Practical tips for smart studying

October 12, 2019

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Illustration by Ahmed Amin
Illustration by Ahmed Amin

Afamous cliché goes like this: “Hard work is the key to success.” It has been ingrained into our minds by parents, teachers, grandparents and the

like. Is it true? Not really. In the information age when we have access to the best tools, technology and resources than there’s ever been. Sweating yourself off and following outdated strategies and techniques will simply not give you the best output.

If you are the kind of student who pulls all-nighters, makes stacks and stacks of notes, takes pride in being called a ‘hard worker’ by family and friends only to pull off an average grade, stop. There are better strategies you can adopt that are psychologically tested and proven that will not only save you tonnes of time and energy, but help you ace your exams like a pro!

The tips that I am going to share with you are not my own, but those shared by Professor Marty Lobdell, a former psychology professor at Pierce College.

Here are some of his key points:

Break your study sessions into chunks

The method most students adopt is studying without breaks for straight two to three hours and calling it a day. This may give you a false sense of having studied a lot, but the truth is your brain is not designed to soak in a massive amount of information without break.

You can only study effectively for 25 to 30 minutes, after which your efficiency starts to decline and your brain calls for rest. Therefore, a smarter approach is to study for 25 minutes then take a five-minute break (try not to turn it into a two-hour break) and go back to studying again.

Reward yourself for what you’ve accomplished

We all struggle with motivation, especially when it comes to studying. It is psychologically proven that when you reward yourself for having achieved something, you are more likely to indulge in that activity again.

Besides, who doesn’t love treats? All of us do. Therefore, when you have achieved the target goal you set for studying, treat yourself with something you really want.

Study like a human, not a robot

Our educational system has put us into the habit of rote memorisation since the beginning. You read and reread chapters without really understanding concepts. It withholds information in your brain only long enough to pass the next test, after which you have to repeat the process again. It’s a waste of time.

“I don’t believe in luck or in hard work without the so-called “work smart”. It’s not all about how you work hard but it’s about how you manage your time, resources and mind to work together for better output.” — Jayson Zabate

Smart students use a different approach. They do memorise facts, but put more emphasis on understanding concepts. If you are lucky, you might get away with rote learning the content, but if the examiner tests your concepts by giving a twist to the questions, then you’re in real trouble.

What you should do instead is work on clarifying your concepts. Take help from the teacher, a good student or watch videos online if you’re stuck somewhere. Then write down whatever you learned in your own words.

Make flashcards. Quiz yourself and solve sample problems from past papers or free practice exercises on good educational websites. A concept once formed, stays in your brain longer and helps you solve a lot of problems whether on paper or in day-to-day life.

Take better notes in class

The time and energy you spend studying would dramatically lessen if you take better notes during classes. Pay attention to the lecture, take down notes and right after the class ends, go through your notes while the information is still fresh in your brain.

Add more to them. If something isn’t clear, take help from another student who made detailed notes or ask the teacher.

This will ensure that the night before a test or exam you’re not freaking out and cramming disorganised bits of information into your brain you receive via WhatsApp voice notes.

Teach what you learn

The best way to test your concepts is to teach them to somebody who is unclear about the topic. Usually you can easily find a classmate or friend for this.

When you teach what you know, your brain recalls all the information related to the topic and you become aware of gaps in your understanding, if there are any. If there is no one you can teach, don’t worry. Assume there is someone in front of you and say out loud everything as if you’re teaching a real human being.

Use mnemonics

Your brain is very good at retrieving information based on cues. A mnemonic is a tool that helps you retain large amounts of information in an organised manner.

Mnemonics can come in the form of acronyms, coined saying or images.

• Acronyms: You take the first letter of each word in a phrase or list and make a word out of them. A very common example is ROY.G.BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), an acronym for the colours of a rainbow.

• Coined sayings: These are short sentences, usually said in a sing-song manner, designed to retain facts or concepts. For example, for someone confused with spellings, the phrase ‘I before E except after C’ may help.

• Images: What happens when you read a great story? Your brain forms images and you remember the sequence of events like a movie. Almost 65 percent of the population comprises visual learners, people who learn through pictures, colours, maps etc. which means there’s a good chance you’re one too. Forming images and stories is an effective way to remember information.

Final tip

This one’s entirely mine and not Professor Lobdell’s — use the internet to motivate and inspire you to study. Of course you need the permission of your parents and some supervision for this. And, most importantly, commitment to yourself that you will not wander off to websites and games that do not relate to studies or you will waste a lot of your precious time.

There are hundreds of smart students out there who share their own tips and advice on excelling in studies. If you search the right way, you will find dozens of people who share pictures of their study spaces, notes, etc. which is sure to get you excited about studying. Many have also asked questions on different forums and have received very good answers, maybe you will find the answer to your problem/difficulty there too.

Be careful, however, not to fall into the trap of fancy. A lot of pictures you’ll find are pretty notes, colourful stationery and well-organised spaces. Unless you have a lot of time at hand as well as motivation, do not exhaust your battery trying to make your notes pretty and your study space picture-perfect. Your top priority should be to study and pretty notes do not equate to effective studying.

Smart work and hard work go hand in hand. There are no quick fixes or short cuts to success. The key is to use effective tools and smart strategies available to you while putting in the effort and dedication on your part. Get smart to get better marks!

Published in Dawn, Young World, October 12th, 2019