Field of Science

How to Study: a Repost

This seems timely to repost.

Since a new semester is about to begin I think a post on how to study would be apropos. So here is an advice column for students looking for some techniques to improve their study habits. I am not an expert in learning, but I am an expert in being a college student with no fucking idea how to study and had to figure it out over the course of a year or two. I was one of those students who didn't have to do much to maintain an A/B average in high school. Although I was exposed to study skills and habits while in high school, none of it stuck because I really didn't need to study to do reasonably well. So here is what I learned that worked for me. If you have your own successful techniques, please feel free to add them in the comments.

Learning is an active process, it requires energy. It may not be as physically taxing as a 45 minute work out, but then again you may not be doing it right. What I discovered is that I learn when I do things, when I engage the material, when I'm an active participant. If it's a couple of days before the big exam and you're wondering to yourself 'What's the best way I can study? I know, I'll take some time to play online and get some tips.' Well, if this is you, you're fucked or at least I don't have anything for you. Come back after your upcoming exam, my advice might help you for the next exam. Right now, you are in cram mode, so you better start cramming and not wasting your time reading blogs. I will admit that cramming works, to a degree. Cramming is a short term solution, getting enough material under you belt to survive or even succeed at the exam. But it's a long-term problem. Are you really in college to survive exams and classes? That was really high school wasn't it? Cramming is problematic because the material is never actually learned, it may come up again on the final, it will likely be important next semester or the semester after that in your more advanced classes. Learning and cramming both take energy, but the former is far less stressful and provides both short-term and long-term gains.

Step 1. Find an environment to study in. Ultimately this became at my desk in the bedroom of my apartment. I also kept my stereo close to police notification level. I learned quickly that I could ignore the music, but sounds from the street, from the kitchen/dining/living room area, or from anywhere outside my room were distracting. To this day, when Im working on grants or papers and do not want to be disturbed, I  close my office door and crank up some music. Although I am a chaotic person by nature, my desk was neat and organized. I needed a place to work comfortably and that was it. My textbooks and notebooks were stacked in/on some milk crates I used for shelves. (These of course were the store bought kind of 'milk crates' not the easily available sturdy and inexpensive milk crates available behind 7/11s, like the one across the street of my apartment. Although if they were the illicit version, which they weren't, they would have been returned when I moved to go to graduate school.)

$0.69 for 3 in 1989
Step 2. Get a bunch of notebooks. I used spiral bound notebooks available for next to nothing at drug stores. Of course these notebooks will have absurd cover designs or pictures you would never in a million years gravitate towards (see picture of my Molecular Biology notebook). That's not the point. The point is what's inside the notebook, and that will be gold. I mixed up the designs on the notebooks I bought so I could easily identify which one I wanted. The alternative is to be flipping through them wondering if this is the black notebook Im looking for. Get one notebook for every class you take (except maybe for the golf/tennis/etc classes). Any class that has a lecture has its own notebook. No cheating by getting a three-subject notebook. Also, get a couple of additional notebooks.

These things are evidence of evil
Since you're at the drug store all ready, get some pens and pencils. I love pens, but despise cheap ass ball point pens. You'll be using these a lot, so get pens/pencils you are comfortable with. Make sure you get a variety of colors. I survived with black, blue, and red, but there is a veritable palate of colored inks now. Get what you love or at least can tolerate. I prefer mechanical pencils, but if you get classic ones, you better kick in for a decent pencil sharpener or two. Also grab some highlighters also in assorted colors.

Step 3. Do the readings strategically. Chapter 3 is covered Wednesday? Read it through by Tuesday night. That isn't very strategic is it? The strategy is to skim read the text. Get a sense of what's in there and what will be the likely topics and points for the upcoming lecture. You don't need to be more than familiar with the material. (In the case of labs, this is not true. You must be intimately aware of the material, because you will be using that information in the lab. Hell, there may even be a quiz on the lab manual!)

Step 4. Go to class. Although you probably couldn't pass a quiz on the readings material, the vocabulary is familiar. Now you already know a bit about the upcoming lecture. Gather up your pens and pencils and one of the extra notebooks. Leave your textbooks at home, along with the highlighters, and other notebooks. You don't need much.

Get to class on time and get a good seat. In large classes, I recommend a seat near to the front and in the middle where the professor can actually see you. Why? Psychology that's why. Take two students doing equally well, one student the professor recognizes, even if there is no name associated with the face, and one student the professor has barely, if ever, seen. If both come to discuss an issue regarding an examination or writing assignment, which one will have at least a sub-conscious advantage?

Open your notebook to page 1 get out a couple of writing implements and get ready. If the professor has handouts or, god forbid, print outs of the slides, then definitely pick them up, but DONT use them during the lecture (with rare exception). Your job is to take a shit ton of notes. Don't worry about neatness and perfection, just get the stuff written down. Write down the points on the slides, the drawings, incorporate what the professor is saying. The very act of writing things down is helping you learn the material. 'But we have the slide print outs, so why write stuff down?' you ask. In my more youthful days I would have responded with 'Because we didn't have the material presented to us, so stop being so fucking needy.' But in my dotage I think an example is better. What is another name for a television? Did 'idiot box' spring to mind? There's a reason for that. Some people watch tons of TV, these are not inherently the most educated people in the world. My mother loved to watch soap operas during the 70s, hours of soap operas. She was not an expert in social interactions because of this nor was she an expert story teller, she just watched a lot of soap operas. This is one of the biggest impediments to learning, fucking handouts. Remember I said learning was an active process. Lectures are not television. You should be doing something not just watching. The problem with handouts is that it facilitates the TV watching mentality. There are reasons to hand out the notes, which is why you are collecting them, but wait until later to use them. For now, take a shit ton of notes.  Do not be tempted to put notes in the margin of the print outs, you bought the cheap ass notebook, so use it. (Plus you'll want a pristine copy of those hand outs for later.) So, you were in class sitting in a strategic location, you took a shit ton of notes, now what? Go to your next class and repeat using the same notebook.

Notes on chromosomal
melting temps.
Step 5. THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP: The next day. So you went to all your classes, even the ones you think are boring, and you took a bunch of notes, even on things you think you know already. Now what? Hang out with friends, watch TV, play some Xbox, then go to bed and the next day go to all your other classes. At some point on this second day, you need to carve out some studying time. When depends on your schedule. I did this in the mid-late-afternoon, because I was generally done with classes then. Go to your studying environment, get out your notes from yesterday, one of the fresh notebooks that will be specific for a specific class, any handouts, and your textbook. Now you will rewrite your notes in a more organized and legible manner. As you rewrite, you will refer to the text for additional points, and in your class-specific notebook you can either incorporate the textbook material or simple refer to the page numbers/figure numbers. Either redraw or cut out the handout figures you need and add them to your notebook. This could take as long as the original lecture, but probably won't. Regardless, you are now learning some serious material. The act of rewriting helps embed the information into your memory, by organizing the material in a manner that works for you (which is probably like it was presented) you are thinking about the material in total not simply one fact after another. You are also reading the text in a more in depth way, which is easier because you already skimmed it and went to the lecture. Do this for those boring easy classes too. It helps maintain good study habits and instead of simply learning the material, you'll own it. Another benefit is that if you do this, you will know before the next lecture what material you may not understand. This gives you a ton of time to meet with your colleagues, TAs, professor to get things straight.

Step 6. When you finish going through the crappy notes, rip out the page(s) and throw them away. You don't need them anymore because they are rewritten and you'll feel good about the progress you made.

I won't guarantee these steps will improve your grade, but I do guarantee that they will improve your understanding and knowledge of the material.

Additional thoughts:

A. Write in your textbooks, at least highlight important information. I used different colored highlighters for different purposes. Red was for definitions, blue was for what I thought were key concepts, red was for things referring to my class notebook. Will writing in your textbook reduce its value when you resell it? Well hopefully you will not resell it. Having that chemistry textbook could come in handy when you need to revisit something you forgot in your molecular biology class. If you absolutely do not want the book, why buy it in the first place? Probably you could borrow one from a colleague or use the library.

B. Scheduling. You need to prepare ahead of time when things are getting done. If you don't, you will almost certainly get behind or not have enough time. If you want to go to that party or game, you may need to start rewriting your notes earlier than normal to make sure you have enough time to finish before going out. Also, there will be several big assignments due for other classes throughout the semester, you'll need to be prepared for catching up on those notes you couldn't rewrite the day after class. (Don't get more than a class or two behind or you'll defeat the purpose of rewriting.)

C. Turn off your phone. You can survive an hour or two without reading all those awesome texts and facebook postings coming in. A 30 second distraction actually amounts to much longer, because it takes time to get back to where you were before you were distracted. Every time you break focus, you are back to a more superficial level of learning and it takes some time to get back to that deeper level.

D. When it's test time, you'll find it much easier to study. The material is already there in your mind because you've been through it at least twice already. You may have to pull an occasional all-nighter, but it will be different than the cramming you did previously.

Notes for a recently submitted grant
from a relevant paper.
E. For the record, I still use these techniques to prepare grants and papers (see photo). I do a lot of background reading and have notebooks dedicated to taking notes on the papers, complete with different colored pens. This allows me to make connections and think about the material in a much deeper way than I would be able to otherwise. Same for seminars I attend, I bring a notebook.

With those words of advice,
Good luck and have a great semester!


Julie said...

I am going to give this to my students, if you don't mind (with proper reference citation, of course)! I was just asked today how to study, and my first impulse was to say "don't print off the handouts"!

The Lorax said...

@Julie Feel free to share it with your students! I hope it is helpful.