Top Ten Avoidable Mistakes Made by History Students

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-48500-0005, Leipzig, Turn- und Sporttreffen, Jugendrotkreuz

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-48500-0005, via Wikimedia Commons

(in no particular order)

1.    Using words vaguely

I frequently get the impression that many students choose words that are merely “close enough” rather than the one word that most precisely captures their meaning. Similarly, many students seem to read course materials as if the meaning of my words is similarly arbitrary, and read the course texts the same way. Although the occasional mistake or typo occurs, I choose my words carefully, especially in writing! Treat your professor and the authors you read on the assumption that each word they use is specific and thoughtfully chosen.

If you are not absolutely certain you fully understand the meaning of a word, look it up. While a basic dictionary is usually sufficient (though you must remember that some words have multiple meanings, so don’t stop at the first definition you see! Figure out from the context which one of multiple definitions is correct), in some cases words are used in a very specialized way (especially abstract concepts), and you may need to look them up in an encyclopedia or textbook (start with the one you have for this class, if there is one), or perhaps a specialized encyclopedia like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

One reason that so many students read and employ words incorrectly or vaguely is probably that their vocabularies simply aren’t at a college level yet. This is part of what college is for, and if you skate through avoiding learning these things, you’re wasting your time and money. The only way to catch up is to read — read widely and frequently, and think about what you read, looking up all the words you don’t know!

2.    Not seeing the forest for the trees

College coursework is stressful: at no other time in your life are you likely to be confronted by so much new information from so many different subject areas so quickly. This can be very disorienting, and make it difficult to sort out what is most important, and what is supporting detail.

The only way to really get better at this is practice. But you can become better at this more efficiently by regularly asking yourself how to find out what matters most in a given instance: pay attention to obvious markers like syllabi and assignment sheets. When listening to lectures, think about how the material is organized, what is repeated, what gets emphasized most, what is said first and last. When reading texts, pay special attention to introductions, highlighted terms, summaries, conclusions, etc.

In other words, don’t just swim through college minute by minute and hour by hour, never looking up until it’s over. Try to maintain an mindful awareness of what you’re doing and why, and think about how you can work more efficiently or effectively. If what you’re doing isn’t working, ask for help.

3.    Bad time management

Many students simply run out of time to do well on assignments. Now is the time to train yourself into more effective habits. It will matter even more in your first post-college job!

Start by strictly limiting the time you spend on web browsing, facebook, twitter, texting, etc. These activities are proven to decrease your attention span! Save them for after you’ve completed your work, and don’t spend more than an hour or so on these activities per day (Really! You’re only in college once!). Use browser plugins to prevent yourself from visiting web sites that distract you, and turn off other devices while you work.

Try the “Pomodoro Technique” to train yourself into expanding your attention span: get a kitchen timer and set it for 25 minutes of work time. When it rings, do something relaxing (preferably that involves getting up and moving around) for 5 minutes. Then work for another 25 minutes. If this doesn’t work, start with 10- or 15- minute work periods. Try to build up to 40- or 50-minute work periods (keep all the rest periods at 5 minutes, though!).

Plan relaxing activities to reward yourself with after you’re done working for the day. Make sure you get enough sleep, try to eat decent food, and take your vitamins! Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption. Sleep and proper nutrition can drastically improve brain function.

4.    Not showing up, not following directions, not turning in assignments

There seems to be an epidemic on college campuses over the past decade or so of students simply not bothering.

If the fact of the tremendous waste of your time and money isn’t enough to deter you from doing this, you need to take a very hard look at why you’re in college, and what else in your life is distracting you from coursework. See my previous post, “Reality Check.”

5.    Following instructions too literally

It is not clear whether this is a result of recent changes in secondary education, but professors are increasingly seeing students who put time and effort into coursework but still perform very poorly because they follow instructions mindlessly. If you think that you are being asked to do busy work, or that the goal of your work is to get by with a minimum, or that the goal is to finish as quickly or briefly as possible, or just to please the prof and get a grade, then YOU. ARE. DOING. IT. WRONG.

You are wasting your time and that of your professors and fellow students. You are not learning. You are wasting thousands of YOUR dollars in tuition money.

In college the focus of all our work is fundamentally to train you to think critically. If you’re not doing this, then you’re failing. If you don’t understand how to re-focus your energies in the proper direction, ask for help.

This said, not following instructions is of course also a problem! Sometimes students who are overwhelmed find that course materials — handouts, syllabi, and other instructions provided by the professor — are just more things on the to-do list. Remember that these kinds of resources are intended to clarify what you need to be doing and how, so you shouldn’t ignore them; they should make you work more efficiently. But instructions and guidelines won’t help if you just mindlessly follow one step after another. They are generic resources created for all the students of course X, with all their many problems. You are an individual, with individual problems. You need to thoughtfully adapt these kinds of resources to your own purposes, and your individual completion of the assignment.

6.    Failing to revise

The first thing every student can do to vastly improve any paper is to revise it thoroughly, yet few students do any revision at all of their written work.

Clearly, part of the problem is time management: you need to start working on assignments earlier, and put more focused, thoughtful attention into the process (i.e., don’t rush).

But another part of the problem is that many students are not aware of what is meant by revision — many confuse it with proofreading. Proofreading means scanning for typos and other mistakes. It is a quick process. Revision means really re-visioning your essay: re-evaluating the content, thinking, organization, and style. It is a long and intense process, during which most of the work and learning happens. You should leave at least two days before the due date for revision for a SHORT paper of about 3-4 pages. This gives you enough time to think, to get a little distance from the paper before re-reading it, to look again at your assignment and source materials, re-evaluate, and then re-write the paper accordingly.

7.    Not aiming high enough

Many students who generally do fairly well in their coursework still waste their time in college: if you can get As and Bs without much effort, that’s nice. It means you came to college better prepared than most of your peers.

But if you come out of college with skills not much more advanced than you came in with (no matter how advanced compared to your peers you were or remain), then you have wasted your time.

If you do not feel challenged in your coursework, ask your professors about how to get more out of your experience at college. Consider signing up for an independent study — ask departmental advisors how they work.

8.    Forgetting about context; each course is an island

A critical mistake many students make is to treat each course as if it were entirely unconnected to the rest of your courses, college, and life in general. Consider how methods and ideas learned in one course can help you in another. Also, within each course, context is still very important. No idea or skill or task exists in a vacuum. Remember to always ask yourself, what is this (idea/skill/task) a part of? What else can it help me do/ understand?

9.    Not taking responsibility for your own learning

A fundamental error that is all too common in college students is the misapprehension that your performance depends on the professor, the course, the subject, the college, the weather, issues in your personal life, or any other of a million possible distractions.

The fact is that no one can insert knowledge and skill into your brain for you. In order to learn, to be able to do things you couldn’t do before, to make yourself valuable in the workplace and to society, you must challenge yourself, and put time, focus, and deep thought into your work.

Learning can be fun and it is always full of rewards, but it is rarely simple or quick. Nothing in the world will help you learn if you do not actively make an effort, and nothing in the world can stop you from learning if you really apply yourself.

That said, everyone has subjects that they finder easier or harder than others, and everyone finds some subjects or tasks more interesting than others. College is a rare opportunity to do two things at once: to safely explore subjects you might not otherwise encounter, and to pursue the subjects you love most in great depth. You should try to do both. Be honest with yourself about your personal inclinations, but don’t prevent yourself from discovering new talents or acquiring new skills, either.

The bottom line is that the best way to succeed is from intrinsic motivation (having a personal interest, inherently caring about something) than from extrinsic motivation (getting rewarded or punished for your performance by the outside world, as grades do, or future salaries and other perks).

10.    Not taking full advantage of campus resources

Many students, from those who are making every mistake on this list to those who make none of these other mistakes, still fail to take advantage of the many resources their college has to offer.

It’s always a great idea to visit your professors during their office hours. This is not something reserved for those who are having problems! You should feel free to ask any sort of question or just chat (though the more you can ask specific questions, the more you’ll get out of the interaction).

In addition, nearly every college has academic advisors (general and departmental), peer counselors (who are full of very useful hints and tips), writing tutors, a disability services department, and counseling for personal issues such as academic stress or time management problems, unrelated emotional issues, or family/personal crises.

If you’re not sure where to go, ask one of your professors, an advisor, or any other sympathetic university employee.

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