Amelia Arria: Staying active and engaged in classroom vital to success in college

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As students arrive back on campus, students are busy organizing their schedules, managing any changes to their housing situations, and having meetings with advisers. Winter break is, for most, a great time to relax with family and friends. Some students might have traveled; others might have worked to make some extra money. But one thing is for sure – starting a new year is the best time to make a fresh start – a time to reflect on how you did things last semester, and think about how you could do it differently this semester. Think about it as a “re-boot” to work better and more efficiently.

Our research during the last decade has taught us a lot about college students. Based on our findings in the College Life Study, here are a few tips to consider. We find that the percentage of classes skipped is highly predictive of grade point average in college. Perhaps even more important than the number of hours you study outside of class. I hear a lot of students say that they go to class to make sure they know what they need to study later when they are by themselves or in their study group. What they fail to recognize is that the most important learning is going on right there in the classroom. In order for the material in class to seep into your brain, you’ll not only need to just show up, but you’ll have to be engaged in class. And that requires that you get enough sleep, and that you keep up with the assigned readings little by little.

There’s a message here for faculty too – as a new member of the teaching faculty, I’m very interested in learning how I can make classes more engaging and more interactive to make sure that learning during class is maximized. Reaching out to students who chronically miss class might be a good strategy too, rather than waiting until the end of the semester to discuss the possibility of a failing grade.

And while a lot of things affect your academic performance, there is no doubt that being hung over from a night of heavy drinking or using other drugs can undermine your ability to learn and remember things. In their fourth year of college, when students are asked about significant barriers to their success, excessive partying ranks high on their list. And although some students might try to compensate by taking someone else’s prescription stimulants to help them study for an exam or complete an assignment, our research shows that this is a not an effective shortcut. In fact, those students tend to earn significantly lower grades compared to students who choose not to take drugs unless they are prescribed for them. And if you think you are the only one choosing not to partake, we’re happy to set you straight: most students are not using other people’s prescription drugs.

So here’s to a new year – and a new and improved outlook on managing all the responsibilities and challenges of life as a college student, and reaping the rewards!

Amelia Arria, Ph.D. is Director of the Center of Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and an associate professor with the Department of Behavioral and Community Health. She is principal investigator of the College Life Study, a study of college students’ health-risk behaviors.