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I have been studying hard for the past year and a half (it's my second year of Computer Science) while not getting remotely close to the desired results. I passed my first year with a 7.2 GPA (5 (failing grade) - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 (best)) which is very low given that I want to master in applied maths or an area revolving around that.

I'm doing 6 hours a day Monday to Thursday, 10 hours a day Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday I try to rest a little. I rest every 30-45 minutes for 5-15 minutes. Now, I'm isolating myself, sacrificing my social life, among other things. I'm feeling angry at myself every time I get the exam results or when a deadline passes and I haven't finished the lab/project.

I even started eating healthier because I thought unhealthy food was the problem.

What can a student in this situation do to earn better grades?

P.S: I do like what I study, no matter how angry I get, I know I will wake up the next day and head to the library/school.

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    One important detail missing from the question: Do you feel comfortable with the prerequisites for your current course of study? Do you think the problem could be that you have not fully understood the background material in previous courses? – ff524 Nov 11 '14 at 18:12
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    I feel comfortable with the subjects needed as background — That's good, but not good enough. Do you actually know that you've mastered the prerequisite material? Not based on your own self-assessment, but based on honest expert feedback from someone else? – JeffE Nov 11 '14 at 21:04
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    6 hours a day Monday to Thursday, 10 hours a day Friday and Saturday, and in Sunday I try to rest a little — This is part of the problem; you're pushing too hard. "Sensei, how long will it take me to master the sword?" "10 years." "But what if I devote my entire life to practice, following your every instruction to the letter, living, eating, drinking, sleeping, breathing with the sword 24 hours a day? Then how long?" "50 years." – JeffE Nov 11 '14 at 21:07
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    One of the most important things for me at university was to work together with colleagues. I'm not talking about copying the homework, but discussing how to achieve the goal. – BDL Nov 11 '14 at 22:57
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    @Village: Yes, you most definitely can. Eventually, one if the symptoms is that you stop enjoying whatever it is that's burning you out, but even before that, too much stress can reduce your ability to concentrate, and therefore the effectiveness of your studies. – Ilmari Karonen Nov 12 '14 at 9:39

11 Answers 11

42

Don't panic. The fact that you're still enthusiastic about your studies suggests to me that you can likely fix the problem, whatever it is.

If you're having trouble with just one or two of your subjects, then there's probably a gap in your background knowledge. Try to figure out where that gap is. Right now it may feel like everything in those subjects is difficult, but I suspect if you look hard, you'll find out there's just one or two small gaps in your knowledge, and that's something you can remedy. Perhaps you can take a lighter course load next semester to give you time to focus on the areas you're having difficulty. Once you figure out what the gaps are, you could either take the appropriate course, or teach yourself. This strategy may delay your graduation by a semester, but it could be worth it.

If you're having trouble with most of your subjects, then I suspect you're not studying very efficiently. You may be working hard, but not using your time well. Unfortunately, I don't have specific advice on how to improve your study habits, but there are lots of resources available for this kind of thing, and others here may be able to point you to those resources. Again, it might be worthwhile to take a lighter course load while you practice your new study habits.

Talk to your student advisor about your problem. If you think it's a gap in your foundational knowledge, t may be worthwhile to pick one problem that you found particularly difficult, and ask the instructor (during office hours, not in class) to go through it in gory detail with you to help you figure out where your knowledge gaps are.

Also, there is probably a student centre or something like that at your school, where you can get advice on how to improve your study habits.

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    I would just like to add some examples of resources that you should try to use: 1. professor office hours - go talk to the teacher(s) and see what they want you to learn, and clarify any misconceptions that you may have 2. Tutors - see if there are any school-supplied tutors for those who need additional help. 3. Other students - form study groups and see if you in particular are lacking any concepts. 4. TA's - see if you can talk with them about what they look for when grading stuff, or just advice in general. – user2813274 Nov 11 '14 at 19:32
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    Indeed, a very insidious hazard is self-misperception about "studying hard". Time logged per se, or intense proximity to sources, is not the issue. This problem is potentially made worse if one studies in isolation, without any feedback. – paul garrett Nov 11 '14 at 22:52
  • This is a good answer in general, but I'd give you a +1 even just for specifically recommending taking one particular problem and going through it "in gory detail" with an instructor. – Ilmari Karonen Nov 12 '14 at 10:17
32

I am in my third year, and I am on course to get a Math with CS minor degree.

When I don't understand something, feel stuck, or get crap grades, I take a step back and ask the following questions:

  • Was I careless?
  • Do I lack fluency?
  • Can I explain the material?
  • Am I answering without sufficient proof?
  • Do I know my definitions?
  • Am I mindlessly practicing?

Each of these questions comes from experience.

Careless is easy. Slow down, think through the wording of questions, check your answers for plausibility. Unfortunately, this is rarely the true culprit.

Fluency is often key. Don't give in to extremism (concept-only or mechanical-only learning). Fully understand practice problems, and then practice writing out solutions with clarity and succinctness. You cannot gain fluency by mindlessly repeating problems, copying and pasting code, compiling until it finally works, checking answers in the back when you're half done, etc. But you cannot win by learning only concepts! You must be fluent writing out solutions. Teaching others is perfect.

Which leads to explaining nicely. Try explaining problems to yourself in the shower, and their solutions. Try writing out very neat and tidy solutions, diagrams, and other tools for deeper intuition. If you can explain something to someone else, you will use and grow these a lot.

As you move forward in your studies, you will be asked not to simply provide answers, but answers that you can prove are correct (and in the case of CSC, often demonstrate have certain running times). This means you must know the background material so you can draw on definitions, previous results, and similar proofs.

So know your definitions. If you cannot say in one sentence or less what a function is, a set is, a graph, a cyclic graph, a residual graph, or whatever terminology and level you are at, then you will have major problems.

And mindlessness will kill you. You cannot memorize definitions flashcard style and expect to succeed. You have to write them down over and over in your attempts to solve problems. You need to be fluent reading and writing the material of your major. Think about how your fluency in your native tongue came about. Understanding others, and then making yourself understood. It does not come from standing in the mirror mouthing 5 words of the day over and over again. I hope you see what I mean.

I have no proof for this, but I believe that some of my study sessions are 10x more productive than others. These are not the sessions where everything clicks! Those are the product of many efficient study sessions. No, efficiency comes when I turn on my mind, I slow down, and I work the really hard problems methodically.

Finally, make sure you read How to Solve It by Polya (or at the very least, read a summary of this work).

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    One way of sort of summing up what you are saying in your answer is to ask "are you actually attempting to learn the material, or are you just trying to complete the homework and do as well as possible on the exams?". This answer really gets to the heart of that question, and could well be the asker's actual core problem. Especially considering the comment the asker made about having to "re-learn" things--maybe they weren't learned, just memorized for a test? – msouth Nov 11 '14 at 23:40
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    @msouth absolutely, thank you for clarifying what I took too many words to say :) – Henry Nov 12 '14 at 0:53
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    @msouth I like this answer the way it is because it pinpoints where many students screw up studying – shortstheory Nov 12 '14 at 10:36
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    Yeah, I think this is better than the top answer, it gives specific criteria and targets that you can measure yourself by. – Lou Nov 12 '14 at 12:50
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    @msouth You've pretty much summed up surface vs. deep learning, which is popular terminology in Education. What's amazing is that students can expend a lot of effort taking a surface approach. – beldaz Nov 13 '14 at 23:30
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Many of the people I knew who majored in Computer Science put in a lot more than 44 hours a week on their classwork and projects; how much time do your classmates put in on their studies?

If you're spending 44 hours a week on your studies why do you feel that you are sacrificing your social life? People who work 40 hours a week at a job don't usually complain about not having time for themselves. (If you are spending 44 hours a week studying on top of having a job to support yourself, you may need to think about whether you're capable of a full-time job and a full-time course of study at the same time. Many people are not.)

As others have suggested, forming a study group may help you; you can learn from those who have mastered concepts you are struggling with, and learn even more by teaching what you think you know well to those who are just learning. Going to a professor or tutor for extra help might also be useful.

What parts of computer science are the most fun for you? Algorithms? Programming? Hardware? Theory? Would it help to do a personal side project that mostly just uses the fun stuff, to help encourage you to get more practice? (For example, program a little video game to relax.)

Do you have as much maths background as your classmates? There may be concepts you struggle with that they learned in other classes, like Boolean logic.

Finally, you may benefit from going back over your old coursework to see what you missed, but now have the framework to understand better. If you have graded homework or exams from your first classes, can you now easily see what you missed at the time? If not, you may benefit from going back to study those elementary concepts until they are second nature.

  • +1 for reviewing exactly what you got wrong on your homework, rather than just looking at the grade. Learn from it, so you don't make the same mistake again. (I once had to catch up on half a term of math. Spent several weeks before the final in the math study room, redoing ALL the homework -- do the problem, check the result, if wrong look at how I should have done it and DO IT AGAIN to make sure I would remember it properly, repeat... Lots of hours of work, lots of effort, but I did ace that final!) – keshlam Nov 15 '14 at 21:17
6

Go slow. You can't improve your grades overnight, and if you try too hard to do, you'll do more harm than good. Different people learn at different rates, so if you don't get something straight away, don't fret. Nobody gets everything the first time. That might sound obvious the first time you hear it, but every time you fail, you need to remind yourself that you have to fail in order to succeed. Your first and largest hurdle is learning not to be afraid of failure. Contrary to popular belief, your failures will not haunt you for the rest of your life. :)

Don't spend too much of your focus on assignments and study, either. De-focusing, in fact, is a valuable research and problem-solving technique. Take a break every thirty minutes or hour to grab a snack, talk to a friend, or play a game. Return to the task that had you stumped when your mind has had an opportunity to relax a bit. This will give you a fresh perspective on the problem and will make it far more likely that the thought process that ultimately gets you to a solution will stick with you.

Figure out your learning style. Some people learn best by writing down everything they hear. Others learn great just by listening. Still some other people need to actually build things and hold them in their hands to see how those things work. Start by figuring out if you're a visual learner (you learn best by watching others do things), an auditory learner (you learn best by listening to instructions and discussion), a lexical learner (you learn best by writing things down and taking copious notes), or a physical learner (you learn best by doing things yourself). When you've figured this out, remember to employ your learning method as much as possible throughout your education, and make your strongest effort to "study" things in the way that works best for you (regardless of whether that means listening well in class and not studying at all or writing down every gosh darn thing you hear). If you need to write down everything, I highly recommend investing in a small audio recording device you can use in your classes, unless you're a super fast writer.

Speaking of recording classes, learn to use your resources, also. Your teachers or professors are there, for the most part, to help you, so never feel bad about taking advantage of office hours or after-class help sessions. Whenever you are struggling to understand something, ask for help! Sometimes someone else explaining things differently can have a big impact on your ability to understand.

Do everything that you do with the mind that you'll have to do it again someday. When you try something new or encounter new material, don't just learn what to do. Learn how to do it. This practice doesn't require OCD studying. Just get in the habit of wondering why things happen. If you ask enough questions, answers will come back to you. They have a natural way of that.

Also, read! Pick up reading as a habit, and do it for fun. Reading regularly will make the kind of reading you have to do for effective studying much easier. You'll feel less exhausted after studying, and you'll retain much more of what you do study. Best of all, books are cheap from Amazon or local bargain book stores and make for an outstanding way to kill some time.

After reading for awhile, maybe you can get yourself to start writing, too. Even if you're just writing in journals, the purposeful employment of language implicitly forces you to think about things like syntax, word choice, and tone. Writing is a really great way to engage problem-solving and analytical skills without actually doing any overtly structured problem solving or analysis.

Play games! Sudoku, solitaire, puzzle games, "code" games, video games--anything that gets your brain juices flowing. Games that involve problem-solving and strategy can stimulate parts of your brain that you actively use during studying and test-taking. Besides solitaire and Sudoku, take a gander at Zendo, Mastermind, and chess. If you're into video games, good news--basically every mainstream video game is designed to stimulate your mind (because, incidentally, that feeling causes gamers to play the game more). If you go the video game route, just be careful not to play too much. :)

Lastly, be patient, but don't let opportunities for good discussion pass by. To learn to love learning, you have to experience a kind of learning that is super engaging for you. It comes when it comes, but if you don't put yourself out there, you'll never see it. Be involved in classroom discussions, and when a topic comes up that interests you, share your thoughts on it. Eventually, when you've learned how to make connections between things you would used to have thought unrelated, you might make a comment that starts a totally new perspective on a topic for a whole class, and that's a really cool feeling. You've probably also heard before that the most effective way to learn is by teaching others, right? Well, guess what classroom discussion is all about? Put yourself out there. Discuss!

Obviously you can't do all these things right this very minute, so I refer you at this point back to the first two words in this whole mess of verbiage: go slow. Rushing yourself is the surest way to get nowhere, so make a long term plan describing what you want to accomplish within the next twelve months and daily chip away at it. Just remember above all other things that you can't reinvent your learning style overnight. :)

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    I know far too many students who took up video games, then never got any homework done. Not recommended. – Village Nov 11 '14 at 22:33
  • Given the long WOW above, I did not see the reference to video games. But if it is presumably in there, then makes the entire answer suspect. Short of doing drugs, video games are one of the more dangerous pastimes for a student. – javadba Nov 12 '14 at 7:49
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    Like with most things, it's a question of moderation. Like it or not, many video games and competitive puzzle- or code-type board games demand that the brain process various types of information quickly and in various kinds of ways, and that gives problem-solving parts of your brain a real-time workout. You are absolutely right that games should not be played so much as to interfere with schoolwork, but taken in moderation, they can be a fun way to engage those skills. – R Mac Nov 12 '14 at 14:19
  • See here and here. – R Mac Nov 12 '14 at 14:19
6

Use SQ3R to Focus Your Readings

To help your memory and focus on material that you learn from reading, try using the SQ3R method. See this article from Virginia Tech to further learn how to use it. Several other strategies exist to help you to think more carefully about how you think of the material while you study are listed in this Wikipedia article, but be selective and strategic in which ones you use and when.

Use SRS for Repetitive Practice and Review

To practice skills that demand repeated practice, such as math, try using SRS. This is essentially flash cards, but controlled by algorithms based on memory research. Many SRS tools allow for cards with graphics, audio, and LaTeX, HTML, and CSS. You could add math problems from your textbook to the software and the algorithms in the software will help you to spend more time on the difficult ones, less time on the easy problems. Study with such tools daily, but do not use them in excess. As SRS takes considerable time to setup, as you will likely need to build custom study materials, so use your holiday time to get started. "The 20 Rules of Formulating Knowledge in Learning" is essential reading.

Avoid Attentive-less Practice

Many students get into a routine of solving their textbook's problems by just following their teacher's steps or by memorizing information by rote. Think carefully about how you think about what you are learning. If you are studying math, avoid just pushing the numbers around as your teacher showed you and spend time exploring the real meaning of the problem through visualization. Spend time solving your math problems using concrete, representational, and abstract methods so that you do not merely build the capacity to solve problems on paper, but can visualize what that math actually represents:

  • Concrete - use some physical items or the physical space to solve the problem.
  • Representational - sketch the physical items or situation on paper to solve the problem.
  • Abstract - use the mathematical language your instructor or textbook taught to solve the problem.

Use Support Services

Determine what academic support services are available. For example, your school might have a writing center to help you with your writing. Your school might have a tutoring center to help you with your math. Some departments may also have a meeting area where you can meet other students who are working on their homework, where you can join a study group and potentially meet your teachers or their teaching assistants, to get help outside of class. In the US, some schools offer 1-credit courses or free seminars to introduce these available services. Do not attempt to do everything on your own.

Maintain a Fixed, Sufficient Sleep Routine

Staying up late to get in a few hours more work done can cost you more hours the next day. Establish a fixed sleeping schedule where you wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day, even on weekends. Make sure you are getting a good amount of rest each night so that you can be very focused the next day. Break this schedule only at strategic times, e.g. to work on an important project, but not before an exam.

  • Meh, not convinced that repetitive learning has much value. If a course requires such memorisation I'd say it was out of date. A CS course should be teaching skills and deeper understanding, which I think are best gained through experience: working through exercises and solving problems. – beldaz Nov 13 '14 at 23:35
5

There is missing a lot of info about your particular situation so I'll come with some different answers based on different assumptions about your situation.

  1. You might not have a natural talent for this. That doesn't need to be a problem in your case however since you seem very motivated and work hard. Working hard will make you smarter and more capable in time but it won't work in the short term. Also getting top marks isn't crucial if you got the motivation. E.g. I've happened to have talent and got good grades without working as hard as many of my peers. However I failed to get my Master due to lack of motivation. I know several fellow students with shitty grades, who still managed to get their Master because they stayed motivated and kept working hard. Seriously I'd rather have had shitty grades and gotten my Master degree than getting good grades and then dropping out on the final project because I had zero motivation.
  2. You might have a very inefficient study technique. Research this. It makes quite a big difference. E.g. reading the same thing over and over again takes long time and is inefficient. Active work like doing practice assignments or trying to teach somebody else what you read is more efficient.

I might mention a story about a fellow student. He used to get stuck on assignments and got frustrated with himself. He was failing a lot of assignments. He finally went to a coach, that got him to stress down. He told him to not stress out if he didn't understand something right away. It isn't normal to do that. Just take his time. There was obviously a lot more to it, but this student he got a dramatic improvement. He got absolutely top marks. I noticed when discussing problems with him that he was not any smarter than me. But I noticed when reading or preparing for tests that he was way more focused than me. He could really stay in the zone. The coach had taught him how to do that.

5

Lots of good material is already there in the other answers.

There's a lot of focus on how to improve the "act of studying", which of course may be the problem, and can always benefit from attention.

There are some other things to add though, which will be useful to add into your mix:

1) Do hobby activities that relate in some way to your study.

In Comp Sci, this is so easy. You can make web sites, program Raspberry Pi, make little games ... being involved in actually doing stuff that relates to what you are learning can go far towards making it "click".

You always learn better when doing things that use the learning, particularly if you are using it in an enjoyable way.

2) Participate in the learning community. Head on over to Stack Overflow and see if you can answer questions. That's right, you're learning, and a great way to learn is to answer other people's beginner questions. On Stack Overflow, there are hundreds of very basic questions per day that a student of Comp Sci should be able to answer.

3) Get a learning buddy, someone who is doing well and who would be willing to have you along. Study in their room, in the library, nearby and have coffee and talk about the work.

Finally, I agree that 40 hours per week is no where too much to be spending on your Uni work and related (hobby programing, recrational reading about your art etc). At University, your learning is your life. Just do it, it's over soon and you can party for the rest of your life. Which is not to say "don't party" - just don't look resentfully at the people working 9-5 and partying the rest of the time.

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    +1 on the answering other people's questions tip. You've not understood something until you can explain it to others. – slebetman Nov 13 '14 at 6:23
  • Yes @slebetman ... and the act of trying to answer questions has many positive benefits. Self-assurance when you get it right, exposure to other practitioners answers - which initially will be better and you learn from them ... all in addition to solidifying your own understanding as you go to explain it. I was once a programmer by profession, now a manager of programmers. I stay abrest of the industry by doing all of the three things I mentioned above :) I'm practicing what I preach :) Learning doesn't stop when you leave Uni, and these three items work for me :) – GreenAsJade Nov 13 '14 at 6:24
2

Personal experiences to improve study efficiency:

  1. Practice your ability to concentrate for a longer time. Remove source of distraction (phone, PC, people) and remain vigilant to prevent mind from drifting. Given enough practice, you will find yourself focusing for more than 3 hours without noticing the flow of time, which is longer than a normal exam session.
  2. If you are attending the lecture, make sure you understand the content beforehand, validate and reinforce your understanding during the lecture. Given enough practice, you will start skipping lectures because productivity is higher when you read books on your own.
  3. When something doesn't add up, dig deeper instead of just memorizing. Understanding details helps reinforcing the memory, and speeding up re-acquaintance. Besides, your later courses depends on the previous ones, gaps in knowledge will eventually come back to haunt you.
  4. Healthier life style helps a lot, regularize your sleeping schedule and do exercise.
  5. All of above are time consuming and requires persistence, expect to study for >60 hours a week if your goal is 9/10. Good news is, you might find yourself getting smarter, doing thing you wasn't able to do before. Like remembering numbers you didn't even try to memorize, and a much faster reading and learning speed.

Be reminded that, except for extraordinary people, high GPA comes with costs. Isolation and scarification of social life have their consequences. Knowing when to stop is quite important.

  • Spending 60 hours per week on school is not really effective in my view, just as research has shown that structurely working more than 40 hours does not increase productivity. – Paul Hiemstra Nov 14 '14 at 16:40
2

You don't say exactly what you're doing in all those hours, so I don't know whether this applies to you, but in my experience a lot of students don't know how to study effectively.

I highly recommend this article in the New York Times for an overview of what recent psychological research has to say on the subject. In a nutshell, one of the major messages is that for studying to be effective, it should be active. Time spent re-reading books and notes is time wasted. Instead you should be actually doing the things that your field is about — solving problems, writing code, etc.

I sometimes encourage my students to think of it this way. If you're training for a sport, you spend your time doing the things that go on in a game/match. You don't read about how to do those things, or watch videos of someone else doing them. You practice doing them yourself.

2

Points:

  1. Try to think what you have learned, DO NOT JUST LEARN. This means that more time should be spent for thinking, thinking about where this kind of knowledge could be used, how to use it. Learning is not enough, thinking will help you understand deeply about what you have learned, which can give you more chances to get higher scores in examination.
  2. Do not isolate yourself, you need fresh air by exchanging ideas with others. Trying to talk about what you are learning with other students. Others' experiences will inspire you to get high scores.
0

First things first, you gotta know what's dragging your grade to the nether regions. Are you turning in everything but scoring low, or not turning in everything? I know plenty of fellow students who would do amazingly well if they turned in everything, and I know the other case as well. Are you taking good notes, or not understanding, or some other issue entirely?

I've asked plenty of questions, but these are an important part of knowing how to improve the grade. There are some tricks that can help you improve but you gotta know/tell the problem first.

I'd normally say I'm done here but I found some handy tools recently that may be worth checking out. Organization: Trello.com is a neat organizer you can use for sorting assignments, tracking due dates, and project ideas. What I did with it involved making a homework "board", which contains stacks of cards. I then made one stack for each class, and then one card per assignment. You can drag the cards with assignment names and info around, as well as rearrange the card stacks. What I do is sort the cards by due date and delete them when the assignment is done. Studying: Studyblue is a neat Web app that not only does flashcards, but also shares them, searches for similar decks, and allows you to borrow decks from classmates. It also tracks your progress and learns which ones you know, and it helps me to study.

protected by Nate Eldredge Nov 12 '14 at 22:28

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