Following on Schneider and Preckel’s (2017) systematic review of empirical research on university and college academic achievement, I’ve pulled together some success tips based on their research and on cognitive-behavioural theory in psychology.

Using Schneider and Preckel’s research findings to improve your GPA:

            Some tips from this research and from cognitive-behavioural theory.  Schneider and Preckel (2017) concluded that your study strategies are more directly related to your academic achievement than your personality or life situation is. Study strategies are a learned skill and thus possible to change. Applying Bandura’s cognitive behavioural theory (Engler, 2014), here are some suggestions for changing your behaviour and thinking patterns. What do high GPA students do?

  • Go to class! Class attendance has a very high correlation with GPA. This isn’t causal, as other factors, such as goals or conscientiousness, influence both class attendance and GPA, so it isn’t a guarantee. But it is something you can easily do and certainly learning in the class is more effective than reading the text on your own.
  • Be confident! Do what you can to increase your confidence (thus your feeling of self-efficacy – that is your perception of your ability to be successful in an academic task). For an exam, attend class, study the test material until you know it, test yourself with the study questions, ask for help from peers and the instructor – do all that, and there’s no reason you can’t be successful. Cognitive-behavioural theory says to be aware of how you think about the academic task. Your anxiety and low self-efficacy are often unrealistic, catastrophic and pessimistic thinking is usually wrong and can be your worst enemy. It’s ok to be a little nervous, but limit it. If you’ve studied and tested yourself, and know the material, remind yourself of that, and be confident!
  • Set realistic grade goals. Grade goals have a very high effect size in Schneider and Preckel’s study, ranked 5 in the list of 105 factors associated with academic achievement. Set SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic & Time limited.
    1. Specific and measurable goals are best: rather than “do well on the exam”, a specific goal of “complete chapter 1 and 2 review and notes. Achieve an A on the self-test”. Now you know what to aim for in your study plan.
    2. Achievable and realistic goals are crucial. If you set too high a goal because you are too over-confident, thinking you know it all, you might not study enough. That will sabotage your performance. Or if you set your goal much higher than your usual performance level, you might become too anxious to learn or to perform well in the exam. If you set your goal too low, you are likely to perform to that low self-standard. So goal setting is very effective, if you make your minimum grade goals realistic. (By the way, a slight “stretch” goal is a good challenge for students with high achievement motive).
  • Don’t give up! Persist when challenged by a hard assignment, use your effective cognitive-behavioural strategies to accomplish a challenging academic task.
    1. Change your behaviour: What do persistent high-achievers do? They don’t give up! That will never accomplish your goals.
      1. This relates to the personality characteristics of conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is to some degree part of your nature, but it is also changeable with maturity and situation. Longitudinal studies of adults find a general tendency for adults to increase in conscientiousness over time (Engler, 2015), as they face work and family situations that demand responsibility and conscientious task completion, such as keeping your job or taking care of a baby. So conscientious can be learned.
    2. Change your thinking: It isn’t that other students don’t face the same challenges – but some give up and others stay with it. Don’t fall into a “helplessness orientation” (Krause et al., 2018) in your thinking that says “I just can’t do this ….” Your instructor has not set you an assignment that is impossible for students to accomplish, and if other students in your program or course level can complete it, so can you. Choose a “mastery orientation” in your thinking. That is: “I can do this. It might take more practice and more work, and maybe some help from the instructor, but I can do it if I keep at it”.
      1. A few hints about challenging academic tasks: Break it down. First accomplish what you can do or know. Make a note as you go along of your questions and confusions for later discussion with your instructor or peers. Check out your resources, your textbook or handouts or on-line resources – they might be able to help you. As you work through the assignment, you will gain skills and knowledge to tackle the harder aspects.
      2. And often taking a break will help a lot! Take a walk outside for 20 minutes, or for really challenging tasks, sleep on it. Fatigue limits your concentration and working memory span. Come back to it when you are fresh and energetic. Also, sleep helps to sort out and consolidate memory, so irrelevant information can be expunged and the answer to the problem or insight can come through in the morning.
      3. Finally, there are “brick wall” situations where you might have to realistically assess and accept your limitations. After you’ve tried all your strategies, practiced, gotten help and advice, made sure you are being realistic and not pessimistic, if you still find a task is currently beyond you, you might want to decide to take a different path. An example might be your English language skills – you might need some ESL courses at the right level to improve before tackling second year or upper level courses. As Schneider and Preckel (2017) note, “working as hard as possible all of the time is not the best student strategy for high achievement…it’s important to choose deliberately when and where to invest time and mental resources” (p. 595).
    3. Know how, when, where, to study different kinds of material: Another high effect size is associated with study strategies.
      1. Use the university support resources: Resources to help student with specific tasks and skills include: the writing centre, library research skills workshops, study skills workshops, ESL courses, or other courses that might help students gain needed competencies. Schneider and Preckel (2017) note, “working as hard as possible all of the time is not the best student strategy for high achievement…it’s important to choose deliberately when and where to invest time and mental resources” (p. 595).
      2. Surface vs deep learning strategies: using learning strategies that were task dependent. Using a surface approach (with shallow information processing and a focus on external rewards) was negatively related to achievement. A good strategy is to focus on the key material, rather than the less relevant info such as examples and stories.
    4. Manage your mental resources! Attention is limited, especially sustained attention, and learning is certainly not as effective when the student is tired. This applies to both the classroom and the study session at home. Study when you are fresh and able to concentrate.
    5. Manage your test anxiety: Test anxiety is negatively associated with academic achievement. The counselling department puts on workshops to help students deal with test anxiety, and Ergene’s meta-analysis of 77 studies (as cited in Schneider & Preckel, 2017), across a total of 2,482 students suggests that cognitive-behavioural programs as brief as 4 to 6 hours long, teaching test-taking skills and changing maladaptive cognitions, can significantly reduce test anxiety.
    6. Manage your management: Definitely a learned skill, that improves with practice.
    7. Improve your concentration: and sustained attention. This can improve with mental technologies such as mindfulness training (also offered by the Counselling department) which has empirically supported cognitive benefits in increasing focus and sustained attention, ability to ignore distractions, as well as increasing working memory and reducing stress (Davis & Hayes, 2011). Other meditation techniques are also effective in attention and memory (Rutschman, 2004).
    8. Ask for help! From your peers – get a study group going. And don’t hesitate to ask your instructors (your peers could be mistaken). That’s what all those office hours are for.