How to Make an “A” in Every College Class: Six Steps

It’s the beginning of a new semester, and I have a brand new group of students in my survey classes. Most of these students won’t do well on the first test, but it’s not because they lack the capacity to succeed. Rather, most students lack a plan for success.

I understand their situation because many years ago I was an undergraduate with no plan for success, and I had the mediocre grades to prove it. Everything changed, however, when I took a geology class. I didn’t take geology by choice; as a history major, I was horrified that I was required to take nine hours of science. Even so, that class might have been the most important for my entire academic career.

After the first test, which I didn’t do too poorly on, the professor called me into his office. He told me that if I wanted an “A” in his class, then I needed to follow his plan and that moreover his plan could get me an “A” in every class I ever took. Following his plan, I finished out my undergraduate degree, four years of seminary, and five years of graduate school without making lower than an “A.”

How to make an “A” in every class:

1. Go to class. This step sounds like a no-brainer, but too many students have trouble getting to class. Surprisingly many of these students don’t understand that attendance affects their grade dramatically. If you’re not there, then you’re not going to know what’s going on. Getting the notes from a friend is no substitute for being in class.

2. Sit up front. Don’t hide out in the back of the class. Sit up front where you won’t be distracted. Sitting up front can be uncomfortable for some students, but a heightened discomfort level will keep you engaged. There’s no escape from the professor, and, therefore, no escape from the content. Also, it’s really difficult to fall asleep in the front row.

3. Take good notes. This step probably needs an entire blog post of its own because many students have no idea how to take good notes. Do your best to get the main ideas down on paper. Don’t write everything the instructor says. Don’t just write the outline. Keep doing it, and you’ll get better.

4. Recopy your notes. This step is the hardest one for many students, but it’s essential. Ideally you will recopy your notes the same day you took them. If you wait to recopy after you’ve slept, then your short-term memory won’t be able to help you as much. As you recopy your in-class notes, clean them up, organizing the ideas and getting rid of the scribblings. Add anything significant that you might remember. Going back over the material in this way reinforces the content. It’s called studying. There’s one more thing you should be doing as you recopy. Look for holes. Even the best students are going miss something now and then. As you look at your notes, keep asking yourself, “Do I understand this material?” If something doesn’t make sense, then you have a hole. Leave a blank space in your new notes, because you’ll need to get that hole filled.

5. Go see your professor. When you have a hole in your notes, your professor is your best resource for filling the hole. Don’t feel like you’re bothering your professors. Chances are that they got into teaching because they like talking about their subject matter. If you have lots of questions, make an appointment to see your professor once a week. Trust me. It won’t be too painful. Once the professor answers your questions, fill in the hole in your notes. Voila. You now have a good, complete set of notes to study from.

6. Study on a daily basis. No one ever made it to the NFL by only throwing the football on Sunday. Every skill takes daily dedication, and your studies are no different. The good news is that all that recopying you did in step four counts as study time. Recopy and look over your previous notes on the days that you have class. Do your reading assignments and other projects on the days you don’t have class. Daily dedication ensures that there’s no reason to cram during the weekend before the exam.

So, that’s it—six easy steps to making an “A” in every class. However, I’d like to point out an aspect of these steps that is easy to overlook. Built into these six steps is relationship. We humans are relational creatures, and when students and professors know each other, students will learn more. Sitting up front will ensure that your professors know your name and face, even in the biggest lecture hall. By visiting your professors often, they’ll be reminded that you’re a human too. Professors have a notoriously hard time failing students that they know.

These steps require effort, but college requires effort. Most students don’t have to make an “A” in every class, but for those classes you do want an “A” in, these steps can get you there. Now, make sure that you’re in class tomorrow.

Do you have your own study plan that works? In the comments, let me know what study techniques have succeeded for you.

17 responses to “How to Make an “A” in Every College Class: Six Steps”

  1. All these steps are exceptional advice and I agree. Hope students will take it. #4 is so critical – but students don’t want to do it. When I sit in a class, I want to listen carefully and understand the Prof – so my notes are typically sloppy as I don’t want to waste time/focus on neat notes! Re-copying the notes later is so beneficial. Through re-copying, I am reviewing the material – reading, thinking, and writing. And in class I carefully listened. The more ways material gets into my brain, the better!

    But I am a middle-aged student. In most of my classes, everyone takes notes typing on their laptop. I’m the only one (or almost the only one) writing on paper. Does #4 still apply then? Do typed notes need to be re-typed? Is there any point? Maybe some schools prohibit laptops in the classroom, but mine does not. For myself, something very important is lost in typing notes rather than handwriting them. The material is not getting into your brain in the same way. Also – when I look back on handwritten class notes it brings back memory – often I can remember a moment in class, a moment of understanding,etc. But the handful of things I’ve typed and placed in a class notebook, when I look back the typed info does not have this meaningful affect at all. So I stick with my old-fashioned ways!

    • Thanks for your comment, Laura! I wholeheartedly agree with all of your thoughts. I actually prohibit the use of laptops in my class for the very reasons that you mention. Perhaps one day I’ll write another post attempting to justify the ban.

  2. I too used to have problems remembering and studying material which I typed and for the longest time relied on handwritten notes. What I’ve found in the past 2 years or so is that once I got past the initial awkwardness and unnaturalness of typing notes, it turned into a highly beneficial tool. While there are definite pros to using a pen and paper, typing notes offers substantial benefits: 1) I have less “holes” in my notes because I can record more information, more quickly. 2) My notes are accessible from anywhere since I use a cloud. 3) I can print out my notes, cut them, glue them to a large page, etc., 4) My notes are always neatly archived and accessible even years later, 5) My notes are searchable texts. You get the picture.

    Technology should be used wisely but I think resisting its advancement is likened to a monk resisting the invention of the printing press (don’t know if that ever actually happened?).

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Cody. I’m still not totally convinced about laptops, but you’re right about digital having some advantages. I am intrigued by digital notetaking that uses a stylus on a tablet and stores material in Evernote or a similar program. I might investigate soon.

  3. The prohibition of using technology in this class is little controversial. As for me, on the first day of class i liked this prohibition, but honestly on the next day I wished I had been allowed to use my phone to record what my instructor said. I start my class at 8 a.m and go straight till 12.15 p.m. I think at that time my concentration level could be lower than that for my first class. One of my study routine is to record all the lectures and listen to them while driving because It helps me remember the material quickly and save my time. Therefore, I would like to ask Dr. Gabarino for a permission to use the phone to record his lecture (The phone may be required to be placed on his desk). Can we do that?

  4. Very good advice on how to do the best you can in class. Thanks for this! I am a very visual learner and I know that when it comes time to study for an exam, I use index cards. Actually writing down and preparing the index cards is basically another session of studying and helps me retain the information better. It helps me a great deal when needing to study.

  5. Good advice. I never really thought of step number 4 but it makes so much sense. I alos like the “no technology rule” because 9 times out 10 students will wind up on a social network or surfing the net.

  6. I know that in high school nowadays they teach kids how to use technology to their advantage in saving time. But I do believe that there has been something lost on this younger generation, when it comes to doing the kind of research that I learned how to do. When you have to go to a library and use the Dewey decimal system and actually pull your reference materials, and then read those materials, take copious amounts of notes, because you don’t have a camera, Xerox copier, or scanner available you must make sure you have the sources documented correctly and have everything you need to complete your paper or you will have to make multiple trips to the library. Now it is possible to basically write any paper or get any resource material while sitting on your couch. Don’t get me wrong, I love my MacBook Pro and my iPhone 5 but I still to this day prefer to use a good spiral notebook and a number 2 pencil to take my notes. I completely agree with the policy of not allowing cell phones in class, but in my opinion a computer in the hands of someone with integrity, who promises not to be on Facebook or watching mindless acts of stupidity on YouTube should be allowed. But as always, it should always be the professors prerogative to keep them out of the class.

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