How To Be A Better College And University Student (According To Professors)

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on November 10, 2020
Expert Content

What makes a great college or university student?

We asked a select group of professors and higher education experts for their best advice when it comes to being a better student and getting the most out of your time spent at college or university.

Here’s what they said.

Become A Master Of Collaboration

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Teaching and Learning Specialist at Claremont Lincoln University

One of the biggest pieces of advice I’d proffer to a student is to master how to collaborate.

Collaboration may not be one of the stated learning outcomes on any syllabus, but when it comes to real life, your ability to collaborate may be the most important traits you can acquire.

When it comes to collaboration, I always say to value listening over being right, let the quietest person speak first and frequently, and make sure the oddest ideas get the same space for consideration as the ones that seem easiest at first.

It’s also important to practice “active listening,” which means focusing on what the other person is saying instead of preparing what you want to say when they finish.

Other important aspects of collaboration include focusing on building commonalities, looking for other ways to connect and taking time to talk about your life outside of school.

It’s OK to make mistakes, but look for ways to grow from them. Paradoxically, focus on individual success and competition to be best can keep you from really learning once you’re in the university setting.

To really learn, you have to take a beginner’s posture, which means valuing asking good questions, suspending judgment, looking for more ways to see a right answer, welcome feelings of uncertainty and release the worry that you have to know everything, or even most things.

How else can you shift from being critical of your own mistakes? For one, remember that learning a new skill takes repetition. Reflect on other skills you’ve learned over time (musical instrument, sport, language) and how you learned from mistakes.

Practice positive self-talk to help coach yourself instead of castigating yourself. Also, ask your mentors about times when they were beginners and read autobiographies of leaders you admire and look for evidence of their mistakes and growth.

Knowing “one right answer” can keep you from engaging new questions and building the skill of curiosity.

Wherever you go in life, being curious will help set you apart because it means you can easily access new and different perspectives.

How To Be A Better College And University Student

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Turn Your Assignments In On Time – And Don’t Forget To Proofread

Stacey Giulianti, Adjunct Professor, Business Department at Southern Maine Community College

Every professor, including adjuncts like myself that work in the business world simultaneously, quickly come to know which students are serious about the course and which students are attempting to slide by with minimal effort.

Students that turn in assignments on time – especially those that hand in homework early – are clearly among the top students.

Asking for countless extensions and making myriad excuses generally reveal the lazier undergraduates.

Proofreading work before turning it in also seems to a be lost art; typographical errors, word misspellings, and punctuation mistakes are easily avoidable if the student cares about the quality of the effort.

Show A Desire To Learn And A Willingness To Be Helped

Alex Beene, Instructor, University of Tennessee at Martin

I think perhaps the two most important traits missing from many students now are a desire to learn new concepts and a willingness to be helped.

Education is built on the ideas of discovery and cooperation. When students enter a class thinking they already have all the answers through prior lessons or on their phones, it halts their ability to explore new ideas and discuss different approaches to material.

Likewise, I feel some students are intimidated by their professors and don’t ask for assistance with challenges they’re having as a result.

I love when students reach out to me in and outside of class with questions because I know they’re truly engaging in the learning process.

Remember to be humble – both with what you’re learning and who’s teaching it. No professor and course material can make you grasp a concept overnight or have all the answers.

Instead of getting angry when you don’t understand something or perform poorly in a class, learn from the mistakes you made and move forward.

Students need to quit thinking that learning is an instant process. College classes are not meant to be like grade school quizzes where you memorize material to write down moments later.

Lectures, readings, and projects should simmer in the brain as your partaking in them and linger long after.

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Grades Aren’t Everything

Jed Macosko, Professor of Physics, Wake Forest University and Academic Director, AcademicInfluence.com

The overall end-goal, if you want to be a better student, is to be proactive. Specifically, here are some traits to strive for, some general advice, some mistakes to avoid and some helpful tips.

The traits I like to see, after being a college professor for over 20 years, is enthusiastic learning. Even the quietest, shiest student in my class can demonstrate this trait by eagerly attacking the homework assignments.

I figure that, since you are going to do the assignments anyway, why not just do them early? I realize that there are a host of other things that vie for your time and attention. But if there is one trait that you can work to develop, it is the enthusiasm with which you tackle the various parts of the class.

A piece of general advice is to use your strengths. If you are the quietest, shiest student in my class, you don’t need to suddenly start raising your hand in front of all your peers and being the first one to contribute to a verbal discussion.

Instead, you can demonstrate your enthusiasm for the subject matter by privately emailing me your questions, by submitting your work early to request any feedback I might be able to give you so that you can resubmit something even better before the deadline, or by helping other students who are struggling.

If, on the other hand, you are a more vocal student, you can show your enthusiasm by helping me avoid the awkward lulls in the conversation, by working hard on your verbal presentations, and by asking questions that also help tie together the things I’ve been trying to teach you.

You can be an A+ student a variety of different ways. The key is to find a way that communicates to me, your professor, that you have enthusiasm for what I’m teaching (even if it’s a really boring class!)

Grades Aren’t Everything: This is the most important thing that nobody tells you.

So much of your education has likely revolved around the opposite message—that scores and grades are the reason to work hard and succeed. But this perspective leads to an ends-justify-the means approach. College education becomes a transactional process, where your primary goal is to get the grade and move on.

This not only misses the point of being enriched and learning cool, new things, but can also be extremely stressful. The feelings of pressure and anxiety that so many students feel comes from the hyper-emphasis on evaluation and competition.

But the truth is, every student is on a unique journey. Don’t think of grades as punishments or rewards. Use grades as a compass to figure our where you’re going; determine where you struggle, where you excel, and ultimately, where you really belong.

Do It for the Love of the Game: Obviously, one of the reasons people go to college is to prepare and qualify for exciting career opportunities.

And in general, having a college degree from an excellent school will help you do this. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be working in the field where you earned your degree.

In fact, a majority of college graduates end up working in a field other than the one they majored in. So when you select your major, or choose your courses, try to make it about more than just your career.

Choose with passion and personal interest. These things tend to stick with you, even as your career path twists and turns.

Recognize That Each Professor Is Different – And Get Involved On Campus

Dr. E Michele Ramsey, Associate Professor, Communication Arts & Sciences and Women’s Studies at Penn State Berks

Build good relationships with faculty and staff by attending class regularly and on time, completing all assignments on time, and communicating in respectful, professional ways in person and via email.

Doing all of these things will communicate something positive about you to others around you and by taking these responsibilities seriously, you’ll be treated seriously.

Remember that the work you turn in communicates not just what you have or haven’t learned, but also reflects on you and how seriously you take college and your work. Remember that what you turn in communicates something about you, including respect for yourself and your college experience.

Recognize that each professor is different. They will have different expectations, different workloads, and different ways of teaching. You’ll appreciate and work better with some faculty styles than others, but you should take all classes and faculty seriously.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where we only have to interact with people who do things the way we prefer, so college is an excellent opportunity for learning how to do our best with a variety of different personalities and expectations.

Take advantage of all of the help a college has to offer. Whether it’s a communication lab, a writing lab, time management presentations, counseling services, tutoring, or any of the other many services offered, take advantage of all of the help you can get.

Get involved on campus. It’s a great way to not only make friends, but to also build your résumé. You can talk about creating the public relations for an event, presiding over a student club, or event planning when you craft your résumé for your first job.

Participate actively in class. This will not only help you learn material, but it also engages you with other students and their ideas. You will come across many people very different than you who hold different ideas about how the world works, what needs to change, and how to go about building better communities.

Embrace learning about how others see things differently from you and learn how to effectively navigate working with people very different from you with minimal conflict. It’s a skill you’ll use for a lifetime.

And on that topic, remember that college assignments prepare you with transferable skills you will use for a lifetime. Research papers, for example, aren’t there simply to have you research and write up something to turn in.

Writing an excellent research paper means that you learn how to effectively research, how to weed out the better information for an audience from the less useful information, how to synthesize a lot of information from a number of sources, and how to effectively and succinctly communicate that information.

So try to remember that there are higher level skills you’re developing when you’re asked to do different kinds of work in college and if you’ll look at the lists of skills employers are saying they want from students, those core skills (often called soft skill, but are way too important to call them soft!) like communication ability, synthesis of data, managing conflict, dealing with diverse groups, critical thinking, and solving problems are the skills that are going to help you succeed in your chosen career.

Do excellent research before choosing a major. Avoid the rhetoric of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) crisis that academic data shows isn’t really an issue and only major in STEM if that’s truly your interest.

Also, ignore the anti-humanities rhetoric that falsely claims you cannot garner good employment after graduation with a humanities degree.

Again, the data clearly shows that assumption to be incorrect and that humanities students do quite well when compared to other majors after graduation, including earning more than some STEM majors and very close to starting salaries of business majors as well.

Students should major in what they are passionate about and not major in STEM or business simply because popular narratives encourage them to do so.

Look at the employment data for yourselves and recognize that you can study what you love and make a good living in most majors offered at your college or university.

The data I mention here is all available in my co-authored book, Major Decisions: College, Career, and the Case for the Humanities.

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Build Strategic Relationships With Your Professors

Holly Helstrom, Adjunct Instructor at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science

There are several ways a student can be better in a college classroom.

First, participate in class – no, really. Give yourself the goal of asking at least one meaningful question or making one valuable contribution per class.

It is so easy to zone out, especially during Zoom classes where most students are muted with cameras off, which is a waste of your time and tuition money!

Do the readings, pay attention, and come prepared to have a discussion. It makes the learning experience so much more effective, and fun.

Next, get a desk calendar to keep track of important project deadlines / final exams. It is all too easy to receive your syllabi at the start of the semester, only to leave them crumpled up in the bottom of your desk drawer, then show up to class one day completely unprepared for an exam!

To save yourself from this last-minute avoidable panic, get yourself a desk calendar – one that you can hang on a wall – and write down all your exam and project deadline dates for the semester on the calendar.

Hang the calendar somewhere you can see it, like above your desk, that way you can budget your time more effectively leading up to big assignments; it is all too easy to neglect important deadlines when they’re conveniently hidden away in a digital calendar in your phone or computer.

Finally, build strategic relationships with your professors. A common mistake is for students to fail to engage with their professors in any meaningful way beyond class time… and sometimes not even in class!

Not only are professors highly educated people, they oftentimes have relevant professional experience and the robust network to go along with it.

Professors can become valuable mentors and networking partners who could be especially helpful in helping you get a plum internship position, your first job, or into the masters program of your choice.

But these competitive advantages can only be created by putting in the time and effort to cultivate these relationships.

A Good Student Brings Their Own Identity And Culture Into Their Classrooms

Lior Shamir, Associate Professor of Computer Science, Kansas State University

A good student, in my eyes, is not necessarily a student who gets all As or takes part in any possible extracurricular activity.

To me, a good student is a student who brings their own identity and their own culture into their classrooms and other academic activities. A student who uses their culture and identity to bring views and perspectives that expand on the typical academic topics, and often shift from them.

Consequently, the common mistake I see among students is adopting the academic content they are taught as the only possible truth, putting their own identity aside, and trying to adjust themselves as much as possible to fit the academic and social environment at their institution.

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Ask Questions Of Your Professors – And Don’t Multi-Task During A Course Lecture

Bennett Quillen, Adjunct Professor at Belmont Abbey College

Students need to stay focused on the subject material, whether in class or attending via a remote system.

I realize there are many distractions: athletics, drama, socializing. But it is vitally important to stay focused, because that will serve the student well in whatever career he or she pursues after college.

Go over repeatedly, in detail, the materials in the textbook and from the lectures. This is particularly true in mathematics, sciences and economics. Make the materials your own. The student will eventually reach that moment when the light bulb goes on.

A few students are blessed with the ability to quickly grasp concepts, but most of us, including me, need to review and test ourselves on the materials several times.

Ask questions, several times if necessary, of the professor if you are at all confused or just need clarification.

Often, it is helpful to the student, if he or she can repeat the question or answer in the student’s own words. In that way, the student anchors the concept or answer in his or her own mind.

I realize that this may sometimes be a tad difficult for the student attending class remotely. But, the professor would prefer the student speak up (I know I do.) when he or she has any question.

Avoid skipping over concepts, examples, formulas, whatever. Pay particular attention to details in the course materials.

Avoid glancing at a smartphone and multi-tasking during a course lecture. This has become a definite issue, because of the pandemic, with students attending classes via Zoom or some other remote software.

The professors or instructors are unaware that students may even be surfing the Web. This sort of action will undoubtedly adversely affect students’ performance.

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Commit Yourself To Integrity – And Participate In Office Hours

Dr. Deb Geller, Associate Dean of Students at UCLA

You asked how to be a better student, but I believe that our students are already pretty awesome. I’d like to tell you about the traits that make our students incredible.

Integrity: by and large, our students commit themselves to integrity. Most students never cheat or engage in other academic dishonesty.

The value of a degree is contingent upon the integrity of students. And they hold themselves – and each other – accountable for their actions.

Good people make mistakes from time to time—those mistakes do not define them. Learning from the mistake is what matters.

A tip for students feeling like they are overwhelmed and cannot complete an assignment properly: do not engage in unauthorized collaboration or use unauthorized resources – talk to your faculty before assignments are due. We are likely to try to accommodate and support you if you explain your circumstances before deadlines.

Resilience: our students adjust to changing circumstances (like remote classes) exceedingly well, developing new study and socialization techniques to stay connected and engaged amidst challenging times.

A tip for students suffering from the stresses in life: seek out your campus counseling center. There is no shame in getting support. The counselors are there to help you.

Holistic Excellence: our students manage to deliver high quality academic work while working part-time or even full-time jobs and balancing their family obligations.

Leadership: our students are tomorrow’s global leaders and it shows. From their presence in class discussion and their peer mentorship of others, to their involvement in student governments, clubs and athletics, our students know that you don’t have to have a title to be a leader. They influence others every day.

Service: our students engage in community service, helping to improve conditions for those less fortunate.

Diversity: our students respect the differences and find the commonalities among the diverse populations that make up the campus community.

They understand that being exposed to those with different cultures, experiences, beliefs and values enhances their education. They are committed to social justice, standing up for others when they see something inappropriate, and helping to educate those who don’t understand the benefits of being in a diverse environment.

One final tip for students: participate in office hours at least once each term for each of your faculty.

Even if you don’t have questions, make an effort to get to know them, and let them get to know you. You may need a reference or letter of recommendation in the future. It is hard to recommend someone we don’t know much about. These relationships may last a lifetime. Take advantage.

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Develop Your Time Management And Flexibility Skills

Angelina Boyce, Adjunct Professor, Hillsborough Community College

I would like to see students with better soft skills, more specifically – time management flexibility skills.

Working with students across multiple grade bands, I have seen the results of students with poor time management and flexibility skills. Students need to be able to set aside time for their classes and their studies (homework, projects, work that needs to be done “outside” the classroom).

This will serve them well later, in their careers, as well. The other characteristic, flexibility, is necessary especially in the current state of education. Lots of educational decisions are being made, in the best interest of students, but there are so many students that are “stuck in their ways” and they are unable to pivot with new technologies, process, and learning approaches necessary at this time.

Knowing how to be resourceful, asking the right questions, and knowing how to switch gears on short notice will serve students well even beyond the classroom.

Communicating well with your instructor is one of the most important pieces of advice I can offer. Utilize the communication outlets your instructor offers, whether it is email, direct messaging, phone, or in-class communication. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or get clarification, when needed.

Also, communicate early and often if you have special circumstances of which the teacher should be aware.

One of the most common mistakes students make is to assume the instructor is too busy to help when students are struggling, regardless if it is a struggle about the content or a struggle outside the classroom.

I am often more than happy to work with students, when they have struggles that collide with their class, if they are willing to reach out and be honest about their struggle.

If I feel as if a student is being dishonest or making unnecessary excuses for late or missing work, I am less inclined to work with them on a solution.

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