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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.

Meet some students and hear what experienced undergrads have to say about doing well academically at Northwestern!

Seek advising.

Northwestern offers a wide array of advising services for you. Take advantage!

How do I put myself in the right frame of mind for studying?

Be patient with yourself and others.

As you adjust to being and/or developing as a college student, be patient with yourself. Take steps to manage the academic stress you may be feeling. Give yourself some extra breathing room, take time to relax, and know that it’s OK not to feel like you’re on top of everything. Extend the same grace to those around you.

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 help with writing projects, connect with The Writing Place, and look to the Libraries for help with research projects.

For support with stress, anxiety, or other mental-health concerns, connect with CAPS, and try some at-home stress-relief techniques.

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.

Nobody is ever "done" figuring out how to learn. Know that you can always increase your capacity for skills and knowledge, and brush up your study strategies so that you feel on top of your academic game

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, which continue virtually.

Plan out your tasks.

Staying organized is always important. Use a planner, electronic or the old-fashioned paper version. People tend to overestimate their ability to remember, so even if you have a terrific memory, you most likely will forget something if you try to keep track of assignments without noting them somewhere.  Putting your to-do tasks down in words can also help you feel less stressed and more on top of your game.

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 smarter?

Take notes that help you learn.

Taking notes is easy, but taking good notes — notes that help you learn — is an art that you can perfect over time. Experiment and see what works for you.

Avoid common reading mistakes.

Lots of Northwestern undergrads find that the reading habits they started with haven't served them well, and gradually learn more effective practices. Take a look at come common fallacies about academic reading and consider where you might tweak your approach.

How can I stay engaged with classes?

Make lectures work for you.

Watching a lecture doesn’t need to be a passive experience. Make it your own by interacting with it and making use of it in the way that works best for you. Take notes to help yourself stay engaged, and note points that are confusing so that you can follow up on them later. If you are watching a recorded video, consider watching it in chunks, pausing every 10-15 minutes to review notes and connect the content to other course materials. If there is an opportunity to ask questions, take advantage of it. It’s highly likely that others have the same questions!

Find your comfort zone in discussions.

Different students have different preferences and comfort levels in discussion, and it’s no different in the remote environment. Try to stretch a little beyond your natural state. If you’re somebody who tends to contribute very actively, continue to engage, but pull back a little to allow others to contribute. And if you normally tend to listen actively and speak less, look for places where you can contribute your thoughts. Taking a few notes before you contribute can help you feel more confident when you do. Support your classmates, and know that while some people feel at ease in online discussions, others may find it anxiety-producing. Offering a quick thumbs-up or “Interesting point!” can make a difference for a fellow student.

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,

I'm in your M-W-F 2pm class. I watched the lecture and have read the chapter, but I am very confused about [concept/method/etc.]. I am not able to make your office hours because of my work scheduled. Would it be possible to make an appointment to talk? Thank you.

Dear Professor Y,

I'm a student in your T-Th 9am seminar class. I am having trouble participating in class discussions because there are many vocal people in the class, and it's hard for me to break in. Is there any other way I could contribute? Thank you.

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.

It's so easy to fall into the multitasking trap — as in listening to a lecture and texting simultaneously, or working on an assignment and checking email or being distracted by phone alerts. Research shows that
  • 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.

Try monotasking.

It’s easy to multitask without being fully aware of it, so try to pay attention to where your attention is going. If this is a challenge, try some mindfulness techniques. To move yourself toward “monotasking,” try these techniques:
  • 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.

The various stressors in the environment impact us all in different ways. Some of us have been particularly affected by the COVID pandemic, some have been especially impacted by racism and social injustices, some by economic pressures, some by mental health concerns. For some college students, the transition to college or the pressures of a rigorous courseload can feel overwhelming. If any of this strikes a chord for you, know that the stress you feel is real and has an impact on your ability to focus on your academic work. Take time to decompress, and engage in activities that replenish you. Allow yourself some academic latitude: Your papers or quizzes or homework might not be up to your usual standards, and that's fine. Use the strategies on this page to help stay on track. And reach out for help if your stressors are feeling difficult to manage.

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.

It can be hard to get to know a professor during class time, especially in larger classes. Your might want to reach out to learn more about their research, to ask for a letter of recommendation, or just to learn more about their experience.

Email wisely.

Your email speaks for you, so be sure you are coming across politely and professionally, especially when you don't yet know a faculty member well. We have some simple suggestions.

How can I feel connected academically?

Interact with your academic community.

Don't be afraid to connect with your instructors, TAs, and advisors. Reach out to your professor directly with a question. Attend office hours. Set up an advising appointment. If you’d like to talk with somebody about your study strategies or academic work, sign up for a virtual consultation with ASLA.

Join or start a study group.

ASLA offers  Peer-Guided Study Groups (registration required) and Drop-In Peer Tutoring (no sign-up required), both great opportunities to connect with classmates!

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.

Many offices and organizations around Northwestern provide support and ways to connect. For example, check out

Also see the Student Affairs Student Update for other opportunities to connect.

How can I take care of my own wellness?

Be kind to yourself.

Take care of yourself. Allow yourself room for error, and if you stumble, give yourself a break and know that you are in good company, and that support is available.

Reach out for help.

It's more important than ever to reach out if you're struggling with personal or academic issues. These resources can help:

Your academic advisor is also a great source of support and information.
References:

Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 70(2), 156168.

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), 927931.

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), 2744.

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.