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tips & tricks

No, you are not stupid, you just have to study smarter

Oh, no! I failed an exam or assignment, and now I feel stupid. What should I do? The good news is, you don’t have to be some kind of genius to successfully complete your degree programme and graduate. Just use the following tips!

Relax! The good news is that, if you’re reading this article, you’re already smart enough to study at a university. Even if your marks are currently unsatisfactory. Mirjam Pol, author of Get Smarter! and other publications, says it’s all a matter of selection. “Once you have successfully enrolled in a university degree programme, you have made it through the preselection stage. This means you are smart and motivated enough.”

In her position as academic advisor, Pol frequently talks to first-year medical students about this. “Sometimes you can actually see them breathe a sigh of relief and relax their shoulders. You know that they have received some bad grades and have already told themselves that they are not smart enough for university.” That is far from the truth, though: students with bad grades don’t need a brain transplant, but something else instead.

Plan and focus

Rutger Kappe, lecturer on academic success at InHolland University of Applied Sciences and student counsellor at the faculty of Human Movement Sciences at VU Amsterdam, knows exactly what students need to get good grades. In 2011, Kappe completed his PhD dissertation on the most important factors that determine academic success. The most important factor is not intelligence but diligence and hard work. Kappe explains: “It all depends on how organized students are and how well they plan their studies. Students need to have focus and work conscientiously towards achieving their goals.” Being diligent is five times more important to achieving academic success than a high IQ. “If you work harder, you will get better grades than some smarty-pants who sits back and relaxes.

He meets quite a lot of students who fall into this second category: first-years who barely lifted a finger and sailed through secondary school and think that they can use the same strategy at university. Kappe explains: “University is different. You can’t just read the material at the last minute and expect to pass. You need to do more. If we look at students who had to work hard to obtain their secondary school diplomas, we see that they definitely do not underperform in the first academic year. They just keep working hard.”

It’s okay to make mistakes

How students think about themselves and their study results also influences academic success. Academic advisor Pol explains that there are different ways of looking at success and failure. “People with a static mindset think that you are either smart or you are not. They let their grades determine how they feel about themselves. When they receive a good grade their self esteem goes up, and when they receive a poor grade it drops. Thinking this way leads to self esteem issues, which is a real shame.”

The negative effect is that students with this type of mindset tend to become very stressed when they receive bad grades. “All this stress takes up a lot of space in your brain’s working memory. You will have less energy and your ability to retain information declines.” The result is a downward spiral.

“People who have a mindset that is less static know that it’s okay to make mistakes. Their self esteem is not affected by a couple of bad results. When they fail an exam, they use it as a learning opportunity to find out how they could do better next time.” In her book Studeren zonder stress (only available in Dutch), she explains how students can see themselves in a more positive light and improve academic success. 

Asking for help

Planning your studies, setting goals and crossing items off of to-do-lists sounds good... if you’re organized. But what if you’re a scatterbrain? “Your personality is pretty much fixed by the age of 20”, says Kappe. “If you’ve been a disorganized person all your life, you will need more than one course to change your ways. Most likely, you also won’t enjoy trying to be more organized. But the truth is, you will need to solve this problem sooner rather than later.” Luckily the university has a wide range of resources available to help you. “If you feel that you may benefit from these resources, then take advantage of them.”

Tips to help you find smarter ways of studying

> Sorry for stating the obvious, but this is important: Please attend ALL of your lectures. Trust us, students who go to all their lectures get higher grades. It’s an easy way to make sure you stay focused on your studies.

> Set small, attainable goals per course and draw up a study schedule. Going to class on Monday and making a summary on Tuesday is an example of a clear and attainable goal. Crossing something off of your to-do-list feels good.

> Quiz yourself. After twenty minutes of studying, take a break and summarize – off the top of your head – what you have just learned in one minute. If you find that you are unable to repeat what you’ve just read, then you have not yet got a handle on the material. Do the same thing at the end of your study day for all of the material. And once a week for the entire week.

> Take a break. Or two. If you study for hours on end, you will lose the ability to retain information. Take a break every hour to stay fresh and focused. Even during exam weeks, it is important to include some time for rest and relaxation in your study schedule. Watch some Netflix without feeling guilty or go out with your friends. You need downtime to recharge and get back to your studies.

> Parents who are splitting up, seriously ill family members or feelings of depression. These are all good reasons to consider taking it easy for a little while. The better you feel, the better your grades will be. If you need to take a longer break, please speak with your academic advisor to find out what your options are.

> Don’t worry if you feel a temporary lack of motivation. There’s no such thing as being passionate about your studies every single day. Proper planning and staying on top of your studies will allow you to keep going even when you’re experiencing a minor dip. 

> Try to avoid working too much. Students who have a part-time job need to plan better and know how to study efficiently. But if you work more than 12 to 15 hours a week, you run the risk of falling behind in your studies.

> Make schedules, mind maps and summaries. Some students wind up enrolled in a degree programme without useful study skills. University-wide student guidance offers students courses to help them acquire study skills at a reasonable price. Student guidance also offers group supervision to students who are struggling to complete their degree programmes. Students can contact Students-4-Students @VU to find a study partner or study groups. Go to VUnet for more information.

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