in seminars that are smaller than what they experienced before beginning life in college.

Being in such diverse classes is often challenging, but there are several strategies you can use to learn well in whatever settings you find yourself. The broader point is that learning in college is a different beast entirely from learning in high school. Even if you never experience a large class, you will still encounter different ways of teaching and learning, and the vast majority of students need to make adjustments to how they approach coursework.

# High school has built-in support systems.

The big difference in college is that your entire organizational context and support network is (largely) no longer provided to you. Throughout high school, you probably had a fairly robust system of support. You may not have noticed it, but it was there, and it helped you stay on task, picked you up from practice, took you to the doctor when you were sick, provided a shoulder to cry on when you had your heart broken — and much, much more.

For a moment, consider all that your in-school support system did for you, too: You were often told where to sit in the classroom, how to interact with your teacher, and how to complete assignments. You had bells telling you when to move from class to class, and if you didn’t show up … well, they made sure you showed up. If you bought into the system (and if you’re reading this, you almost certainly did), then a modest amount of effort was enough to move you successfully through this highly structured system.

# You have to recreate this support in college.

But here’s the secret of American higher education: Your support system has to be rebuilt, largely from scratch. No one makes you come to class, no one tells you how to study, and many professors won’t hold your hand as you struggle to complete an assignment. You have to build your own support system, your own network of friends, allies, and advocates. If you can make it through and graduate, you will have developed skills that help you in every aspect of life, for the rest of your life. I would argue that this is what makes the American university system the best in the world.

In order to graduate, you will eventually need to be proactive, figuring out the best ways to learn in each and every setting (such as not sitting in the back row with the newspaper when you think you’ll have problems focusing in a big class). In my experience, students who get off to a good start in college are usually the ones who put their systems in place ASAP. These students tend to constantly tinker with their strategies, fine-tuning routines and support networks as their interests, abilities, and experiences change.


  • Be proactive. Get your support systems and academic and social routines in place early. Seek out help when you need it.

  • Figure out how you work best. Where and how do you study most effectively? Where should you sit in each class to focus your attention and become engaged? How much time do you need to complete readings or certain types of projects? There are no right responses to these questions, and your answers will change over time, but you need to be asking yourself these questions.

  • To paraphrase Bob Dylan, freedom is just another word for “I’m out of control." The goal isn’t freedom — it’s learning how to use your freedom. You can have your fun all at once at the start, then struggle to play catch-up, or you can get your act together on the front end and spread your fun out over a much, much, much longer period of time.

Read Jonathan Plucker's introductory article on How to Succeed in College and check out new installments each weekday through January 15, 2016, including Education = Personal Improvement.

If you’re still in high school, you can use the free Noodle college search tool to explore 2- and 4-year institutions and learn which will be a good fit for you. Register for a free account to save school lists and share them with family, friends, and other trusted adults.


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