By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
This blog post shares 10 tips for taking hard classes in high school and college. Hard classes provide a healthy challenge, the opportunity for growth (and getting smarter!), and often a pathway to cooler things. In other words, you should be taking hard classes in school; otherwise, you’ll just … drift. And that’s boring.
What counts as a hard class?
Everyone’s idea of what counts as a hard class is different. I’m not suggesting that all high school students should be taking AP Physics and that all college students should take advanced organic chemistry. I took neither of those courses and I turned out okay.
Instead, I’m talking about courses that feel hard to you, based on your own personal skill level, strengths, and interests. My tips for taking hard classes apply to any class you think is hard, no matter the actual level.
A course is hard if:
- You need to hear the material explained multiple times to understand it
- The teacher’s explanations of the material aren’t sufficient and you need to reinforce most concepts with YouTube or Google
- You have to meet with the teacher more than once a week to go over the material
- Despite your honest best efforts, your grade is a C or lower
10 tips for taking hard classes
You might need to use all 10 tips in the list below. Or perhaps you only need to use a few. That choice is up to you and depends on how much you’re struggling in your hard class(es).
1. Stay exceptionally organized
All classes become monumentally harder if you’re disorganized. From the day your class begins, you need to commit to a system to keep your notes, files, papers, and assignment deadlines on point.
In this post, I share my 100 best organization tips for students. Read it, for real.
2. Prepare for classes
Thanks to a cool learning phenomenon called priming, we have an easier time understanding material if we are exposed to it beforehand. That’s why preparing for hard classes is a critical tip for surviving hard classes.
Here are my top 3 tips for preparing for classes. Yes, I know you’re probably thinking, “But Katie! I don’t have time to prepare for classes!” Hear me out: the more you prepare for a hard class, the more you will understand the concepts, which means the less time you’ll spend on doing homework assignments and studying for tests.
3. Spot the gaps and the fuzzies
This is one of the most important tips for taking hard classes. And despite my odd phrasing of this tip, it’s essential. A key to taking and succeeding in hard classes is being able to identify exactly what’s confusing at the very moment it becomes unclear. If you don’t pause to identify when things become confusing, then everything will be confusing.
Here are some tips for spotting the gaps and the fuzzies in your understanding:
- When you’re reading challenging text, stop when you zone out. Go back and reread from the point you lost focus. Google things if you need to.
- When you’re in class and the teacher says something confusing, raise your hand and ask for clarification.
- If you’re taking notes on a lecture or on a reading, put a question mark in your notes when something doesn’t make sense to you. Then make a plan to find the answer.
4. Take notes
Always take notes in hard classes. The harder the class, the more important it is to take notes. When you take notes, you’re encouraging your brain to play around with and think about the material. This is how we make sense of things. Also, you’re more likely to zone out in hard classes, and so taking notes increases the chances that you’ll stay focused.
Here are my most important note-taking tutorials:
- How to take notes in lecture classes
- How to take notes from a video
- How to take notes from a textbook
5. Give yourself extra time for assignments
Hard things often take longer to do. The sooner you design your days and weeks around that truth, the better. If reading a chapter in an easy class takes you 40 minutes, plan for it to take 60 minutes for hard classes. If doing 10 problems in an easy class takes you 30 minutes, give yourself 50 minutes to complete 10 problems in hard classes.
Expect hard assignments to take longer, and plan your schedule accordingly. If you’re not yet using Google calendar for managing your time, start with this Google Calendar for School tutorial.
6. Start studying earlier than you want to
You might find this advice annoying. But, you’re reading this post because you want to improve things, yes? Studying for tests in hard subjects takes longer because you often have to teach yourself some of the content along the way.
For most tests, you will need at least 5 days to study. Here’s my 5-day study plan where I show you exactly what to do on each day.
7. Study in groups
Studying in groups is certainly not for everyone, and that’s okay. But for particularly hard courses, it can be a good idea to plan at least one group study session before big tests. When you study in a group, you’re hearing people your own age talk about and explain the concepts that you’re struggling with. You’re having conversations about the material, and you’re not just being talked at by a professional. This helps you work through complicated information that you struggle to process on your own.
If you’re going to plan a group study session, please please promise that you will follow these group study session tips first.
8. Get extra help
If you’re taking a hard class and you’ve tried (really tried) to learn the content on your own, but you’re still struggling, then you’ve got to seek extra help. You might not want to, but that’s not really what matters here.
Can you schedule a consistent weekly check-in meeting with your teacher, either before or after school? Can you hire an outside tutor just to get you through that one hard class? Does your school offer any peer tutoring programs? I’ll bet the answer to at least one of those questions is yes.
9. Ask questions
You don’t get answers if you don’t ask questions. I know it can feel weird to raise your hand during every class, but do it anyway. As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that teachers love when students ask questions! Seriously, though. The worst thing you can do when taking hard classes is to not ask questions and to sit silently in painful confusion.
Here are some types of questions you can ask when you’re confused:
- Clarification questions: Could you please explain that again, or maybe differently?
- Example questions: Could you please give us another example?
- Repeat questions: Could you please say that again? I missed it the first time.
- Explanation questions: Could you please explain that a little more?
10. Be resourceful
The further along in school you are, the more you’re expected to figure things out on your own. When you get stuck on something, you’re expected to be resourceful and find a solution. This is true for taking hard courses as well: if you’re in college and the content is challenging, the professor is certainly there to help, but they’re going to expect that you attempted to solve the issue independently first.
Here are some examples of being resourceful:
- Googling what you don’t know
- Watching YouTube videos to clarify confusing concepts
- Asking peers for help
- Answering textbook questions even when you haven’t been assigned to
- Additionally, here are my best strategies for figuring things out, especially when those “things” are really hard.
Three final tips for taking hard classes
In addition to the 10 tips above, here are a few more points to consider:
- If all of your classes are overwhelmingly challenging, then it might be a matter of quantity. In other words, are you taking too many challenging courses, which is in fact making them ALL seem hard?
- If you’re doing everything possible to succeed in a class, but you’re still not succeeding, you might consider dropping down a level. There’s no shame in dropping down a level when you’re mental health is at stake.
- Always consider the timing of hard courses. If you play a fall sport, maybe save your hard class until spring semester. If you have a spring job, take your hard class first semester. One of the things that can make classes seem harder than they are is all the other stuff we have going on in our lives outside the course itself.