Strategies for Academic Success at Northwestern
As a Northwestern student, you will encounter some academic challenges, as everyone does. You can aim high with some proven learning strategies, and by preparing yourself to respond when the challenge gets more intense. Here we’ve put together some suggestions to help you navigate your academic path.
How can I get advice on academics at Northwestern?
Learn from your peers.
How do I put myself in the right frame of mind for studying?
Be patient with yourself and others.
Take advantage of support resources.
Support is here for you; all you need to do is reach out. If you're feeling challenged by your academic work, contact Academic Support & Learning Advancement, where you can speak with somebody about your challenges, or take part in peer-to-peer tutoring, study groups, 1:1 coaching, and a small-group mentoring program.
For support with a disability-related concern, connect with AccessibleNU.
For resources and support around identity expression, including LGBTQIA identities, visit Multicultural Student Affairs.
For support tailored to first-generation college students, students from lower-income backgrounds, and DACA/undocumented students, connect with Student Enrichment Services.
Navigate social life, family, and other commitments.
One of the challenges of college is juggling various commitments and pressures you may feel to invest your time and energy in particular ways. You might feel pressure to be active in lots or organizations, or to engage in social activities so that you're not missing out. Friends may apply some pressure to spend time socializing when you'd rather spend your time in another way, and it can be hard to say no. Sometimes you need to give yourself permission to do less in order to have time to re-energize and focus on your core goals as a student.
Likewise, family members may not always understand the academic and other demands on you as a Northwestern student. Setting expectations can help. This might be especially challenging if you feel responsible for supporting your family economically or in other ways. If you could use some help managing these kinds of stressors, consider reaching out to resources such as CAPS, Student Enrichment Services, and your academic advisor.
Continue to improve your learning skills.
How do I stay organized?
Read the syllabus.
Believe it or not, many students do not carefully read their course syllabi. As most faculty devote a great deal of time to crafting syllabi that help students succeed, it's worth your time to read your syllabus carefully – beyond simply the required texts and exam dates. Some suggestions:
- Look for specific advice provided by the instructor.
He or she may provide information about how to study for the course, whether readings are to be done before or after the class they pertain to, when to start assignments, approved forms of collaboration, etc.
- Know the evaluation and grading policy.
The syllabus usually lists a breakdown of grade components and an explanation of the instructor’s grading policies (e.g., weighting of grades, curves, extra-credit options, the possibility of dropping the lowest grade).
- Note what is due when, and what you need to do in advance of the deadline, in your own calendar.
Don't rely on the instructor to remind you.
Also, find out what opportunities there are for help in the class, for example office hours, TA sessions, and so forth. If these are not noted in the syllabus, check with the instructor. And take advantage of academic-support programming such as the services of The Writing Place and ASLA’s study groups, tutoring, coaching, and staff consultations.
Plan out your tasks.
Create structure for yourself.
College gives you a lot of flexible time, so create your own structure by mapping out a schedule. Include not just study time but also break time, meal time, social time, and so forth. Try our activity tracker to help gain control of your weeks.
How can I study and work smarter?
Take notes that help you learn.
Avoid common reading mistakes.
Make the best use of your study time.
Leverage feedback to your advantage.
How can I stay engaged with classes?
Make lectures work for you.
Find your comfort zone in discussions.
Be a good classroom citizen.
Help out your fellow students! Some things to keep in mind:
- Give the class session your focus. It’s hard to stay present when other electronics are distracting you. Closing browsers, turning off notifications, and putting your phone face-down will help you keep your attention on the class or meeting.
- Use good etiquette in electronic communications, like avoiding all caps and lots of exclamation marks, using emojis to show good intent, and never putting anybody down.
- Participate with on-point ideas, demonstrate respect for others' contributions, and offer encouragement for classmates.
- Embrace silence. Silence can feel awkward, but it often serves a purpose, like providing time for people to absorb ideas or reflect. Allow those silences to happen, and know that they are productive.
- Show support for your classmates (and your instructor!). They are all trying, too.
Set yourself up for success in groups or team-based projects.
Adhering to best practices in teamwork will help ensure a successful group experience.
Let your instructors know if you're experiencing challenges.
Your faculty are there to help you, but they can't help if they don't know what you're experiencing. If you are finding it hard to understand course concepts, or engage in discussions, or complete assignments, send a polite note to your instructor to let them know, and try to provide as much information as you can to help them find a good solution. A few examples:
Dear Professor X,
Dear Professor Z,
I'm in your M-W College 303 class. I am experiencing a difficult personal situation and will have trouble completing our next assignment on time. I am wondering if I could make a brief appointment to talk with you about possible arrangements we could make. Thank you.
How do I stay focused?
Be mindful of multitasking.
- People overestimate their ability to multitask well.
- When you multitask, it generally takes longer to complete each individual task.
- While you may feel more productive, multitasking often leads to mistakes.
- Chunk your studying — say 30 minutes of working and then a 10-minute break for stretching, taking a walk, chatting with a friend, grabbing a snack. Need more structure with this? Try the “pomodoro technique.”
- Keep a list of the things you need to do. Putting them down on paper can help free your mind to focus on one of them at a time, and might help reduce any stress you may be feeling.
- Keep your potential distractions at bay. If you’re working on your laptop, put your phone out of reach. If you are in a lecture, close other tabs and apps.
- Block yourself. If you find avoiding electronic distractions to be especially challenging, consider using a distraction-blocking app.
Boost your motivation.
Stress, fatigue, and other challenges of everyday life can make it hard to stay motivated. Putting some thought into how motivated you feel, what motivates you, and how you can enhance your motivation will help. Think through some key questions and make a motivation plan for yourself this quarter.
Create a study environment that works for you.
- Reduce distractions. Some people work better in a quiet environment, and others find it easier to focus with some activity in the background. However, if you're being distracted, you won't be operating at full capacity. Find an environment that allows you to be present with your task, and consider whether you have a tendency to multitask, which is more detrimental than most of us realize. Many people find that "white" or other background noise can help them focus for certain kinds of tasks, especially in a distracting environment; if that's true for you, look for free apps that can help.
- Be comfortable, but not too comfortable. Position yourself in a way that feels right, taking into account good ergonomics — but avoid getting so cozy that you are apt to lose focus or even fall asleep! And avoid backaches by following good practices for laptop use and posture.
- Take frequent breaks. Many of us sit more than is optimal for our bodies, so stretching and moving around every so often will help prevent sore muscles and injury. To avoid eye strain, give your eyes a break, too.
Acknowledge external stressors.
How can I connect with faculty members?
Go to office hours.
Office hours are the time that faculty set aside to help students. You can go to office hours with questions about coursework, to talk about research, or simply to talk generally about your interests in the field. Walking into a faculty member's office can be daunting, but know that they are there for you. There are straightforward strategies that can help you prepare and feel confident.
Reach out to your professor.
How can I feel connected academically?
Interact with your academic community.
Join or start a study group.
If that isn't right for you, ask your instructor if they can help facilitate informal study groups by setting up sign-up sheets in Canvas.
Or start your own study group with friends!
Connect with offices that bring students together.
How can I take care of my own wellness?
Be kind to yourself.
Reach out for help.
Part of good self-advocacy is reaching out for support if you're struggling with personal or academic issues. These resources can help:
- Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
- Women's Center
- Health Promotion and Wellness
- Religious & Spiritual Life
- Academic Support & Learning Advancement
- The Writing Place
- The Libraries
- Health Professions Advising
Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 70(2), 156–168.
Angwin, A. J., Wilson, W. J., Copland, D. A., Barry, R. J., Myatt, G., & Arnott, W. L. (2018). The impact of auditory white noise on semantic priming. Brain and Language, 180, 1–7.
Beaman, C. P. (2005). Auditory distraction from low‐intensity noise: a review of the consequences for learning and workplace environments. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 19(8), 1041–1064.
Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Gendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers & Education, 54(4), 927–931.
Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2009). A stability bias in human memory: Overestimating remembering and underestimating learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 138(4), 449.
Law, A. S., Logie, R. H., & Pearson, D. G. (2006). The impact of secondary tasks on multitasking in a virtual environment. Acta Psychologica, 122(1), 27–44.
Niles, A. N., Haltom, K. E. B., Mulvenna, C. M., Lieberman, M. D., & Stanton, A. L. (2014). Randomized controlled trial of expressive writing for psychological and physical health: the moderating role of emotional expressivity. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 27(1), 1–17.
Scullin, M. K., Krueger, M. L., Ballard, H. K., Pruett, N., & Bliwise, D. L. (2018). The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 147(1), 139.
Wolters, C. A., & Benzon, M. B. (2013). Assessing and predicting college students’ use of strategies for the self-regulation of motivation. The Journal of Experimental Education, 81(2), 199–221.