Advice for Students (and Parents) at Back-to-School Time

THIS WILL BE ON THE TEST!

It’s back-to-school time for many millions of Americans—to be specific, around 80 million. It’s hard to believe, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about one in four Americans currently attend school. That includes, according the Census Bureau, “children going to nursery school and elementary school, young adults attending high school and college, and adults taking classes to obtain a degree or diploma.”

Given the importance of education in shaping our worldview, and the amount of time, money, and energy we put into the process, it’s important to take steps to ensure that this investment is well spent. Here are some tips I have accumulated over the years to help you be good stewards of your educational investment.

Take Notes. According to a study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University and UCLA respectively, students who write out their notes by hand actually learn more than those who type their notes on laptops. Over the course of several experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer tested students’ memories for factual detail, conceptual comprehension, and synthesizing capabilities after half of them took notes by hand and the other half by computer. Students who used laptops cranked out more words than hand-writers did, but the hand-writers ended up with a stronger conceptual understanding across the board.

I would go even one step further: Copy all your notes over when you get back to your dorm room. When I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, I went to a senior on my hall who had a 4.0 average and he told me that copying his notes every day helped him organize both his notes and his thoughts, and forced him to confront immediately concepts he did not understand. He could then ask his teacher the next day, allowing him to learn the concept and to show the teacher he cared.

Talk with your Teacher. Take advantage of every opportunity to interact with your teacher. That means visiting during office hours or “extra help” sessions. Several things will happen if you seize these opportunities. First, you will learn more. The extra time you spend engaging the topic will inevitably cause you to understand the topic better. Secondly, your questions are helpful to the teacher. Questions help a good teacher understand what his or her students are not understanding and will motivate the teacher to pause, to repeat, and to emphasize these topics. Finally, never forget that teachers are people, too. The relationship you build with that teacher will be fruitful and rewarding in and of itself. But also remember that most grading systems include a level of subjectivity, and the time and effort you spend on a teacher may make a difference if you are on the fence between an A or a B, or a D and an F, and your teacher has to decide how much credit to give you for effort.

HALT. Years ago, I heard that we are more likely to make bad decisions when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. These four words form the acronym HALT. So if you are feeling any of these things, then HALT. Stop. Take steps to fix these problems before you proceed.

It’s easy to fix being hungry and tired. Get something to eat, or get a good night’s sleep. This advice applies especially to the practice of “cramming” before an exam. If I am keeping up every day with my studies, my experience is that it is rare for an extra hour of study to help my performance more than an extra hour of sleep.

Attend to Spiritual Matters. Of course, it is harder to fix being angry or lonely. Anger and loneliness are usually symptoms of deeper underlying causes. They usually are, at root, relationship issues. We are angry or lonely when our relationships with God and others are broken or bruised. But that does not mean we are powerless to deal with them. If you are going off to college for the first time, find a church, a campus ministry, and a group of Christian friends. And do it quickly: The first few weeks will set the pattern for your school year, so make your spiritual life a priority.

These few bits of advice are, of course, not enough to guarantee a successful year ahead. There’s much more to know, and knowing is not enough. In fact, the Bible teaches that knowledge without spiritual wisdom “puffs up” (I Cor. 8:1). So I recommend a few resources for those who want to go deeper. No less an authority than theologian J.P. Moreland called Jonathan Morrow’s “Welcome to College” “The single best volume I have ever read for preparing students for how to follow Jesus and flourish as his disciple in college.” The Colson Center’s John Stonestreet wrote an excellent introduction to the latest edition. J. Budziszewski’s “How to Stay Christian in College” has been out for many years, but is regularly revised and remains a classic.

I’ve heard it said that education is like mountain climbing. Both are hard and involve danger, but the view from the top is more than worth the effort. My prayer for all those engaged in education this year—as students, teachers, parents, or grandparents—is that they find not just their view, but their worldview, enhanced in Christ-honoring ways.

Image courtesy of gilaxia at iStock by Getty Images.

Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.


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  • Just One Voice

    Great advice for the spiritual vault!

    Navigating educational waters has become such a mess nowadays. I’m not discarding education, but there are days I can’t help but feel that society has reached a threshold. A threshold where we need to heed Solomon’s advice in Ecclesiastes 12:11-12.