The differences Between High School and College Learning

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Dance Studies by Karen Schupp.

One of the most exciting, and sometimes intimidating aspects of starting college is the realization that college-level work is more challenging than what you experienced as a high school student. In college, the majority of your learning time is spent outside of the classroom, and you - not your teachers - are primarily responsible for what you learn. Recognizing how high school and college learning differ can help you develop strategies for success so that you can meet these new expectations.

In high school, you spent about 40 hours per week learning; about 30 of those hours were at school and 10 hours were spent on homework. In college, you will likely still spend about 40 to 45 hours per week learning but only 15 to 25 hours in class. To put it another way, at most campuses, a 3-credit-hour, semester-long course comes with the expectation that students will spend 9 hours a week on that course. If the course meets twice a week for 1.5 hours each session, students should expect to spend about 6 hours a week on homework, studying, reviewing movement phrases, and creating work. Although the overall time spent learning does not change that much from high school to college, the ratio of in-class to out-of-class learning can change substantially. Unlike in high school, where teachers planned most of your learning time, you are now responsible for organizing the majority of your learning time. Understanding and acting on this change in responsibility is one of the best things you can do to ensure that you flourish while studying dance on campus.

Differences exist also in how in-class time is used. In college, professors expect that everyone has competed the assigned readings, creative projects, and homework before coming to class. If you come to class unprepared, it is unlikely that the professor will set aside class time for you to catch up, so it is essential that you are prepared for each class. Additionally, class time will mostly be dedicated to building on previously established knowledge, discussion, and applications of new material, so failure to complete assignments, projects, and readings can quickly set you back. Although the learning expectations are different in high school and college, you can succeed if you stay on top of assignments and readings and seek assistance as needed.

Because the format and expectations of learning in college are different from high school, you may need to refine some of your study habits. Understanding critical thinking and knowing and how to actively read texts, effectively take lecture notes, strengthen your writing, and alleviate assessment anxiety will help you better engage in your learning and empower you toward academic success.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves the examination of thought and how arguments are presented. When critically thinking, the purpose, assumptions, reasoning, implementations, and consequences of an argument are actively considered. Critical thinking requires you to go beyond simple memorization of facts, movements, and acquisition of skills and to examine how the information is constructed and applied. The ability to critically think will both be cultivated by and required for studying dance on campus. You will have many opportunities to practice this in all of your coursework.

Active Reading

You may find that college requires much more reading in both your dance and general education courses than high school, and that much of the information you need to learn about a topic is initially presented in readings instead of being explained by your professors. Therefore, the ability to actively read is beneficial to your overall learning. Active reading requires you to create a dialogue with what you are reading. Asking the text questions and trying to answer them can help you pull out essential information, more readily connect that information to your own experience, and practice critical thinking. You might start by asking yourself some pre-reading questions, such as What is the topic? and What do you know about it? to help you situate your current understanding. Then, it could be beneficial to identify and then define unfamiliar terms and somehow indicate the thesis of the reading so that you can readily refer to them. As much as possible, resist the urge to highlight text; instead, make notes or comments in your own words that summarize the text, provide commentary, or ask questions. As questions arise, it might be helpful to write them in the margins of printed reading materials or to annotate electronic formats using the "comments" or "notes" feature, and then to answer them in a notebook or a separate electronic document. Writing a summary, devising your own practice exam questions, and teaching what you have learned to someone else are excellent ways to synthesize what you have read. All of these pointers keep you active in and responsive to your reading, increase your reading comprehension, and prepare you well for class.

Effective Note Taking

Taking notes in class is a useful way to retain essential information, clarify questions that have come up in the readings, track what you are learning in a course, remember movement phrases and choreography, and critically participate in a lecture. Although note-taking methods vary, there are some common tips on taking effective notes, and they are discussed here. Before class, make sure that you are prepared. This means that you have completed the assigned readings, you have reviewed your notes from the previous class, and you have the required materials for taking notes. When you get to class, sit or stand toward the front of the classroom, where fewer distractions are likely, and come to class with an enthusiastic attitude. Start each lecture’s notes on a separate page, date the notes, and leave room in your notes to add additional information later. During class, listen and watch the speaker very carefully. He or she will often give clear clues about what information is essential. Listen to the introduction so that you can hear the outline of the lecture. Be brief in your note taking. Whenever possible, take notes in your own words instead of trying to write down each word a speaker says. If something is written on the board or presented in slides, write it down. Often professors use the board and digital presentations to emphasize key points in a lecture. Pay special attention to the summary, and at the end of class ask questions about points you are unclear about. After class, review your notes soon, and take some time to match your lecture notes with your reading notes. It may be helpful to review your notes regularly - perhaps weekly - so that you are continuously scaffolding your learning and are prepared for any upcoming exams or papers. When you view note taking as a way to stay engaged in classes and to connect your in-class and out-of-class learning, you can learn as much as possible in each class.


In college, writing takes many forms and purposes. You may be required to complete research papers and analytical essays in which you analyze a given text, argumentative essays in which you have to articulate an informed opinion on a given topic, synthesis essays in which you synthesize information from various sources, summative essays in which you summarize an article, reflective essays in which you reflect on an experience, and research papers. In most cases, professors view the act of writing as an essential component of your learning. In college, writing is a way for you to better comprehend and critically think about a topic. Just as it is important to stay invested in your reading and note taking, it is critical to stay engaged in the act of writing. Perhaps you can start with some prewriting exercises where you use free-writes, brainstorming, and pictures to generate idea. You might use index cards to jot down ideas from outside resources so that you can experiment with different ways of organizing your ideas. After you have gathered your thoughts, you want to schedule enough time to complete at least two drafts, which you can revise based on feedback from yourself, peers, or teaching assistants. As you edit each draft, you want to be sure to proofread. Some proofreading approaches include reading the paper aloud, having someone else read it to you, and using your computer’s spell-checker. You also want to read your paper to ensure that your ideas are well organized and that your thesis or argument is clear and connected to the assignment’s prompt. Your thesis should be clearly stated and supported with ample evidence and examples. To help with this, you can think of each paragraph as a place to make a point, explain your point, and provide an example. The introduction and conclusion, which are essential parts of each type of essay, should provide cohesion to the essay. Finally, be sure that your paper is properly formatted, includes your name and the essay’s title, and uses proper citation. Writing in college gives you numerous opportunities to learn more about a topic while also formulating and articulating your thoughts about a subject matter. As such, it might be helpful to view each written assignment as another way to present yourself and your ideas. This will ensure that you are putting your best work forward each time.

Alleviating Assessment Anxiety

At times, a little bit of nerves can give you an extra boost to do your best, but at other times, anxiety can be overwhelming. In addition to completing papers and projects, your learning will also be measured through tests, exams, and performance assessments as you study dance on campus. There are a few ways that you can avoid or minimize assessment anxiety. Try to avoid cramming for exams and assessments. It is better to consistently review and apply information throughout the semester so that studying for exams is an opportunity to refresh your learning. Stay engaged with your studying by asking yourself sample test questions, and then answering them with material from your readings, notes, and papers. Try to stay positive about assessments. Sometimes it is helpful to remind yourself that a test is only a test, and that there will be others. Try to avoid thinking in all-or-nothing terms, and remember that the only reasonable expectation is to try your best. Be sure to get enough rest, to eat well, and to relax. The healthier you are emotionally and physically before a test, the better you will do. On the day of the test or assessment, be sure to have breakfast, to show up to the test site early, and to avoid students who make you feel nervous. If it is a written test, review the entire exam before starting and consider reading the directions twice. For multiple choice questions, consider all the answers before selecting one, and for essays, create a short outline before starting to write. Take your time. After the assessment, reward yourself! Go to the movies, go out for lunch, and visit with friends. Usually, assessments are milestones in your learning, and completing them should be celebrated. While most assessment anxiety can be eased through proper preparation, there may be times when you need to seek additional assistance to deal with assessment anxiety. In those cases, your campus counseling center can provide strategies to assist with test anxiety.

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