Study Tips
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Geography
Revised: April 12, 2005
New: How
to Fail
"I've found that if I study with other people, I get more done. If I try to study by myself ..."
~~ student overheard in the hallway outside my office

"To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students – I say, you, too, can be President of the United States."
~~ President George W. Bush at 2001 Yale commencement
If you lack W's connections, doing better than a "C" is a good backup plan.

The purpose of this page is to pass along to my students (and anybody else who cares to read it) some ideas for success in my courses. Most of the ideas are useful for other courses, too.

By the way, I have written these suggestions as an expert on two things: succeeding in college and failing miserably in college. I know how to do both from long experience. Some of the lessons below can only be learned the hard way, but I pass them along for those who are ready to benefit from some of my past difficulties.

Do Not Study

Actually, I suggest that you not study. What is a good alternative to studying?

Learn the Syllabus

Most professors spend a lot of time developing their syllabi, so students do well to spend some time reading them. They act as contracts (often in the legal sense) between professor and student, and often provide a detailed outline of how students can succeed in classes. A good syllabus makes expectations clear; follow it, and you will meet the professor's expectations. It is often just that simple. Most students who contact me at the end of the semester about a problem get an answer from me that makes several references directly to the syllabus.

A good syllabus explains the grading system for the course. Following the syllabus, a student should be able to calculate -- or at least estimate with some level of confidence -- his or her grade in the class. In all of my courses, this is easy: at any point in time, students can add up the points they have earned and the points possible so far, to ascertain exactly where they stand. Since I have implemented this system, very few students have had questions about their grades. (If you are a professor reading this, I would be happy to discuss in more detail why I use this system and how it works.) Students should be aware that because the Blackboard system I use provides students with detailed information, I see no reason to use mid-semester warnings . Lack of a warning should not be taken as good news.

In my courses as in any other, if you cannot understand the grading system based on the syllabus, take the initiative to get help. It is your responsibility.

This discussion of syllabi reminds me of an important point that I have probably made elsewhere , but it bears repeating. Each syllabus is different because each professor is different. Each professor is different because we have the academic freedom to run our courses as we see fit (within reasonable guidelines provided by our institutions). This academic freedom is often misunderstood and it can lead to idiosyncrasies, but it makes the college learning experience what it is. Politicians who would like to standardize college teaching do not understand that students really benefit from the intellectual exertion of adapting to a variety of professorial styles, as well as a variety of disciplines. Critics should keep in mind that U.S. colleges and universities are the envy of the world -- no other country educates such a large percentage of its population while also attracting students from other countries -- and that these quirky syllabi are part of this success!

Work Together

The first quote above is something I actually heard a student say to another student. I have found that quite a few of my students struggle through their classes alone, when they could use their time and energy more effectively by studying together. Consider some of these benefits:
Learning is a tough job - but you can do it! Get Help!
Use the Academic Achievement Center
Ground Floor Maxwell Library - (508) 531-1214

The Academic Achievement Center is located in new facilities on the ground floor of the Maxwell Library, near the elevators. The Center combines a variety of high-quality academic services that were formerly available in separate offices. Of particular interest are the academic assistance area and the Writing Center.

The academic assistance area is an especially comfortable and attractive place within the Academic Achievement Center. Student tutors provide general help with time management, note taking, reading comprehension, and preparing for exams. They also provide assistance in specific subject areas, including math and statistics among many others. Contact this center early in the semester if you are having difficulty with a class, or if you just want to do your best

The AAC includes a writing studio whose services include critical yet supportive feedback to student writers working on projects in a variety of academic disciplines and at any stage of their writing processes -- from just getting started to final editing and polishing. Remember: even famous authors have editors! 

NOTE: During the semester, I may refer you individually to one of these centers. It is important that you not consider this an insult. Getting help with these skills is an important part of the college experience. These are not "remedial" services. Students at all levels benefit.

Use Your Campus E-mail!

This might seem unrelated, but using the college's e-mail system is important. If you think of college as a job, then think of webmail as the office e-mail system. Nobody would be foolish enough to opt out of an employer's e-mail system, but many people think of the college e-mail system as optional. Consider this: every professor, staff member, and student at BSC can find your e-mail address based on your name. Your address is also automatically included in groups (such as all sophomores), so that adminstrators can send out targeted messages. Anybody who sends you a message will assume you have read it. This could include a professor who contacts everyone registered for an upcoming class, the financial aid office, or somebody you met in class.

Using the campus e-mail system also adds a bit of professionalism to  your communications with faculty members, potential employers, for example. Neither group is quite sure what to do with a message from "" or "" with a subject line such as "Hi!" It seems odd, but I have received just such messages from actual students, though I have probably deleted some without realizing who they were from.

The final reason to use webmail: it is free and easy. You can check your e-mail from any web-connected computer in the world. See the BSC Outlook web page for instructions and details. If you are a BSC student who has not yet claimed your e-mail address, go to the Account Registration page. 

During the fall 2003 semester, many students bailed out on their BSC accounts because they were inundated with spam. The college has invested serious time and money in addressing this problem, including a brand-new student e-mail server installed during the holiday break. If you quit using BSC e-mail, I urge you to come back to it. No system is spam-proof, but I think you will see a difference soon. (Incidentally, here is my prediction about spam: as soon as a few major spammers end up in jail for fraud, people will quit risking it, and spam will be a thing of the past.)

Test-taking Strategies

The Counseling and Career Center at Brigham Young University provides some excellent guidance for doing one's best on all of the common types of exams on its Test Taking Strategies page (we'll forgive them for failing to hyphenate the title). For students in my 100-level classes, the advice on fill-in-the-blank exams will be especially valuable. For all students, the page includes my best test-taking advice: know the material!

For students in my 100-level classes, I offer this bit of specific help. The questions on my exams at this level are of three kinds:

A. The Wizard of (Id / Oz) is the greatest movie ever.
B. Judy  _______________ is a very important actress.
C. Judy _________________, a very important actress, starred in the Wizard of (Id / Oz).
Question A is answered by circling the correct word of phrase, in this case, "Oz." Question B is answered by writing "Garland" in the blank. Question C is simply a hybrid of the first two, and both answers must be given for full credit.

It is not possible to get partial credit for questions of type A. These questions are therefore "easier" in the sense that a guess has a chance of working, but they are more difficult in the sense that one must be confident of the answer.

It may be possible to get partial credit for writing "Davis" in the blank, because Judy Davis is an actress, though not a "very important" one in this context. Decisions about partial credit are at the sole discretion of the professor, but chances are better if an answer reveals some understanding of the topic at hand.

For both kinds of questions, it is important to answer every question!

Writing Tips

For help with writing, contact the writing center, or visit my writing page . It is my belief that many problems with writing derive from a lack of time spent reading. It is not a panacea, but time spent with well-written books and periodicals can only help. If, as a busy student, you do not have time to read the classics, I recommend that you subscribe to a high-quality magazine such as Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, or Smithsonian. These consistently contain article-length pieces of excellent quality. In my experience, because of the purposes for which they are written, introductory college textbooks, newspapers, and news weeklies rarely contain high-quality writing.

Exam and Preparation Tips:

  • Take care of your body. If you come to class well-rested, well-nourished, and well-exercised, you will follow the discussion much better, and you will retain more. This means that preparation for class begins the night before, when you decide how much rest you are going to get. The same applies to exam days, but do not limit taking care of your body to those days. It does little good to be sharp and refreshed on exam day if you have been semi-comatose through most of the class sessions. See the Health Services office for a lot of resources that can help you maintain your physical and mental health through a grueling semester! Remember: in the "real world," every day is an eight-o'clock class!
  • Study with a dictionary. Paper is ideal, but many online dictionaries are also available. Sometimes it is tempting to gloss over unfamiliar words in the assigned readings. To make your reading more effective, keep a dictionary at hand whenever you are reading. This will not only improve your comprehension of the material, but it will also improve your vocabulary.
  • Use glossaries. Do not rely solely on a standard dictionary, though. In geography, as in all disciplines, some of the words we use have meanings specific to the discipline. Many geography texts contain glossaries that describe the discipline-specific uses of such terms.
Take care of your body, and it will take care of you!
For more study tips (and to prove I am not crazy!), see the College Success page at Making College Count.

How to Fail My Class
(probably works for other classes, too!)

Based on my own mixed successes as an undergraduate and my observations of a couple thousand students in the classes I teach, I have the following suggestions for failing a class. I will not tell which of these are from my own experience!
Choose any two or more items from this list, and your chances of failure will be more than reasonable!

Finally, what not to do:

A student reported for a final examination that consisted of only true-false questions (this was not one of Dr. H-B's exams!).

The student took a seat in the hall, stared at the question paper for five minutes, removed a coin and started tossing the coin and marking the answer sheet, true for heads and false for tails.

After quickly completing the exam, the student remained seated quietly while the rest of the class worked diligently.

Suddenly, with only a few minutes remaining in the exam period, the student began desperately tossing the coin, anxiously swearing and sweating.

The professor, alarmed, approached the student and asked what was going on. The student replied, "Well, I finished the exam, but I just realized I should go back and check my answers!"

Return to my Not-the-13th-Grade page.
Any questions? Contact me at .
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College