Study smart, not hard – part two

By Ali
Category: Academic | Date: Tue 28 Oct, 2008

These three piece of advice follow on from yesterday’s tips on study smart, not hard – which, just to recap, were:

  • Know what you’re aiming for
  • Focus on the modules/papers which count for most
  • Work at your peak time of day

(If you missed it, click to read study smart, not hard – part one.)

Don’t endlessly re-read material – study actively

I’m sure you all got bored of being told this at school, but I’m going to say it anyway: study actively. It’s all too easy to flip through pages of your textbook, scanning all the words but not taking anything in. To get the information into your memory, you need to work actively with it: while you’re reading, take notes, make up your own examples, ask questions, and jot down your thoughts.

There’s no right or wrong way to take notes – but most people find it helpful to take a page or a chapter and summarise it. You can then repeat this process with your own notes, making progressively more concise notes each time (going from a notebook or loose-leaf notes to small cards, for instance).

If you don’t have the time to take notes, or if you’re skimming a long book for relevant information, put post-it notes in at relevant points. You can buy those hideously expensive coloured tabs to stick in the sides of books – or you can just slice up a few cheapy post-its to make your own equivalent.

Avoid getting distracted

When you sit down to study for an hour or two, make sure you’re in an environment where you’re not going to get distracted by other people. That might mean working in the library, or at least closing your bedroom door. Noise can also be a big distraction if you’re working in your room: earplugs may help.

The biggest distractions, though, are often internal ones. There’s that incessant little voice which says things like “I want a cup of tea,” or “I’m bored,” or “I wonder if that new CD’s out yet … I’ll just check on Amazon.” When you’re studying, make a wholehearted effort to stick with what you’re doing. You might think that you have the concentration abilities of a five-year-old on E-numbers, but you can improve your ability to focus.

One of the best ways to help yourself concentrate is to work for short bursts and give yourself regular breaks. It’s surprising how much you can get done in twenty minutes of sustained effort, compared to an hour of flicking between Facebook, messenger, favourite blogs, and whatever you’re supposed to be working on.

Focus on high-yield activities

Rather than spending hours laboriously copying out notes, use your study time for “high-yield” activities. By that, I mean tasks which are likely to noticeably improve your grade after just a few hours of work. These require a bit more energy than re-reading the textbook, but they really pay off.

Ones which work well for many people are:

  • Doing mock exams: get hold of some past papers. This is a big help when it comes to feeling confident in the exam. A large part of exam success is timing – often you’ll need to write an essay in an hour – and I’ve found that there’s often a direct correlation between my mark and how many practice papers I did.
  • Going through a past exam paper and writing brief (five – ten minute) essay plans for each question. Although this won’t give you the same practice as doing a full mock exam, it does highlight your weakest areas. You can then focus on these during revision.
  • Writing down everything you know about a particular topic, before you start revising it. Again, this lets you know what areas to concentrate on. You might also be pleasantly surprised by how much you can remember from lectures and classes.

Over to you

Further reading:

  • Do It Now – inspiring article from Steve Pavlina on how he graduated from college in three semesters instead of four years (the American semester is half a year). In this piece, he’s using his story to draw out wider examples on meeting goals.
  • Squashing procrastination DEAD – article here on Alpha Student that might help if, like so many students, you have trouble just getting started with studying.
  • Ten minute fun breaks – another article on Alpha Student with some ideas for ways to enjoy yourself in those ten-minute breaks between chunks of studying.

Do you think you’re studying smart or just studying hard?

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