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The Vital Five: A Crash Course for Turning Around Poor Academic Performance

About once or twice a month, I will get an e-mail from a college student who is in real need of some advice to turn around poor academic performance. Sometimes a scholarship is on the line. Often, it’s the wrath of watchful, tuition-paying parents that’s driving the desperation. Whatever the case, in responding to these e-mails, I’ve learned to extract from the large corpus of tips surronding my study philsopophy, a core set of advice that can effect a rapid change of academic fortunes.

Here are the vital five, as I sometimes call them: tips for creating a drastic change, quickly, to a poor academic record. These changes aren’t easy. But if you need results, and are willing to follow through, they’ll get the job done:

  1. Attend every class. Take notes on a laptop.
  2. Set aside a fixed two-hour study block for every weekday and Sunday. Use this time to study, in a remote corner of the library, without exception, every week of the term.
  3. Make a study plan for every test in every class at the beginning of the term. Decide what you are going to do and when.
  4. Replace rote review with quiz and recall.
  5. Attend office hours every single week to discuss the most challenging material from lecture, or the hardest problems from the problem set. Inform the professor that you are making a real effort this term to turn around your performance.

3 thoughts on “The Vital Five: A Crash Course for Turning Around Poor Academic Performance”

  1. I’m not sure I agree with the first point made. I fared extremely well attending only ~30% classes, but I’m not from the US or Canada, so I can’t really judge the effects of such “absenteeism” at universities there. Still, a lot of time lectures resemble something you stress students shouldn’t do while studying: rote review. I therefore think it’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff and attend only lectures that are going to contribute to knowledge gained in a particular field.

  2. I’m a freshman at MIT this year, and I did really badly first semester: I failed ALL of my classes, but by barely a point. I know how to do the math I just didn’t do psets. I generally meant to, but started far too late, and had only at most a few hours to finish psets for classes like 18.700 and 18.022 and I had never written thesis-driven essays before, coming to MIT from 11th grade, so I also failed my HASS class (getting a D). I’d like some tips please. I’ve been reading all of the articles on your blog but I’m not quite sure how to frame them together into a coherent system that I can actually follow and make into a habit. The only thing I’ve realized really is that I need to study the way I learn, which for math is intuitively, but that seems to be too easy to put off. I feel like I have too much time to study effectively, and then I end up leaving things off until the very end, at which point I have almost no time to study or finish psets or essays/readings. What should I do?


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