The Secret to Studying

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: January 30, 2014

Some research indicates that the overwhelming majority of students study the wrong way. Students simply re-read their notes and textbook, believing that through simple repetition they can learn by osmosis! Hardly the case.

Study takes concentration of a particular, self-guided kind. If you’re preparing for an exam, one good practice is to pretend that you’re the teacher and make up questions you think the teacher is likely to ask – and then try to answer them. The very nature of your questioning will reveal the extent of your knowledge – and, more importantly, what knowledge gaps you have to bridge.

Highlighting in your textbook is another good idea – but read an entire paragraph or page, ask yourself what they key concepts are, and then go back and highlight as little as you can to remember as much as you can. This technique of read-think-highlight will certainly improve your retention. For some students, even better than highlighting is “marginalia,” the act of writing short, meaningful notes in the margins that encapsulate each paragraph’s principal content. If not in the margins, how about on a note card or in a spiral notebook or on your computer?

Where to study: it depends you. Some like background noise, some want no noise at all. Have a few locations and shift among them, because the brain works best when the backdrop is fresh.

Glued to your cell phone? Better to take a “tech break” every 20 minutes than to have the phone in one hand and a book in the other. Develop a phone-free zone around studying. Research suggests that we actually cannot multi-task with electronics like cell phones; rather, we can only turn our attention from one point of concentration to another. Efficiency is super low. If you think you can see-saw between study and reading your text messages, then you also think you can text and drive and the same time. Deadly. Literally.

Most students do homework first, then study. Do it in reverse. Study first and then do the homework tasks. Let’s look at the difference. Teachers commonly assign worksheets for completion by next class or next week. These contain a set of science, math, English, or any other class subject’s specific questions for you to complete in order to demonstrate comprehension. Or, you might get a workbook or textbook assignment that’s quite specific, like “Answer the odd numbered questions on page 229.”

Studying, on the other hand, is the work you do to develop your subject knowledge. It typically involves reading: background material, rules, principles, theorems, Act III, Shay’s Rebellion, the difference between ser and estar, etc. You’re on your own, without precise instructions from the teacher. You have to study a subject and extract its key points. Can you see, then, how going from the general (studying first) to the specific (homework second), is a valuable strategy?

Like to eat while studying? Something with a hit of glucose may be helpful, but consider known, longer-term health issues associated with sucrose-laden beverages. Bananas are an excellent source of carbs because they are easily digested. And here’s some nice news: A square of dark chocolate might suit your palate, too, with some excellent benefits: increased blood flow to the brain to improve your thinking (cognitive function), and a positive effect on your mood because of several chemical compounds. One compound in dark (not milk) chocolate encourages your brain to release endorphins, so eating dark chocolate will make you feel happier! And finally, dark chocolate also contains caffeine, although much less caffeine than coffee.

Study your notes! You’ve heard it a thousand times. Unfortunately, most of us never really believe it until we actually try it. Spend 30 minutes or so each evening going over the notes you took that day in each class (do you take good notes in class?). There are at least two tremendous benefits to be gained from this discipline.

  1. Research has shown that reviewing new material within 24 hours of hearing it increases your retention of that material by about 60%. This means that you will be 60% ahead of the game the next time you walk into class. If you want to significantly reduce the time necessary to prepare for exams, this is the way to do it.
  2. By reviewing notes shortly before the next class, you can identify points of confusion. Maybe some important information is missing: you have a gap in your notes. That’ll prepare you to ask the questions in class. Confusion is your worst enemy. Be assertive in class – or sink.

On the Fine Art of Note-Taking: students who retain the most, and who have great success in their classes that require reading, follow a CYCLING ROUTINE that combines highlighting with note-taking. No, this has nothing to do with a bicycle. This leap-frogging system builds strong minds and helps retention. Here’s how it works:
Starting at any point in your class work, follow these simple steps that keep re-cycling over and over:

Night 1:

  • Read and highlight the pages of your assignment

Night 2:

  • Review Night 1 highlights and add short margin notes about the key points
  • Read newly assigned pages and highlight them

Night 3:

  • Word-process your margin notes from Night 2
  • Review Night 2 highlights and add short margin notes about the key points
  • Read newly assigned pages and highlight them

Night 4:

  • Add Night 3 margin notes to your computer file
  • Review Night 3 highlights and add short margin notes about the key points
  • Read newly assigned pages and highlight them

If you continue this cycle until you have a test on this material, you’ll find that you have to do very little studying since you’ve reviewed it so many times. To study, just review your computer file a few times, and also give yourself some questions to answer, just as if you were the teacher.

Finally, there’s one more study tool that just about beats all – if used wisely: studying for major tests in a small group. Ask medical school and law school students, and they’ll tell you it’s the only way to prepare for more comprehensive tests and course work. It’s no different in high school: a self-reinforcing group of motivated, focused students create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts! Equally divide the material to be covered among the group members, letting each person be responsible for playing teacher for their portion of the material. When you meet, each group member makes a presentation to the group about the salient point in his or her segment of the material and then gives an oral test to the other group members. After the test, the presenting student gives each group member his or her notes. Then the next group member makes a presentation on his or her segment, etc. No stone will be left unturned.

Topics: Study Tips Test-Prep Tutoring

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