Academic Enhancement Resources

Active Listening in the Classroom

Choosing a Major and Career

Improving Concentration

Improving Your Vocabulary

Learning to Relax

Managing Stress

Overcoming Perfectionism


Active Listening in the Classroom

Good listening is a learned skill. Just being quiet while another person is talking is not necessarily listening. Neither is “passive” learning which leaves one’s head swimming with sounds and words yet devoid of usable information. Good listening in the classroom is a particularly active pursuit that requires concentration, skill and practice. You can get better at it (and probably improve your grades even in boring classes!) by following some simple suggestions.

  1. Prepare to listen. One of the main aids to good listening in the classroom is adequate preparation for class. Try to read your assignment ahead of time. If you are not fascinated with the material, at least try to find some part of it that seems interesting or of use to you. Familiarize yourself with terms, definitions, and the spelling of names so you won’t be side-tracked with details as they are discussed during the lecture.
  2. Sit at the front of the room. Put as few distractions as possible between yourself and the instructor. It will be easier to pay attention and ignore other dozing students if they are behind you. Make eye contact if you can. Be aware of nonverbal communications, yet don’t let the speaker’s vocal quality, accent, mannerisms, or appearance interfere with the message you receive. Focus on, evaluate, and be critical of content, not delivery.
  3. Be a good note taker. Taking notes helps keep your attention on the ideas being expressed, but don’t over do it. Don’t write down everything the speaker says or you won’t be able to keep up with the lecture. In general, jot down concepts, key words, phrases, and ideas to review and interpret later. If the speaker says, “these are the main points” or jots down lists of terms on the blackboard, take note of these as possible exam questions.
  4. Ask questions. Ask questions to clarify your understanding as well as to seek additional information. If you are hearing what seems to be disconnected facts, dates, and names, ask for summarizing concepts. If you are hearing more global ideas, opinions, and concepts, ask for supporting facts and principles — appropriately, of course, with the intent of rounding out the content so it will be more meaningful and you can remember it longer. Do give the speaker adequate time to explain the topic, but don’t let your questions go unanswered if you don’t understand. As an aside, class participation may be a part of your grade. Your questions will let the teacher know you are listening as well as attempting to understand and remember.
  5.  Keep an open mind. Don’t share your own viewpoint too quickly. If you make up your mind too fast that you have an opposing viewpoint, you may tend to concentrate more on your rebuttal than the speaker’s ideas. Be aware of your prejudices as well. Don’t become emotionally upset or defensive when specific words trigger your anger or frustration. Instead, continue to concentrate on the essence of the lecture. If you do feel strongly about something that was said, ask at the end of the lecture or try to see the instructor privately to make sure you haven’t misunderstood the intent. Often different words mean different things to different people.
  6.  Practice regularly. In order to become a more experienced listener, don’t just expose your mind to light, recreational input. Challenge your new listening abilities with heavier more thought provoking information. Take interesting electives or sit in on a variety of campus lectures. Listen to increasingly complex information. You can become an expert at sorting out facts as well as synthesizing new ideas — an effective listener.

These new “listening skills” will be valuable to you in a college setting now — as well as dealing with the complexities of a work situation some day. Good listening skills will always be helpful. Concentration is the key issue here. While you can’t wave a magic wand and eliminate the barriers to good listening, you can become a better listener today by working at it.


Choosing a Major and Career

UK Career Center Career and major exploration, internships, resume and cover letter advice, mentoring and shadowing opportunities, and help finding a job.

Undergraduate Major Sheets Part of the University of Kentucky Office of the Registrar. Major sheets are listed alphabetically and by college. Learn about the course requirements for each available major/degree program.

Academic Programs at UK Links to each college at UK. College websites link to departmental websites which provide more information about each major.

Major Resource Kits Links academic major to career alternatives at the bachelor’s and advanced degree levels. Suggests ways to enhance employability. Lists potential employers and professional associations.

America’s Career InfoNet Links to exploring careers and resources. Includes wages, trends, and job market information.

Guides for Specific Careers Guides for specific careers including training, education, earnings, and personal stories/advice from people working in the field. Conventional occupations plus unusual areas such as computer game development, motion pictures, biotechnology, zoological parks, and marine science.

Career and Job Resources for Women and Minorities General diversity resources as well as resources for women, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and persons with disabilities. Also has military career/job sites (for veterans as well as those looking to enlist) and global job resources for international careers/employment.

Steps to Career/Life Planning Success. An online career manual which encourages choosing work that emphasizes one’s own unique skills, knowledge, personality, and interests. Helps define the balance with work, finances, health, and family relationships. Focus is on choosing a “dream” career while considering marketable skills. Many helpful inventories and worksheets.

What can I do with a major in… Fact sheets for nearly 50 majors -contains transferable skills, possible careers and names of organizations that have hired graduates with particular majors.

What can I do with this major? Convenient web site that links majors with careers. Handouts on each major with lists of work areas, usual employers and strategies for getting jobs.

Occupational Outlook Handbook Describes what workers do, education required, advancement opportunities, earnings, and employment outlook in 225 career areas. Also lists addresses and web sites for professional associations.

Occupational Information Network (O*NET) Provides information on jobs and careers including required tasks, knowledge, skills, abilities, work activities, work context, interests, and work values.


Improving Concentration

Concentration is the ability to keep your mind focused on one thing and bring it back whenever it wanders. Athletes learn to concentrate on their own performance, not on their competition; creative artists learn to work without always being inspired; and, students can learn to concentrate on their studies. Some academic projects may not be fun in the short term, but contribute to the long term goal of a college degree.

There are two kinds of concentration. When you are drawn into a book or movie by something very interesting or appealing, that’s “passive concentration” — it’s not difficult to maintain even if you are interrupted occasionally. The other kind, “active concentration,” is usually involved in intellectual work, focusing on reports you must write or on assignments you must read when they’re not intrinsically interesting to you. This is the essence of academic success.

If you’ve despaired at your mental wanderings during study, don’t give up hope. There is no known difference in brain chemistry or IQ between people who actively concentrate well and those whose minds meander at the first interruption. Researchers have found, however, that you can strengthen powers of concentration with practice, much like developing “mental muscle.”

Let’s look at some roadblocks to concentration that college students often experience. Did you ever flop down on the bed to study, listen to the stereo, drink soda, eat chips, talk on the phone, run downstairs now and then to check on your laundry and then say to friends the next day, “I studied last night.” Such a richness of multiple activities frequently dilutes the study experience as each activity distracts from the other with full awareness of nothing. For many people, studying like this is a habit.

Another factor is negative self talk. Saying, “I’m never going to get done,” or “I’m going to fail this test for sure,” may add enough anxiety to substantially interfere with concentration. Better to say, “I can do this if I try,” — even if you don’t quite believe it at first.

Other factors like drinking coffee can give you jitters or too little sleep can make you too tired to concentrate well. If you want to learn active concentration, you may have to break some old study patterns that keep you from concentrating.

Here is an Active Concentration Exercise that may help you:

  • Set Your Study Goal Make it specific. Identify the behaviors you want to see in yourself as well as the outcome in writing. For example, write, “I want to concentrate on math for 30 minutes a day so that I can improve my math grade this semester,” or “I want to concentrate on writing my literature paper 30 minutes a day so that I’ll be finished by the December deadline.”
  • Identify What You Do Instead of Concentrating How do you perpetuate old habits and mess yourself up? How does this cause problems? What are the benefits of changing? Again, address this in writing.
  • Make a Realistic Plan for Yourself Daily or weekly. Something to take you from here to there. Athletes know that they can’t do all their training the day before the meet. Mental muscle builds best, too, if you space the practice times. List specific activities you need to do for a project and put times on them. Example: Research Paper Library Research - 4 hours Rough Draft - 3 hours Typing Final Draft - 2 hours Decide what you are going to do and when. Separate and simplify. You can only do one thing well at a time. Plan to actively concentrate for short periods of time and plan rest breaks as well.
  • Choose a Place to Study Not on your bed, not in the tub, not in the laundry room, preferably in a place where you will only study so you will associate that place with studying. A new place in the library or at a clean desk in your room. Have all supplies ready. Close the door. Ask others not to bother you.
  • Sit Down to Study the Proposed Subject at the Proposed Time and for the Proposed Duration If your mind wanders, repeat your goal and continue to focus on what you agreed and not on past performance, not on your faults, but what you are doing now, studying. After the study period, close your books, tidy up the study area, and leave. Alternate rewarding activities with those you like less. Adjust the study schedule as your study needs change and your concentration skills improve.

Remember! Active concentration, the kind involved in intellectual work, is a learned skill. Be patient with yourself. Initially you may be able to concentrate for short periods only. Later on you can do it longer. You’ll get more mental muscle as you practice. Another thing, expect to succeed. Tell yourself you will succeed if you try — it’s more likely to happen that way.


Improving Your Vocabulary

There is an old story about a man who looked up the meaning of “to be frugal” and found out that one of the dictionary definitions was “to save.” The next time he was at the seashore swimming he developed a stomach cramp and yelled “Frugal me! Frugal me!” to his friends on the shore. They looked at each other quizzically as he sank beneath the waves. Misuse of a word isn’t always that serious, of course, but it’s often embarrassing as you say. I don’t know of any quick solutions, but here are some ideas to get you started on a program of vocabulary improvement.

Become Well Read

I know that students in the sciences necessarily read a lot of technical literature as part of their curriculum. In your spare time, however, try to read in other areas, too - newspapers, news, magazines, hobby magazines, business publications, fashion magazines, psychology journals — whatever interests you. Keep a supply of small cards (1.5” x 3”) with you. Every time you come across a new word, write it on the front of the card. If the definition is evident from the reading passage, jot it on the back of the card…If not, look up the word in the dictionary and write down the definition as well as a synonym or two from another reference, the Thesaurus. Carry these cards with you, or display them on your desk until you have incorporated the words into your communication and your writing. In just a few weeks of practice, making new word cards will become second nature and your vocabulary will increase dramatically. If you get a lot of cards, you can alphabetize them and they can be studied while eating lunch, waiting for buses or at other odd times. Try to remember where you read the word originally, keeping it in context will help you give it meaning and help you to remember how to use it next time.

Listen to Speakers Who Have Good Vocabularies

Expressive, articulate speakers have a way of painting mental pictures for you as well as influencing your thoughts. As you listen to their ability to express themselves, you will be encouraged to use new words. Attend free campus lectures on various topics of interest to you. You may even have a chance to ask questions to clarify what you’ve heard.

You can also listen to interesting interviews and debates on television. Make note cards here too—you will begin to develop a fascination for the ways people use words to convey their thoughts and ideas, and in so doing will improve your vocabulary and communication skills.

Learn the Roots of Words

Since a large percentage of words in the English language have a Latin or Greek origin, you may wish to study these origins in a college or community education language class. You can also study “etymology” which helps you learn the prefixes (word beginnings) and suffixes (word endings) which often alter the meanings of words. The prefix “pre,” for example, means before (as in predict); the prefix “post” means after (as in postpone). The suffix “ible” means capable of (digestible) while the suffix “less” means without (sleepless). There are many common prefixes and suffixes which will help you learn the meanings of words and how they are used. You will develop even more interest in words as you take them apart piece by piece. You may even wish to make up some of your own!

Enjoy Words

Don’t make “vocabulary improvement” another grim task on your list of important things to do. There are thousands of word games, television word game shows and crossword puzzles all around us. You can make words part of an enjoyable pastime. You are beginning your vocabulary work out of a need to converse adequately with your patients and put them (as well as yourself) at ease. If you become well read, listen to good speakers, learn the roots of words, and use your new knowledge in enjoyable ways, you’ll soon find it’s not work at all. You’ll enjoy speaking and writing well and look for opportunities to learn even more.


Learning to Relax

Stress seems to be a “complicating” factor in busy lives today and unfortunately there are no “uncomplicated” answers. Sometimes major stressors like death, divorce or disease will bowl us over — other times stress is more subtle — the minor irritation of waiting in a long line, missing an important phone call or getting two points lower on an exam than you expected. Still other times stress results from a seemingly positive situation — an emotion packed holiday reunion, or perhaps the anticipation of an important athletic event. Since many stressful situations can’t be avoided (or we might choose to participate anyway) it’s best to learn to deal with them constructively and thus reduce the negative impact on health and well being. “Plain old relaxation” is one such way to do this. Here are three simple relaxation techniques that can be effective for most people who use them regularly.

Progressive Deep Muscle Relaxation

Developed by Edmund Jacobson, M.D., this technique can quickly release accumulated tension so you feel more relaxed. The theory is that once you’ve felt muscle tension, you can more easily feel muscle relaxation.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit in a chair and close your eyes. Rest your forearms on the arms of the chair, palms downward.
  2. Take a few slow, deep breaths. Concentrate on whatever muscle tension you may be feeling, but do nothing about it.
  3. Tell yourself to “tense” and tighten a muscle group for five seconds, then tell yourself to “relax” and let the tension dissolve for 30 seconds

Follow this sequence:

  • Bend both arms at the elbows and wrists. Make a fist with each hand. Relax.
  • Press your back against the chair. Relax.
  • Tighten your abdomen. Relax.
  • Lift and extend your lower legs. Relax.
  • Tighten your jaw. Relax.
  • Squint your eyes. Relax.
  • Tuck your chin against your chest. Relax.

At the end of the exercise, be sure to “suggest” that when you open your eyes you will feel refreshed, relaxed and alert — then get up, stretch, and go back to your regular activities.

Meditative Suggestion

Using only the power of suggestion (no physical movement), you can teach your body and mind to respond quickly to your own command to relax. Originally developed as “autogenic training” to reduce the tension of chronic headache sufferers, meditative suggestion is helpful for general relaxation as well. Simply speaking, you will give yourself a series of verbal suggestions geared to induce feelings of either “heaviness” or “warmth.” Heaviness suggestions promote muscle relaxation; warmth suggestions relax blood vessels, triggering sensations of warmth. Together, the two sensations promote overall relaxation.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose a quiet environment without distractions. Dim the lights, sit in a comfortable chair and close your eyes.
  2. Start with your right arm (if you’re right-handed) or left arm (if you’re left-handed), and quietly give yourself these suggestions:
  • My arm is heavy. (Repeat three times for each arm.)
  • My leg is heavy. (Repeat three times for each leg.)
  • Both my arms and legs are heavy. (Repeat three times.)      

It might help to visualize small weights attached to your arms and legs.

  1. Follow the same sequence for the warmth commands:
  • My arm is warm. (Repeat three times for each arm.)
  • My leg is warm. (Repeat three times for each leg.)
  • Both my arms and legs feel warm. (Repeat three times.)      

It might help to imagine your arms and legs submerged in warm bath water or basking in sun light.

  1. To complete the exercise, take a deep breath and say, “My heartbeat is calm.” (Repeat three times.) Then, “I am calm.” Again, give yourself the suggestion that you will arise refreshed and alert and go back to your regular activities.

The Relaxation Response

As you become more stressed, your breathing becomes shallower and more erratic, thus transporting less oxygen to your body at a time when you need it most. Here you will focus only on your breathing (instead of your tension!) and find it immediately relaxing. Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School developed this technique.

  1.  Sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and relax your muscles.
  2. Focus on your breathing. Breathe slowly and naturally.
  3. Select a word such as the number “one.” Repeat it silently or see it in your mind’s eye each time you exhale. (When outside thoughts intrude, disregard them and return to the word you’ve selected. Maintain a passive, relaxed attitude about any interruptions).
  4. Continue for a set period of time - 10 to 20 minutes. Practice the technique twice daily.

Experts in a variety of disciplines agree that relaxing for 20 minutes once or twice a day is helpful in reducing stress – regardless of the specific technique used. No equipment is needed for the “techniques” suggested, though some people report that audio taping the instructions for listening while they’re learning the techniques is helpful. Another simple way to reduce the impact of stress in your life is to slow down whenever you can. Most people expect too much of themselves. Not everything needs to be done at breakneck speed or on an endless schedule of self-imposed deadlines. Remember, it’s not a waste of time to rest or play, so allow some free time in every day. Be sure to get plenty of sleep and maintain good physical as well as emotional health. If you do have troubles, share them with a trusted friend or counselor.

Last, keep a sense of humor; take some time each day to read or listen to something funny. Laugh out loud it will brighten your outlook. That too is relaxing! Now, for those books about “plain old relaxation.” Here is one you might enjoy: “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook” Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, Matthew McKay, & Patrick Fanning


Managing Stress

Most people are all too willing to tolerate day-to-day stress. They say “I’m hyped all the time–my mind races–I do three times as much work as anyone else-I never need much sleep,” and then wait until they have an emotional or physical crisis before they do something about it. By the time it’s serious, they’re saying, “I can’t concentrate–I lash out at people–I’m always frustrated–and I never get any rest.”  Step One is being aware that stress can have negative consequences in your life.

You might look at this list and recognize a few “headaches” in your life. If so, you’ve begun Step Two, identifying your personal symptoms of stress. Hans Selye, a Canadian physician, describes stress reactions in four areas: physical (headaches, fatigue, hypertension); behavioral (yelling, compulsive eating, excessive smoking); emotional (depression, frustration, loneliness); and thinking (impatience, worrying, difficulty concentrating). Different people have different degrees of distress in different areas. Where YOUR stress occurs will give you clues on effective ways of managing it.

Let’s spend a little more time on Step Two. Carry a small notebook–call it SAM, your Stress Awareness Monitor. Every time you feel stressed, write down the date, time, stressproducing incident, your physical, behavioral, emotional, or thinking reaction, and how you attempted to relieve your stress. Rate your reaction on a one-to-ten scale–ten being the most stressful. Review your entries in a week or two. You’ll notice patterns in your stressors and your responses. For example, if every Tuesday morning you get up late, run to campus, arrive late for biology class and get called down by the professor, your “stress” will be obvious. If you follow this class with a midmorning coffee date with your girlfriend, your residual anger could soon sour an otherwise pleasant relationship. Such realizations are painful to record, but they’ll become the basis for a personal stress reduction program that will do you some good.

Step Three is developing your stress management program. I’m not suggesting hours of meditation, exercises, or counseling. Instead, let me offer some options for dealing with stress you can easily incorporate into a busy life.

Set Limits on What You Do & Learn to Say No

Regularly examine the commitments and promises you make to others (as well as yourself). If your goals are too ambitious, or you’re overextended on projects, look for ways to cut back. One approach that has worked for me is to not give a “yes” or “no” immediately when asked to do something. I tell the other person I need to think about it and get back to them in ten minutes (or a couple of days!). This allows me to think about the trade-offs. If I give a well considered “yes” and later feel pressured, I’m less resentful about the situation.

Manage Your Time & Your Tasks

Start by “valuing” what you want from life. Goals give purpose to life and proper goal setting ultimately reduces stress. Setting short range goals or breaking larger projects into smaller pieces allows us to set priorities, make plans, and schedule time realistically so we can achieve the “valuable” goals we’ve identified for ourselves. Don’t forget to reward yourself for achieving small goals along the way. It’s a great motivator and as simple as “I’ll study calculus this afternoon, then go to the movies with my girlfriend this evening.” Keep work and play separate. You’ll be more productive AND have more fun.

Vent Your Feelings

People who live and work together have both positive and negative feelings about each other. While you can’t lash out at every person with whom you feel frustrated, long term repression of negative feelings will cast a dark shadow on your interactions, sap your energy, and increase stress in relationships. Learn to communicate your feelings to others. If you have difficulty, you may wish to see a counselor to learn communication skills for maintaining healthy relationships.


A person can’t sweat and worry at the same time! A good physical workout seems to allow the mind to let go–at least temporarily– of its worries and problems. After exercising, you may have to face a headache, but it’s less stressful in a relaxed physical state.

Develop Positive Head Talk

We all walk around with conversations going on inside our heads–most of them negative and riddled with anxiety. “What did she mean by that?” “Why do I always goof up?” Stress resistant people do the opposite–they adopt a positive attitude that can be learned by relabeling their thinking. “She’s having a bad day,” or “I do well most of the time.”


I can’t end a list of stress management techniques without mentioning relaxation techniques–but to do them justice would require another column. If you want to learn more about visualization, biofeedback, and progressive relaxation, read “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook” by Davis, McKay, and Robbins (New Harbinger Publications, 2008). These stress management techniques can be beneficial, and your stress reduction program doesn’t have to become another stressor in your life. Begin with the techniques that appeal to you now, and add the others as needed. We are living in what John Galbraith referred to as the “age of anxiety” where stress related disorders abound. Luckily, stress is manageable; we can insulate ourselves against its negative effects and still have exciting lives!


Overcoming Perfectionism

Setting high standards for yourself and wanting to be the best you can be are very positive goals. There is nothing wrong with striving to meet high standards unless those standards are beyond reach or reason. When goals dominate your life and take away your ability to enjoy your accomplishments, you can become a victim of perfectionism. People have perfectionistic attitudes that make them unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives.

Research has shown that people who never allow themselves to enjoy their successes appear to be vulnerable to a variety of Nobody remembers a runner up. . . emotional and physical ills. How do you decide when you cross the line between healthy pursuit of excellence and the illusion that you can be perfect if you just try hard enough?

Here are Some Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Do you see things from an all or nothing viewpoint–nothing in between?
  2. When you make a mistake, do you feel it will happen again and again — once wrong, always wrong?
  3. Do “should” statements dominate your self-talk — I should do better?
  4. Do you feel you must achieve a flawless result and refuse to stop trying even if what you are doing makes little difference in the outcome — not knowing when enough is enough?

If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, perfectionistic attitudes may be making you unhappy. Just because you have some of these feelings doesn’t mean you can’t learn to change your way of thinking about yourself and how other people see you.

The University of Pennsylvania Mood Clinic has developed a structured treatment program for attitude-retraining. They suggest six steps for changing old habits of thought.

  1. Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of attempting to be perfect in everything you do. Sometimes the amount of time and energy required to achieve a perfect result outweighs the importance of the results. It may become apparent that perfectionistic behavior is not always an advantage.
  2. Start a pleasure-predicting sheet. Make a list of your activities for the next day and assign each a number from one to ten according to your expectation of how satisfying the activity will be. You could discover that doing an average job on some activities is more satisfying than doing a perfect job on others. Many people believe they can’t experience satisfaction unless they perform in an outstanding manner on every activity.
  3. Find out if dichotomous thinking works. Next time you pass a person on the street, ask yourself, “Is this person totally handsome? Or totally ugly? Or somewhere in between?” The world seldom divides itself dichotomously into two categories.
  4. Write down your “automatic thoughts.” Make a list of the thoughts that rush into your mind involuntarily when you evaluate yourself. Did you record a lot of negative thoughts — “This paper isn’t good enough to turn in,” or “I’m an irresponsible person because I didn’t do my best.” Perhaps this isn’t your best paper ever, but it is on time and parts of it are very good. You may find you are jumping to conclusions that aren’t supported by the facts.
  5. Learn to respond to criticism by using “verbal judo.” Several techniques are useful. One is empathy, or learning to see the world through the critic’s eyes instead of responding defensively. Another is inquiry. When the criticism is vague, ask the critic to respond in a more specific and objective way— “Just what did I do that you felt was stupid?” A third technique is disarming. The idea is to take the sting out of the criticism by finding a grain of truth in the criticism, even if it seems unfair and untrue.
  6. Learn to celebrate “smaller” goals. Try adjusting your standards. Standards can be thought of as imaginary abstractions people create to motivate themselves. Experiment with various standards to see which work out best. In any given activity you could aim for “perfect,” “good,” “above average,” “average,” “below average,” or “adequate.” If your time is limited, you may decide to do a “perfect” math paper and opt for an “average” room cleaning. By adjusting standards, it is more likely that goals will be reached and even surpassed. Think about the goals you want to set for yourself and discuss them with someone you respect. Ask yourself how important a particular event is in the total picture of your life. Make adjustments in your goals and act on them. Only you can decide if being “the best” at something is what will make you happy.

*Books about Perfectionism

“Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control,” by Allan E. Mallinger, Jeannette Dewyze

“Overcoming Perfectionism: The Key to a Balanced Recovery,” by Ann W. Smith

“Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting It Ruin Your Life,” by Monica Ramirez Basco

“Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good,” by Miriam Adderholdt, Jan Goldberg