By Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center
When one of our staff brought Anne Crossman’s work on study skills and navigating college to my attention, I could see she was interested in many of the same concepts as we are in AVID: time management, effective note-taking, building networks, and many others. I also saw application across our whole college readiness system, K-16. As a public school teacher in North Carolina, and as an instructor for soldiers on a military base in the Pacific, Crossman witnessed her students struggling with the basics of succeeding academically and socially. Her first book, Getting the Best Out of College, coauthored with Peter Feaver and Sue Wasiolek, features “insider” information from a professor, a dean, and Crossman, who was at the time a recent graduate. Her second book, Study Smart, Study Less, appealed to me because it can be used by teachers, students, and parents, and, blessedly, is concise.
After reading her books, I called up Crossman for an interview. She is at work on a new book to aid parents in making intentional choices in their home life that will help foster an atmosphere in which all family members can thrive. This relates to education by providing students with a strong support network at home, which is a proven factor necessary for their success.
Gira: You taught enlisted military personnel, and this experience compelled you to put your Study Smart Study Less book together. What happened?
Crossman: Teaching enlisted soldiers in classrooms all over South Korea was a fantastic experience; I have a lot of respect for what our soldiers do every day. My job was to help them improve some basic skills in reading and mathematics so they could pass exams that promoted them to new responsibilities within their units. I had a class of about 20 students for two weeks at a time, and despite the strong incentive of promotion, they still really struggled with basic study techniques. Whereas, in teaching my high school students, it was a mix of lacking motivation as well as skills, these men and women had plenty of motivation and yet they still lagged. In order to fully answer your question, I need to take a step back even further. Prior to teaching in South Korea, I was a public high school English teacher in Durham, North Carolina. My classes vacillated from first period neurosurgeon’s kids to second period inner city students and back and forth throughout the day. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, all my students struggled with basic study methods—taking notes, utilizing notes, chunking information, accessing long-term memory, etc. Our district was required by the state to teach more material than I felt I had time, so adding a week of Study Skills 101 to the mix didn’t fit; yet, I couldn’t see the point of progressing much further without it. So, I created a brief packet full of cheesy puns that taught them how to learn and how to study based on my experiences as a student at Stanford and Duke telling them, “Read this at home if you want to do well in my class.” It was soon obvious the students who did, and I saw a marked improvement in their grades. Now, fast forward to your question and the soldiers. There I was in South Korea watching these students struggle in same ways my high schoolers did. The soldiers kept coming back to me asking why no one taught them note-taking skills before or how to study for a test, saying had they acquired these tools earlier it would have given them a lot more choices coming out of high school. At that point, I got the message. I expanded the original packet into a study guide that was appropriate for students of a much wider range (junior high through college) and kept it brief so that it would be a quick read with heaps of help, while maintaining a quirky sense of humor. Those soldiers came to Korea from all over the nation, which further proved to me that the need for teaching students the fundamentals of how to learn expanded much farther beyond the walls of my classroom.
Gira: Studying smarter comes up in both of your educational books. What are the classic mistakes students make?
Crossman: Too frequently students try to take on too much material in one sitting. When it comes to finals prep or even a standard night of studying, students often tell me that they “studied all night,” meaning they stared at their books for four hours straight without a break. While that sounds like they should be awarded at least a bumper sticker for being a great student, our brains actually can’t handle that concentrated amount of time studying. The better strategy is to use a chunking method, which is simply studying for 20 minutes and breaking for five. Another mistake I see, both in high school and college students, is poor note-taking skills. Students must develop a means of taking notes that will help them get information on the page in a way that makes the most sense to them and then take the time to review those notes habitually. However, in reality, most students scrawl a few notes in a binder and then only open that binder to either add more notes or flip absently through the pages the night before finals, hoping someone slipped in the answers to tomorrow’s exam. The note-taking strategies AVID teaches its students are terrific because they teach students how to get the information on the page quickly. A third mistake I see is regarding time management. Students need to be taught and encouraged how to maximize their brain’s peak hours, both in the morning and after school, and make positive choices about when to study so that it makes studying more successful and actually improves their social life.
Gira: How is technology helping our ability to study smarter?
Crossman: Technology makes great things possible. However, in our desire to rush toward technology in education, so much energy is invested in it that, at times, it seems we are putting more in than we are getting out. The school day is limited and, I wonder, at what cost are we encouraging more time at the computer—those hours come from somewhere, whether it be creative analysis or group collaboration or discussion. It’s not that those things can’t be done on a computer, but a computer isn’t necessarily required to do them and at times it overcomplicates the classroom. On a positive note, technology is helping our ability to “shrink” the world and conduct more thorough research, exposing our students to the world in ways we couldn’t before. Our responsibility here, however, that we must not shirk is in teaching students how to filter sources early on in order to gage credibility and validity. In terms of how we learn, scientists recently discovered that our brains actually store information differently as a result of exposure to technology. Before, we would have one way of cataloging facts or memories in our minds, but now a great deal of how we recall information is connected to an electronic device.
Gira: Let’s talk about upper-income students. As far as studying, do upper-income students have it a lot better than poor students? If so, why?
Crossman: The students I taught were diverse: like I mentioned earlier, I taught neurosurgeon’s kids one period and inner city kids the next. Despite the fact that the first group had more resources, neither of them were well trained in note-taking or basic study techniques as they transitioned into high school, so I gave them the same study materials. Certainly, upper income kids will have access to more resources and role models of academic success in the community, whereas poorer students may not have that tangible role model as readily available. And, peer pressure cannot be undervalued. It’s rare that you’ll find students from a poor community feeling strongly motivated to strive for a better future by earning high marks, and certainly not being encouraged by their peers to do so; too often, my students would tell me they felt trapped or that hope was out of reach so why bother. I tried so hard to help them set attainable goals and motivate them to believe success could truly be their reality, but there was something about the distractions of their peer group that I couldn’t beat. In some ways, Study Smart, Study Less is a way reaching students from all backgrounds so they can empower themselves to make their own future no matter what district, classroom, or home life has been handed them.
Gira: Studying, organizing, planning, note-taking—all of these are important concepts in AVID classrooms. From what you know about AVID, what do you see us doing well in these areas and where could we improve?
Crossman: I am genuinely excited about the work AVID continues to do with students and teachers around the world. As I look back on my teaching career, I wish AVID had been at my school because I was trying to create something very similar on my own with my study packet and motivational techniques. One thing that AVID does well is support teachers in the classroom-providing them with necessary resources to equip their students to succeed. However, one challenge AVID faces is in scaling—how will it scale its resources for teachers worldwide in a way that is affordable so that, regardless of each classroom’s unique resources, teachers can consistently equip their students? In those schools where AVID has a strong presence, this may not seem like a major concern. However, in smaller AVID programs, or when it comes time to expand into new districts or even new countries, teachers need an easy resource they can turn to like I did with my students and my book, saying “Read this if you want to do well in class.” Study skills have the chance to become the great equalizer, if only we can get them into the hands of every student.
Gira: In Getting the Best Out of College you note: “start well and finish strong.” Can you break these down for us?
Crossman: Starting well means understanding the playing field and the resources, and then beginning to set clear and measurable expectations as a student. My students would frequently set laudable goals, such as “becoming valedictorian” or “getting A’s” that were, unfortunately, either hard to measure or so long-term that it was difficult to build momentum in achieving them. It’s important to teach students how to set measurable, positive, realistic short- and long-term goals that can be altered as needed so they can build a sense of progress, confidence, and success. In terms of finishing strong, it means having some sort of accountability and community to help guide students and influence them in the direction they’re aiming. Very few of us achieve our ambitions entirely alone; it takes a lot of support along the way to finish strong.
Gira: I just read a report that quoted a business executive who said, “…applicants for my company are required to have a degree.” But also noted that college grads aren’t ready for the world of work. What are your thoughts?
Crossman: College teaches skills that are important for developing critical thinking and the ability to adapt to new information and ways of communicating, both of which are critical in our swiftly changing technological age. But in terms of professionalism, my colleagues (the professor and dean who coauthored Getting the Best Out of College) and I consistently find that colleges don't take the opportunity to train undergrads with consistent mentorship or internship programs on that topic. Such programs would need to equip undergrads with practical skills which are required to transition easily into the workforce, and do so at a professional level. When you take into consideration the last 30 years and the growing technological trends, there is a higher expectation of skill levels for new graduates as they enter the job market. These students may or may not have had the opportunity to practice these skills on their campuses; skills such as expecting a recent graduate to be savvy with Excel spreadsheets (which may not have been relevant to her coursework if she was an English major), PowerPoint, basic coding…the expectations are growing and, too often, the educational opportunities are not rising to meet them quickly enough. Understandably, this creates challenges for employers. Gallup Education recently published an article calling on the professional work world to take a more active role on college campuses in training prospective employees to meet the rigors of their company’s needs. Alternatively, an interesting study came out showing a disconnect between the expectation of the workforce and the employee, especially around the areas of appearance, efficiency and self-motivation. At some point, colleges will need to foster a transition as a matter of course—either with the help of the outside world or not—that arms undergrads with practical tools needed to succeed as professionals.
Anne Crossman coauthored Getting the Best Out of College: Insider Advice for Success from a Professor, a Dean, and a Recent Grad (Random House, 2012) and Study Smart, Study Less (Random House, 2011), which have been lauded by notables such as Bob Woodward who called GTBOC "A refreshing, smart, and useful guide to college that should be required reading for incoming freshmen everywhere." Anne also recently published her first book of poems, Trying to Remember (a memoir about Alzheimer’s). After studying at Stanford and Duke Universities, earning a BA in English and a Certificate of Education, Anne began a career in education by teaching in public high schools, military barracks, and around kitchen tables to students ranging from academic underdogs to honor society prodigies. When she saw continual improvement in her students’ grades and confidence as a result of her techniques, she turned her attention to writing and has expanded her classroom to the world. Anne has published work in the Washington Post, Nimrod: The International Journal of Prose and Poetry, Margie, and various nationally syndicated periodicals, and her work has been featured in USA Weekend, the Chicago Tribune, and other major newspapers as well as blogs such as Freakonomics.com and About.com. Anne frequently makes appearances on the radio, various blogs, and live lectures and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit her site for details: http://annecrossman.com