8 Ways to Become a Better Student and a Lifelong Learner

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I absolutely love education. Not just educating others, though—I absolutely love being educated! In 8 years, between 2007 and 2015, I earned 4 degrees. This still amazes me because I barely got out of high school, and completely flunked the SAT and ACT. It was not until I moved away from home and joined the military that I began to learn discipline and take my education into my own hands. Two things in particular taught me to love being a student: (1) I realized that my educational destiny was my own decision, and (2) I was able to study a subject I wanted to study.

Once I realized I was capable of being a good student, really for the first time in my life, I was able to take on a very high workload. The rest is history for me, but I don’t want to toss away the major habits I developed that sustained me to complete three consecutive semesters of 24 credit hours, or earning dual master’s degrees with honors. If you can implement these qualities, you can do the same, and you can do it with a wholesome Catholic feeling of joy.

Before I go on, I need to explain something. “Effective” does not necessarily mean “best”. An effective student is not always the one earning the top grade. The effective student is the one who can manage time and assignments, while at the same time actually learning the information and putting it to use. On that, here are a few tactics that I suggest for every Catholic student.


1. Pray


This one is still hardest for me. I am that apostle who in the garden chose to sleep rather than pray. I think about and talk to God often, but I have a habit of individuality when it comes to my studies, cutting God out of the picture. Oddly, perhaps because I know this weakness so well, this is one major reason I chose to become a Lay Dominican. I’ll tell you, there is a serious difference in my work when I don’t include God. Before you start your school work, say a prayer. It doesn’t have to be an exhortation or anything lengthy. Just make a quick devotion of your work and study to God. Pope Francis says we need to study, “on our knees.” That’s a perfect visual for this important characteristic of the effective student.


2. Make Making Time a Priority


My professional life has been engulfed in the colloquialism “Time is money, and money is time.” Really, this is so true. Every second you have is an asset, a gift. If you were given a hundred-dollar bill for every hour in your day, right in your pocket, you wouldn’t hesitate to put it in its rightful spot. That’s how I treat my time: like it’s that valuable, to others and to me.

Each week I follow a basic routine:

  • Review my workload and assignment due dates.
  • Review other commitments.
  • Determine the time I need for each task.
  • Create priorities.
  • Determine what other tasks I can fit in where.
  • Execute.

It’s basic project management. Think to yourself: “Where, when, and how do I need to spend my money?” (Or in this case, time.) It’s especially easy in college because you have an accurate schedule and from there you can determine how much time each assignment takes up. I don’t sit and calculate it, but I give myself about 10-30% extra time on each of these as a buffer. Try it out.


3. Treat Your Time as an Art


Arts aren’t just paint, music, and sculpting. Art is creation. One reason every child loves markers and crayons and making noise is that they are natural imitators of God, in whose image they are created. In effect, we are natural creators and generously enjoy it in all its forms; we take pleasure in creativity. It’s no different with time. If you want it, make it. There is no such thing as “not having time” for this or that, there is only time that is already filled with other commitments (or laziness). At that point, reevaluate your creations and recreations. Recreation is the use of that created time. Enjoy it, make it useful, and protect it – it’s the only resource that won’t be destroyed, but can be misused.

4. Study and Perform Like You Mean It


A certain professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary taught me something others tried to teach me for years. I just needed to hear it the right way: “Write as if you are being published.” That says it all. Good writing is the kind of writing that someone can sell. Sale-worthy writing includes three elements: It has to be memorable, appetizing, and informative. Even if it is opinion, include these three and it will have the potential to be many times more reader friendly.


5. Watch Your Attitude


I’d include something to the tune of “study hard” but studying is a cinch when you love what you are studying. It becomes less of a task and more of a hobby. Having the right attitude will give you a sense of ownership for your work. Deadlines, assignment criteria, et al., will be like child’s play when you love what you do. “Getting down to business” will quickly become like recreation.


6. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others


Recently I wrote an article at the National Catholic Register about how dangerous this is. Do not do it! When you compare yourself to others and make your imitation of them your sole aim, you get tunnel vision and you limit yourself. If you only want to be like someone else, you’re not allowing yourself to be who God wants you to be, and you prevent yourself from accomplishing amazing things. The only one you need to know is God, who already knows you perfectly. Imitate the saints, but don’t compare yourself to a classmate. If they got a better grade than you it doesn’t mean they knew or will retain as much as you. It also doesn’t necessarily mean they know what to do with the information.


7. Teach


If you want to learn, study. If you want to be a master, teach. In my undergraduate studies I would host 5-10 people several times a week to go over class notes and prepare for tests. My poor wife! We studied for hours—and I was mean, too. I would play all the confusion games and try to trick my peers with study questions. A friend named Joe gave me the nickname “quiznasty”. It worked, though. 50% of the aviation students at North Dakota don’t pass; all of my study group did. If you want to master anything, teach it! It forces you to articulate and present information accurately and confidently. All leaders are teachers, and all teachers are leaders.


8. Be a Leader


Whether it’s president of the Newman Society or leader of a small study group, you have to get involved. Good students are not the ones making grades; they’re the ones participating in discussions, making friends, helping people who are struggling, and backing up the professor when others want to gossip. Be a leader.

Don’t forget to go to Mass and participate in your parish activities. Going to school online? No excuse! Participate in your faith, master what you’re learning, and when you graduate, you’ll be itching to do something with what you’ve learned.


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