5 Ways to Succeed Beyond College

Creating deeper connections

 The brain is absolutely amazing. Period! In fact, the brain could be likened to “continents filled with many regional flights,” says Larry Swanson, professor at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences of the University of Southern California. While it is no easy task to manage such a complex system, our brain does it every moment of every day. We learn, create, connect, inspire and motivate simply by tapping into the power of our brains.

As with most other things in life, creating strong study habits (and strong neural connections) takes effort and a lot of practice. How efficiently we learn depends not only on our motivation for learning but also on how flexible we are in “playing” with the information we acquire. Below you will find a variety of science-approved tips and tricks to deepen your critical thinking skills!

The recipe for stronger study habits & success beyond college

1. Assess your level of motivation before you study – How many times have you found yourself agonizing over grades because you could not dedicate enough to time to digest the exam material, and instead crammed for it the night before? Perhaps you were not really invested in the material to begin with. As research shows, our intention for learning matters a lot when it comes to how we approach learning and how we engage with what we are learning.

 2. Make friends with DAL – For forty years, researchers have been investigating the way in which deep approaches to learning affect academic success. To put it simply, a deep approach to learning (DAL) entails understanding key relationships, drawing inferences, and figuring out the underlying meaning of the material learned. Consider these strategies for adopting DAL:

  • Ask questions in class
  • Think about how the concepts that you just learned relate to the ones that you previously studied
  • Be critical about what you are learning and do not take in information passively

Surface approach to learning (SAL), on the other hand, is more about learning for the purposes of avoiding failure. In other words, students who engage in DAL, show a personal commitment to understanding whatever it is that they are learning. In contrast to DAL users, those who rely on SAL commonly use rote memorizing as a strategy to acquire new knowledge.

3. Integrate what you learn in one subject into other areas in your life – Adopting a deep approach to learning means making an effort to take your learning outside the setting of the classroom. For example, if you have a project coming up in one of your classes (engineering) , think about how your project relates to some of the other classes that you might be taking (environmental studies and maybe even art).

 4. Reflect, reflect, reflect! – In a large U.S. based study, Laird Nelson and colleagues (Thomas F. is Associate Professor at Indiana University) set out to examine the relationship between overall DAL scores of first-year college students and variables such as students’ critical thinking skills, their enjoyment of effortful thinking and their tendency to read poetry/literature. Regarding their results, researches suggested that DAL related positively to students’ need for effortful thinking and enjoyment of a range of literacy activities. Moreover, reflection stood out as a critical component of learning. Reflective learning meant that students examined both the strengths and weaknesses of their personal views when analyzing an issue. They also tried to broaden their own perspectives by imagining how an issue looks from another person’s point of view. In essence, reflecting on their learning enabled students to engage with the concepts that they were being exposed to in profound ways.

5.  Have coffee with a friend – Do you discuss ideas from your readings/assignments with others outside the class? Set a date with a friend or even with one of your parents to get their perspectives on whatever it is that you are trying to learn in class. Their ideas will not only force you to step out of your comfort zone, but will also expose you to different perspectives.

Your personal characteristics and motivation are very important ingredients in the recipe for a successful academic career (and successful connections in the brain).

Happy studying!


  • 1. Laird Nelson, T. F., Seifert, A. T., Pascarella, T. E., Mayhew, M. J., & Blaich, F. C. “Deeply affecting first-year students’ thinking: Deep approaches to learning and three dimensions of cognitive development”, The Journal of Higher Education, 2014, 85(3
  • 2. Kyndt, E., Cascallar, E., & Dochy, F. “Individual differences in working memory capacity and attention, and their relationship with students’ approaches to learning”, Higher Education. 2012, 64, 285-297.
  • 3. http://www.scpr.org/news/2015/04/06/50819/brain-pathways-similar-to-airline-flight-patterns/
  • 4. http://exchange.ac.uk/learning-and-teaching-theory-guide/deep-and-surface-approaches-learning.html