Learning curve: How to succeed in college

Third level is a big step up from the Leaving Cert. We asked experts for their top tips on how to write and study

Read. Memorise. Regurgitate. Leaving Cert students know the drill. But, when it comes to college, rote learning and fact regurgitation isn’t enough. Lecturers expect something different.

So, just what is the “something” that they want and, when it comes to writing essays and sitting exams, what do you need to do? We asked some study experts for their advice on how to do well in college.

What’s the big difference between school and college?

"Critical thinking is essential at third level," says Dr Majella Dempsey, course leader for science and maths education programme at Maynooth University.

“The Leaving Cert has a backwash effect on second-level education which means teachers don’t have enough time to develop these skills with their students. At second level, the teachers themselves do most of the information processing and critical thinking.


“We get highly talented students but they don’t always have the skills needed to research a topic, formulate arguments and develop their stance. So we need to work with these students to get them up to the standard of where they can really think critically.”

University College Cork's new Skills Centre works on a number of key skills to help students make the transition to third level, says Kathy Bradley, the centre's co-ordinator.

These include note-taking, study skills and time management as well as writing skills such as grammar, punctuation, how to understand and tackle a question and how to write an argument.

What are your lecturers looking for?

Most experts agree on three key things.

Firstly, the ability to read and understand information, particularly from sources with different points of view, whether in the sciences or social sciences.

Secondly, the ability to conduct research and understand the difference between a reliable and unreliable source. Non-academic websites aren’t necessarily bad, but should be used with caution.

And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they want to see signs of independent and critical thinking.

How important are ‘notes’?

“For some, writing notes during a lecture helps them to absorb information, but increasingly it is rare for students to go to a lecture where they just listen to someone talk for an hour,” says Dempsey.

“A lot of the lecturing now is almost like a flipped classroom: slides may be on Moodle in advance so students will know more about the topic and then they come in and give feedback.”

What exactly is ‘critical thinking’?

At third level, critical thinking means that you look at an idea from multiple stances or viewpoints. On points of law, for instance, consider how different judges or academics have interpreted them both in Ireland, the EU and internationally.

Consider different scientific theories. When it comes to the use of non-conventional or “alternative and complementary” medicines, there is much disagreement, but this is just one area where you need to be very careful; there is a mountain of bad science (also known as pseudoscience) out there which has little to no evidence to back it up.

If you’re going to argue that acupuncture has benefits, avoid dodgy websites or circular claims on blogs.

By all means, question received wisdom; that’s what academia in general and science is in particular. But if you’re stating something controversial or from the outer fringes of sciences, make sure you can really back it up. Learning how to read different sources and then understand this is key to being a successful student.

You might not get it all in first year, but it’s the job of your lecturers and tutors to help you understand this as you progress through your time in college.

What’s key to writing good assignments?

There’s nothing more frustrating than getting back an essay where the student hasn’t answered the questions, says Bradley.

“Look at the question carefully, paying attention to its limitations and to the specific terms used. Don’t just skim the surface but look to go deep and really engage. Discuss every element of the question and have a viewpoint on it.”

Avoid received wisdom. It might seem, for instance, to make sense to you that Brexit is a massive folly; you might think it’s obvious that women should have equal opportunities; or you could think that human activity is destroying the planet.

But if these form a significant part of your essay, you need to explain why. This is testing your beliefs and ideas; you are in college and are meant to be challenged. And robust ideas will stand up to questioning and emerge stronger. Show that you have done the research, have a level of understanding and can back it up.

“Make sure there is enough evidence in your academic reading to back up the claim,” says Bradley. “If you are just going across the surface and making claims without backing them up, it’s just your opinion. Academic rigour draws on other people’s work to prove or disprove.”

What’s the best way to structure an essay or assignment?

The UCC Skills Centre encourages students to be clear on what they are saying. “Is there good paragraph structure? Is there a thesis statement?” says Bradley.

Thesis statements are clear and concise summaries of the point or argument in your essay and should usually appear in the first paragraph. Every introduction should have one, she says.

“It should ground the reader and show them where they are going. We often advise the students to write the introduction last, when it has become clear to them what they are saying. When you’re writing in the sciences, a literature review [a critical evaluation of the key writings and ideas on a particular topic] is needed.”

Paragraph structure is important, adds Bradley. “Make a point, use a quote and explain: this doesn’t have to be a direct quote but perhaps one that is paraphrased from an academic writing. Make sure every point you make is academically rigorous and, ideally, comes from more than one source.”

How to study well

Lecture notes should be your first port of call. Also refer back to your reading list. “Each article on your reading list is a roadmap in itself and is based on a good bibliography,” says Bradley. “Consider what they are trying to say and how they back it up.”

Look into the Cornell note-taking system which is recommended by many academics and the UCC Skills Centre.

This is about taking your lecture notes and, within 24 hours, reducing them down to create a summary. “When it comes to exam time you have your key words and summaries and it is a good way of pulling it all together.

“Learning is coming to understand yourself as an individual and how you learn,” says Bradley.

“Are you a logical learner, or kinaesthetic or audio? Identifying how you learn helps you to maximise your potential, so look at what works best for you. We do a lot of mind mapping with students which helps them to make their learning a bit more visual. XMind.net is the most popular mind-mapping software which helps you to create your information visually.”

What not to do

Plagiarise: Because almost all colleges expect you to submit your essay online, they're automatically scanned through plagiarism software, and you're likely to be caught. One lecturer tells a story of a student who submitted an essay which was, word for word, lifted from the Kid's Fun section of the Ben and Jerry's ice-cream website. Caught red-handed, the student denied it.

Skip lectures or tutorials: Of course you might miss the odd class, but going to lectures helps you consolidate information. Tutorials not only encourage deeper thinking on the topics but give you a chance to fill in any gaps in understanding.

“When it comes to taking notes, it is a misconception that Moodle does it all,” says Dr Dempsey.

“If it was really so easy to learn online, we would be out of business. Learning is a social activity and it is really important that the students come and hear what the lecturer says, and make their own supplementary notes, regardless of how much is in the Powerpoint.”