When I first came to university, I thought I was prepared for the academic load that lay ahead. After all, I was the head nerd in high school that graduated top of her year. If I knew one thing, it was how to study. Or so I thought - boy, was I wrong. A few weeks into my first semester, I knew I had to change the way I studied. For most of my school career, I had gained most of my knowledge through passive class attendance. I simply wasn't capable of coping with the sheer volume of information I had to know (my first degree was a BSc majoring in Chemistry and Biochemistry - so lots of "knowing things" and "understanding things"). Over the years, and degrees, I've learnt a few valuable lessons:
- Have a dedicated place to study: No, your bed does not count. I mean it, you need to have a place to sit where your main goal is to learn. If at all possible, have a desk in your room. If, for space or financial reasons, that isn't possible, your dining room table or kitchen counter will work, as long as you can form a mental link between sitting down in that place and working. For obvious reasons, something cosy and comfortable, like your bed or couch, is bad - yet most of us at some point have tried to rationalize the choice. Don't do it.
- Be organized: Half the battle can be won here. Have notepads or paper ready to be used. Know where all your stationary is (an expedition in search of a stapler often ends up with me distracted and ending up in front of the TV). Have a filing system that works for YOU. Personally, I preferred to keep my notes for my different classes in different coloured ring binders. If you prefer to write all your notes directly into books, make sure that for each class, you have a big enough book to keep everything in one place. If you are more technologically minded and type out your notes, a note-keeping program such as Microsoft Office OneNote is a lifesaver. Once you have decided what works best for your style of note-keeping, stick with it! Just 5 or 10 minutes a day spent filing that day's notes into the proper place will save you DAYS of frantic searching for things come exam time.
- Keep up to date: For my HonsBSc degree, I found the motivation and dedication to make neat summaries of every lecture, every evening after class. In one year (supposed to be the most academically challenging of them all), my average mark went up 10%. I can honestly and fervently recommend this! You don't have to spend hours rewriting everything that you covered in class. Have a narrow notebook (I used 96pg hard covers) for each subject. Then, after the lecture, head the page with the topic of the lecture. Under that, list the main points covered. Beneath that, the most important concepts or facts. Then, at the bottom, the relevant page numbers from your textbook, or any exercises or external references that your lecturer recommended. This book will help you at exam time in two ways. Firstly, by neatly having a place to check which concepts and topics you have to know (when I was revising, I would page through and check that I understood the topic of each lecture). Secondly, if you find a topic that you don't understand fully, you can easily search for more information from your reference list.
- Don't just read - Write: When the volume of work increases, it becomes exponentially harder to learn from just reading and remembering. You need to cement the knowledge you read by processing the information and converting it to another form - writing. You don't have to write things out neatly. You don't even have to read what you've written. You don't have to form sentences - bullet points are fine. Just the process of writing out information will help your brain remember.
- Be visual: Of course, this one depends on your subject matter and how you learn. However, many people find that visualising something makes it more real. A good way to incorporate this into your studying is through the use of mind maps. Use colour coding, draw pictures, symbols or icons instead of using words. Be as creative as you want to be. Once you are happy with your mind map, try closing your eyes and visualising it. Can you see the different branches that are related to your topic? What about the points that you've surrounded them with? By using imagery, you're using yet another part of your brain's memory.
- Explain your work to someone else: When I was an undergrad student, my roommate and I used to do this all the time. We were both science students, but with different focuses, so we shared very few subjects. When we thought we knew a section of work well, we would hand our notebook to the other person and try tell them as much as possible. The other person could also ask them questions. Actually having to verbalise information in a non-stressful environment is an excellent tool to evaluate how much information you have retained. This technique works brilliantly with a friend, roommate, study buddy or family member. If you're in studying isolation, try closing your book and talking to your pet, plant or even your kettle! You might feel like a crazy person, but it really works well!
That's all I have to share for now! As the semester grows closer towards test and exam time, I'll try compile another list of useful study tips.