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  January 29, 2001

Szarlan Offers Tips to Boost Students' Study Skills

John Szarlan has a message he hopes faculty will deliver to students, especially those who are still new to UConn - do sweat the small things.

"What worked for these students in high school is not going to work here," Szarlan said during a recent seminar sponsored by the Institute for Teaching and Learning. "Getting over that is one of the biggest adjustments these kids have to make."

Szarlan, a counseling generalist in UConn's Department of Counseling Services, said faculty can help by demonstrating some of the different kinds of things that need to be done to learn effectively in college. "But you don't have to do it all semester. If you show them once or twice, that should be helpful for the majority," he said. After that, "they need to start doing it themselves."

Szarlan, who estimates he has worked with more than 5,000 students since he came to UConn eight years ago, walked the group through a series of different methods that can be used to improve study efficiency, from the Cornell note-taking method to a trick he pulls out of a journalist's notebook - the five Ws.

"When students are studying, they shouldn't just read and reread the material. To really understand it, they should ask themselves some basic questions about the material: who, what, where, when and why. And they should cover their notes as they answer the questions," Szarlan said. The process helps students not only grasp a concept and the major details, which are about as far as they had to go in high school, but also remember some of the minor details involved - the stuff that matters to college professors.

Szarlan said students have to become selective, learning to focus on the major and minor items from the subjects being taught, not just highlight everything they read. They also must learn to take better - and more - notes.

To illustrate the point, Szarlan recounted how he used a videotape of a class taught by animal sciences professor Michael Darre to teach an introductory class. Szarlan and two faculty members took notes and then compared them with the students'.

"Most of the students had about three pages of notes. Some had one. The most anyone had was five," he said. "The professors and I had eight each.

"The students were stunned," he said. Szarlan went on to show them in the video that Darre had given obvious clues regarding things they should focus on. "At one point, he said 'This is important material.' At another point, he referred them to the page number in the text where key information was located. But very few of the students had noted either."

Szarlan said he encourages professors - and students - to look for reasons why students don't succeed.

"If students don't know what's wrong, it's going to be very hard for them to improve," he said. "If they do poorly on an exam, encourage them to analyze what they did. Did they miss a major point? The minor points? If so, where did they get their information? Notes? The text? Did they have the right answers in their notes? Did they know these were important points?

"Be open to having your students share their notes with you so you can see whether they're getting the key information you've delivered," he added. It will help them be more effective in class.

Other tips include:

  • Review: Studies show people retain 80 percent of the information they receive during the first few hours, but the number drops to 20 percent within a day or two. Putting key points on index cards and reviewing the material immediately - while waiting for a shuttle bus, standing in line at the bank, or any other time they have a few spare moments - flattens the curve;

  • Distribute the work over a period of time, rather than studying for longer on just one or two nights. "Relate it to food," Szarlan said. "If you take a week's worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners and eat it all in one six-hour period, how's your stomach going to feel? That's what you do to your brain when you cram;"

  • Don't worry about jargon or specifics right away. First, learn the material and put it in a form you can understand. Once you know the concepts, plug in the multi-syllable words;

  • In most quantitative courses, people learn best by doing. Szarlan suggested faculty encourage students to spend an extra five or 10 minutes after class working on problems;

  • Join study groups. Numerous studies and anecdotal evidence indicate they work;

  • Be strategic. If facing a multiple choice test, focus on facts, major points. If it's an essay test, an understanding of how all the pieces - the small items - fit into the whole will be more important;

  • Be open to change. If one form of study isn't producing the desired results, try another. Above all, don't try to get by using the same methods that worked in high school.

"The idea is for the students to get involved in their learning. To see what they did, and what they can do differently. Change must be embraced," he said - even if it means actually sweating the small stuff.

Richard Veilleux