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Academic Success Resources

The following academic success resources are articles and excerpts that can help you throughout your academic journey at Kalamazoo College.

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Academic Zoning

Identifying and Overcoming Obstacles to Academic Success

By Dr. Alan Hill

  • Be Pumped Not Panicky
  • Be Energized Not Drained
  • Be on Pace Not Procrastinating
  • Go for Peak Performance Not Perfection

Athletes are “in the zone” when they feel focused, energized, confident, and capable of maximal performance in a seemingly effortless manner. Athletic “zoning” requires the development of athletic skills to the point that they are almost second-nature which, in turn, requires a strong motivation to succeed. Similarly, academic “zoning” requires well-honed academic skills and a strong desire to develop and use these skills. The lack of these academic skills or the inability to execute them hinders the student, while not finding the “just right level” of anxiety can send one out of the academic zone to the panic, drone and o-zones. What follows are nine major obstacles that threaten to banish you to zones outside of your academic zone.

1. Difficulty Zone I: Underdeveloped Academic and Time-Management Skills

“Hey, I got by or even did well in high school without these so-called academic skills. I didn’t need to take great notes, and I could cram in enough info into a study hall before class to do just fine on a multiple guess exam.”

Such strategies, as above, will not fly at “K”. You’ll end up exhausted and overwhelmed. You will need to develop your writing, reading, studying, note taking, public speaking, project development and test-taking skills. It is important to note that three academic units at “K” require about 45 hours of a student’s time per week, including classroom time, laboratory periods and preparation. So, to achieve balance in your college life, you will need to develop and implement time-management skills and let-go of unrealistic expectations of yourself.

2. Difficulty Zone II: Unrecognized Learning Disability and/or Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder

“I can’t even get close to keeping up with reading, I have a terrible time concentrating, spelling and writing are major problems, I can’t hack foreign language or math”

The above may indicate an unrecognized learning disability or one that is flaring up again after years of dormancy. Check-in with the Counseling Center to see if an assessment is advisable. If you do have a learning disability or Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder, the school is obligated to make specific accommodations to put you on a level playing field.

3. Gateway to the ‘Panic’ Zone: Overly High Self-Expectations/Perfectionism

“I have to do the best…have to get a 4.0…should study all the time”

Certainly it would be nice to be the best, but if you demand perfection at “K”, you will likely find yourself upset, unhappy and angry (at yourself) most of the time. Your self-worth will be on the line for every paper and test, and you’ll anticipate possible imperfection with “too much anxiety,” and enter the “Panic Zone.”

4. Panic Zone: Too Much Anxiety

“It would be terrible, awful or horrible if I don’t do well”

Too much anxiety leaves you panicky, hyper, scattered, nervous, easily distracted and unable to concentrate, which is not a good state in which to study, do a paper or take a test. Furthermore, to escape all this anxiety, you may start practicing some self-defeating behaviors such as: worrying, workaholism, boob-tubing, substance abuse and/or procrastination.

5. Gateway to Panic Zone II: Procrastination

“Never do today, what I can do tomorrow”

One way to eliminate all that anxiety about academics is to take a pint of “put-off.” Though putting-off may work in the short-run, in the long run it will lead to academic disaster and many more problems to get overwhelmed by and “too anxious” about. At this point “getting stoned” and entering the ozone may like a good way to escape this mess and stress.

6. Gateway to the Ozone: Substance Use/Abuse

“Smoking weed/boozing helps me relax and escape”

Like procrastination, substance use works for the short-run, but not for the long-run. You risk addiction to the substance and preclude learning healthier ways to deal with your stress. You also risk (especially with pot) entering the “Drone Zone”, where you experience “too little anxiety” to take care of business.

7. Drone Zone: Too Little Anxiety

“No problems, everything’s cool”

When you are in the “Drone Zone”, you deny or minimize the work you need to do, which leaves you with too little concern about academics and unmotivated to do what you need to do to succeed academically. You’ll likely start to feel lethargic, sluggish and apathetic regarding your college experience. Eventually, since you are at odds with the main purpose of “K”, you’ll feel alienated from the school and depressed about your current and future situation.

8. Drone Zone II: Alienation/Blues

“Who cares, it doesn’t matter, why am I here, I don’t belong”

You may experience “K” as irrelevant, meaningless or even as antithetical to your self-development. You may experience yourself as separate, invisible and/or isolated from the College community. Such experiences can be associated with feelings of disorientation, powerlessness, loneliness, rage, depression and hopelessness. Hopefully feelings of shame and pride will not prevent you from getting help.

9. Twilight Zone: Shame/Overly Independent

“I don’t need help, should be able to take care of it by myself, what would others say”

Shame or a self-imposed imperative to take care of things yourself, can place you in a twilight zone, from where you are unable to take effective steps to take care of the above obstacles to academic zoning. One student waited until the last week of his academic career to ask for help because he thought instructors, advisors and counselors would look down on him. Come on in, you’ll get our respect for taking care of yourself and your life.

Test Anxiety

Conquering Test Anxiety

By Dr. Alan Hill

The best antidote to test anxiety is confidence that you can meet the challenge of the test, and the best route to confidence is preparation. If you are well prepared for your tests but still have high test anxiety, please read on.

High test anxiety is largely the result of interpreting the test as a dangerous situation. I may simply see an item I don’t know and begin to envision the dangerous experience of failing this exam. I may begin to get anxious and begin to fear that I will panic and blank
out. I see others finish the exam early and wonder why it was so easy for them. But what makes ‘failing the exam’ really dangerous stems from my belief that if I don’t do well on this test then I will prove my inadequacy, that others will rightfully think less of and
perhaps reject me, and/or that my future is now spelt DOOMED. Perfectionism, a common trait at ‘K’, increases the danger of failure. Many students at K chain their expectations to their perceived high expectations of family and high achieving peers. Ironically, all this high anxiety makes it less likely you’ll fulfill these expectations.

Get Real

To reduce test anxiety you must reduce the danger of the test by understanding that your self-worth, relationships and future are not on the line in regards to this one test. You are not a failure, worthless or a loser because you fail one or two or more tests. These tests have nothing to do with your value as a human being unless you decide they do. In fact it would be better if you stopped rating your self in this way and just rated your behavior, e.g. “I did badly on the test, not I failed the test and now I am a failure” If you must rate your self, rate yourself as a good person “period” who like every other
human makes mistakes (often, like daily).

Will family and friends reject you for not doing well? Are you doomed by one test? Will you not use this test as one of many learning experiences and find a way to do better? No matter what, you will still find a way to a happy and productive life. This is just one exam! As I quoted Albert Ellis in my last piece, “nothing is terrible, horrible or terrible, just damned inconvenient.”

Positive Self-Statements

You can instantiate a more positive and realistic attitude during a test through positive self statements such as: (see ‘Cognitive strategies below for more examples) .

  • What it is I have to do? No negative self-statements, think rationally.
  • Change I must (have to) do well to I want to do well on this exam.
  • This is the anxiety that I thought I might feel. It’s a reminder to cope.

Finally, learn relaxation techniques including deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation and practice visualizing a good performance on the exam (See the Visualization exercise below). Finally don’t forget the basics: eat well and get a good night’s sleep. Bon Chance?

Test Anxiety Visualization Scenario

Picture yourself walking to the room where you will take the exam. Try to imagine yourself feeling confident and relaxed. You arrive at the room. Look around the room in your imagination and picture yourself finding a comfortable seat. See yourself sitting there waiting for the exam to begin. You are feeling a bit tense, perhaps eager to be able to show what you know on this test. You know that if your anxiety becomes too uncomfortable you can reduce it with abdominal breathing. Imagine the instructor handing out the exam questions. Your anxiety increases but is still very tolerable. You
are aware that some anxiety enhances performance and you are not worried about it. You remind yourself that you have prepared well for the test so there is every reason to expect that you will do well. Picture yourself looking over the questions, You notice that the
first one looks difficult so you pass over that one and see that the next one is easy. You answer that question and feel your confidence increase. Picture yourself working confidently to complete the exam. You are so involved answering questions that you are unaware of any feelings of tension. The time goes by quickly. You are doing well. You know most of the answers right away. There are others you are not sure of, but you have ideas for possible answers and you are not bothered by being unsure. You know that you are doing your best and that is enough to make you feel good about your performance.
Imagine yourself turning in your test and saying to yourself that you did a good job. Now you can reward yourself for your hard work by taking time to do something you really like to do.

Some Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety

  • Foster positive student-professor relationships
  • Develop effective study habits.
  • Develop test-taking strategies.
  • Increase knowledge of subject.
  • Focus attention on the task.
  • Use task-relevant strategies.
  • Practice and use problem solving.
  • Use memory supports.
  • Use effective time management.
  • Train self in anxiety management.
  • Use positive reinforcing self-statements.
  • Enjoy success

Examples of Coping & Reinforcing Self-Statements

  • What is it I have to do? No negative self-statements, just think rationally.
  • Don’t worry. Worry won’t help anything.
  • Focus on the task. Exactly what does the question really ask? It doesn’t say this… or this… it just asks…
  • Just think about what I can do about it. That’s better than getting anxious.
  • Don’t look for tricks, just what does it say? What’s the basic question; what’s the main point?
  • I don’t want to get lost in detail; stand back and look at the big picture.
  • I can’t get the feel of how to work the problem. I’ll come back to it or… Let me just start; maybe that’ll get me into it.
  • That’s a stupid question,.. o.k., It’s stupid or I don’t get the point, I’ll come back to it.
  • Wonder how many I can miss for a ‘B’… I’ll figure that out later; just pay attention and finish this.
  • Don’t get anxious; just take off a moment, take a couple of slow, deep breaths…
  • calm… and relax… good.
  • Don’t try to eliminate the anxiety totally; just keep it manageable. Keep the focus on the present; what is it I have to do?
  • Lots more to do before I finish. Just take one question at a time.
  • This is the anxiety that I thought I might feel. It’s a reminder for me to cope.
  • Slow down a little; don’t rush and get all in a panic. There’s time for most of it.
  • They finished early. I wonder. There’s no way I can know what’s going on with them; forget them.
  • I’m not going to be able to do it. I’m going to lose control. No, take a deep breath, part lips, relax, take a candy, relax.
  • Label my anxiety from 0 to 10 and watch it change. No, I’m under control. Back to the exam.
  • It’s working; I can control how I feel.
  • Wait until I tell my study group about this.
  • I am in control. I made more out of my fear than it was worth.
  • My ‘crazy’ ideas. That’s the problem. When I control them I control my fear.

Time Management

I. Evaluate how you spend your time now

  • A. Keep a time log
  • B. Review the log and ask yourself:
    1. Did I do everything I had to?
    2. Was I rushed for time to get things done?
    3. Did I meet all deadlines?
    4. What personal habits kept me from achieving my goals?
    5. At what time of day was I most productive? Least productive?
  • C. Analyze your time-spending pattern
    1. Become aware of the time of day you have the most energy, feel the most productive, and think most clearly—HIGH ENERGY TIMES.
    2. Become aware of the time of day you fade quickly, have the least energy, and feel lease alert LOW ENERGY TIMES.

II. Make lists

  • A. Set up a calendar for the quarter of all exams, papers, presentations, major assignments and important events.
  • B. Assign long-term projects to appropriate weeks.
  • C. Each week, make a list of what you need to get done.
  • D. Assign those projects to specific days.
  • E. Each day, make a list of everything you plan to do.

III. Assign priorities

  • A. “A” priorities: tasks you need to work on now.
  • B. “B” priorities: tasks that can wait until “A” tasks are done.
  • C. “C” priorities: tasks that aren’t very important and can wait.

IV. Divide tasks into manageable units

  • A. Make sure units are manageable.
  • B. Be realistic in estimating time needed to complete (don’t underestimate).

V. Schedule

  • A. Put in fixed commitments—classes, meals, sleeping, job, athletic or music practice.
  • B. Schedule your “A” priority tasks for high energy times.
  • C. Schedule less demanding or less important tasks for low energy periods.
  • D. Schedule in time for exercise, social activities, creative time, and relaxation. Balance is crucial.

VI. Start on your schedule—and watch for interference

  • A. Distractions—visitors, phone calls, noise.
    1. Find quiet place to study.
    2. Okay to say no.
  • B. Procrastination
    1. Break up the task into smaller chunks.
    2. Start with easiest part of job and work on it for 15-20 minutes.
    3. Reward yourself for each step completed.
    4. Remember how good you’ll feel when it’s done.
  • C. Perfectionism
    1. 80% of best work done during first 20% of time you spend.
    2. Remember that!

VII. Tips

  • A. Tackle hard subjects first
  • B. Know instructions
  • C. Break up tasks into manageable units
  • D. Study same subject at same time each day
  • E. Schedule reviews right after lecture, before discussion
  • F. Use small scraps of time
  • G. Take short breaks
  • H. Don’t cram
  • I. Don’t overcommit
  • J. Pace yourself
  • K. Plan ahead for major projects and exams
  • L. Take care of yourself
  • M. Avoid perfectionism
  • N. Control distractions
  • O. Focus on goals

VIII. Benefits

  • A. Meet deadlines
  • B. Achieve more learning, not cramming
  • C. Maintain control over work and life more generally
  • D. Have more truly free time

Overcoming Procrastination

Never Do Today, What You Can Do Tomorrow (or at least what you can convince yourself you can)

By Dr. Alan Hill

The prices of procrastination are well-known: all-niters, missed opportunities, poor grades, penalties for late assignments or arrivals, anger from others for not coming through or getting the job done, feeling guilty and depressed that you aren’t accomplishing much, and always feeling behind and under the gun as assignments pile up. So, there must be some important payoffs to putting-up with these high prices of putting-off.

Procrastination Payoff #1: A Pint of Put-off takes the Pressure off

(“What a relief! I don’t have to do it now!”)

The most immediate pay-off of putting-off is the “relief” from the frustration, tedium, and/or pressure of performing a difficult, boring, and/or time-limited task. So, like the alcoholic, who takes a drink to find relief, the procrastaholic takes a “pint of put-off” to relieve themselves of feelings of frustration, boredom, or worry about performing a task. By putting-off the procrastaholic is free to engage in more pleasant activities such as TV, hanging-out, e-mail or computer games.

However, as the due date approaches, feelings, such as panic (“I don’t have the time ”), fear (“I’ll never get in med school”), self-anger (“I’m an idiot”), and defeat (“I’m sunk”) arise. These intense feelings not only impair one’s ability to concentrate and perform the task, but may trigger more powerful relief strategies including: running away (“road-trip!”), development of a hostile attitude (“school sucks”), giving-up (“there’s no hope”) or continual self-medication with alcohol, pot, food, sex etc. The inevitable outcome is poor performance and eventually the procrastaholic “hits bottom” by failing a course, losing a scholarship, and/or experiencing exhaustion, constant anxiety or depression.

Procrastination Payoff # 2: Don’t Have to Risk Failure

(“I’m not a failure! I can still do it! I just didn’t really try this time.”)

If I believe that my self-worth, the approval of faculty, parents or peers and/or a worthwhile life (becoming clinical psychologist, physician, physicist, writer, etc. ) is dependent upon performing well or perfectly, I will be terrified at the possibility of not doing well. Then, better to procrastinate than anxiously entertain these “terrible” consequences of failure. And when I don’t do well on the paper or test, I can maintain my self-esteem and my dreams by attributing my poor performance to “not trying or not having enough time to do well”.

Payoff #3: Postpones Success

(“Success is very Scary”)

Some procrastinators put-off to avoid the pain that they believe is associated with success. So I don’t apply to medical school not because I fear getting rejected or wish to avoid the tedium of filling out applications, but because I fear getting accepted. I may get accepted and then flunk-out, or I may garner an M.D. and set myself up for a more humiliating failure down the road (e.g., failed residency) or a success I don’t really want (e.g., “I like the money but I’ll dislike the work”).

Or I may dawdle with my studying, because if I fear successful completion of my studying will bring me face to face with other unsatisfying aspects of my life such as relationship problems or a lack of a social life.

Finally, I may not wish to succeed because my success may please people whom I am angry at. So I put-off garnering the necessary credits for graduating as payback to my pushy parents.


Get Yourself Motivated to Stop Procrastinating:

  • List all the prices of procrastination, e.g. all-niters, exhaustion, poor performance, panic, etc.
  • List the payoffs of completing work in a timely fashion, e.g. more balance in life, better performance, more relaxed, more guilt-free fun, etc.
  • Now, compare these lists with the reasons for your procrastination

Set-up an Anti-Procrastinating Environment

  • Get support: Tell friends/faculty about your effort to stop and enlist their support. Seek counseling and/or read the self-help literature.
  • Creative Scheduling Techniques.
    1. Contingency Scheduling: Place more pleasing activity in schedule after time set aside for less pleasing activities. No TV, reading Anthro., etc. until I finish reading Econ.
    2. Reverse Schedule for Projects: Schedule from ultimate deadline to present.
    3. Unschedule: A weekly calendar of committed recreational activities that divides the week into manageable pieces with breaks, meals, scheduled socializing, and play, plus a record of productive work completed.
    4. Salami Technique: Break down project into small steps.
    5. Swiss Cheese Technique: Use 10 minutes there and 10 minutes here to get work done.
  • Prime the pump: Break-up studying time into chunks of 30 minutes. If you have a hard time getting started, start with just a 10 minute chunk.
  • Find a new place to study without old tempting distractions.
  • Use time tested time management techniques.

Set-up an Anti-Procrastinating Internal Environment

  • Clean-out and Replace Procrastinating Self-Statements. Change:
    1. “I have to” to “I choose to or I want to.”
    2. “I must finish” to “When can I start?”
    3. “This is so big” to “I can take one small step.”
    4. “I must be perfect” to “I can be human.”
    5. “I don’t have time to play ” to “I must take time to play.”
    6. “I should” to ” I want to” or “It would be better.”
    7. “This is horrible” to “This is inconvenient. I don’t like it.”
    8. “I don’t have to” to “It would be better to.”
  • Replace Procrastinating Attitudes with Productive Attitudes, such as:
    1. “Accept what I cannot change”, e.g. “24 hours in a day”.
    2. “First things First … Follow my Priorities.”
    3. “One day at a time” (Focus on Today) “Let-go of past (shame/resentment) and future (worry/hopelessness).
    4. “Things will work-out.”
    5. “Can-do attitude”
    6. “Try to do the job or enjoy yourself, not prove yourself.”
    7. “Decatastrophize: “It is not life or death!!!!” “Just damned inconvenient”
    8. “Give-up perfectionism ‘good enough’.”
    9. “Don’t quit starting.”
    10. “If anything is worth doing its worth doing poorly.”
    11. “Do it anyway!”