If a student wanted to get educated, how should he or she go about it? Most undergraduates follow the path of least resistance, getting processed rather than educated. One can get a degree without learning much of anything. Yet there are plentiful resources in a university for the student who wants them. Universities are reservoirs of art, science, knowledge and freedom. The problem is to connect with those aspects rather than the bureaucracy.
The first principle is to be an active student rather than a passive one. Don’t let yourself be drowned in mere information. With libraries and the Internet, information is now cheaper than dirt.
Shop around for the best classes. Don’t stay in a class that you don’t like: Find another one to replace it. If a class interests you, make a beeline to lecturer’s office hours – all of them. Talk to him or her. If possible, look up your professor’s Web site and read one or more of their publications. They will be surprised and delighted. Offer free research assistance, baby-sitting or dog walking. Stick to your professor like glue; professors are your guides through the labyrinth. It helps enormously to have at least one mentor, so find out who the best and worst teachers are. Some schools have a Web site for that. If you can’t find one, ask around.
Learn to speed read: Basically look and guess. And then look again to check your guess and so on. Your guessing mind is a million times smarter than your regular mind. Don’t be passive, letting the words and pages roll over you. First read the book’s title, blurb – usually written in accessible English – table of contents and index. Read it backwards, upside down or whatever, but unless it’s a real treasure, not page by page. Ten minutes of reading this way yields more than an hour of passive reading. It also positions you into the right, skeptical attitude toward the material.
Question everything. Some lecturers try to get away with talking the entire class time. No matter what size or type class, insist on asking questions. Don’t yield an inch. Students have as much academic freedom as professors. Take an independent study class whenever possible. It’s a way to actually get to know a professor. It may be possible to avoid a particularly odious school requirement by having a professor sign off on an independent study equivalent.
Avoid, if possible, classes with objective exams. Look for classes that require papers that will be read and returned to you with detailed and precise feedback on your strengths and weaknesses.
Writing an original paper is difficult because you have to go back and forth between content and structure. A good way to balance between the two would be to write one-page outlines from day one. At first, these outlines are mere guesses as to the direction you will finally take. As you become more familiar with the content, the outline begins to predict the actual paper, as well as shape it. In this way, the content helps form the structure, and vice versa, the structure helps form the content.
Avoid Campbell Hall: Try to take seminars rather than lecture classes. Reading a textbook at your convenience is a lot quicker and more efficient than 20 to 30 hours of sitting on your butt time in a class.
Suppose that you take three or four classes per quarter. Each quarter, figure out which is the most interesting/important/useful for you and focus on it. That is, do the maximum amount of work you are capable of completing. What about the other two or three courses? Do the minimum amount of work that grants you the grade you need – what most students do with ALL their classes. If you organize your schedule this way, you can even save some tuition money too.
You don’t need a very high IQ, just respectful assertiveness. Be active rather than passive and courteous, but relentless. You have a world to win.