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12 Apr 2016

3 Ways Undergraduates Can Make Studying More Effective

In this post, we’ll offer some ideas and approaches to help college students become more effective when they study. However, let’s start by exploring what makes effective studying and study planning more important in college than in high school.

One of the most frustrating elements of a college freshman’s academic experience is often the volume of material they are asked to digest. 

In many cases, it’s not that the content in the classes themselves are that difficult relative to what the student experienced in high school, but the structure, pace, and amount of material covered in each class can pose a challenge.

A good example might be a history course. A student may have done well in AP US history in high school. AP classes are supposed to reflect college level academic rigor, and the critical thinking required to perform well in an AP class or on an AP test generally does just that. But what is sometimes very different is the actual structure of the class. An AP history class in high school is more likely than not to follow the structure of one book, with perhaps some supplemental content shared in the form of readings, etc. There may also be frequent graded homework and quizzes, and a small class size that makes it difficult to “hide” if you haven’t done your homework.

In other words, it’s generally clear in high school what it means to “do your homework” each day and the classes are structured in such a way that you are encouraged to do so. College is different. 

In college, obviously students often don’t live at home anymore, and have immense freedom to do many things besides study. But, let’s just assume a student is committed to performing well academically and manages his or her time to be able to study for a sufficient number of hours.

Here’s how a college history class might be structured:

Instead of one main book, there may be several. The professor might use PowerPoint presentations delivered to a class of hundreds of students, posting the slides after class and noting that it’s important to review them. In addition to the books for the class, there may be assigned readings each week from a wide variety of other sources as well. Some of these readings will be referenced in lectures, but some may not be. Instead of your final grade being determined by an even mix of homework, quizzes, tests, a midterm, and a final, it may be driven by one midterm, one final, and one major essay or project. Finally, the amount of required and recommended readings each week might be voluminous relative to what was assigned as homework in high school.

What is the result of all this? The result is a situation where a college student needs to be much more strategic as it relates to what they focus on when they are studying, as well as find ways to be more effective and productive during the time that they allocate to studying. With so much to cover, inefficient approaches can be magnified and result in students getting overwhelmed quickly.

So, what strategies can college students apply to more effectively study?

  1. Be strategic about what you focus on

“Strategy” is one of those words that gets used a lot, and of course on some level almost everyone knows what it means. On the other hand, if you ask someone if they are doing something strategically, it’s not always easy for them to answer. One simple but, I think, powerful definition of strategy is “a plan for reaching a goal that involves consciously deciding what you will and will not do to reach that goal.” The two key elements of that definition are the “plan” and the “choosing” of what you’ll focus on.

In college, the goal should be to get an A in any given course. The planning involves reading the syllabus carefully and paying close attention to how the professor describes his or her approach to the class so that you can understand what to emphasize when developing a study plan. It might be the case that a vast majority of the concepts you need to know are in the lecture notes. Or, the readings might be more important. In any case, it is rare that a professor would say “everything I assign is equally important.” Instead, there is probably a prioritization going on, and it’s your job to figure that out to help you make decisions about what to focus on when you sit down to study.

  1. Constantly summarize and quiz yourself, and stop underlining

I took an online MOOC (massive open online learning) style course recently called “Learning How to Learn: Powerful Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects.” In it, I learned how much more information you retain when you engage your brain in a study session by briefly summarizing what you are reading and/or quizzing yourself to ensure you understand a concept. This type of studying generally feels “harder” than simply reading the assigned material. But as with most things in life, it is that struggle which creates positive results. In this case, frequently summarizing or quizzing yourself engages neurons in your brain and literally creates more of the connections between synapses that results in you comprehending or remembering more. Research has also shown that underlying key phrases in a book, something that many students do, is actually quite ineffective. It is hypothesized that underlining is actually a very passive activity that makes students feel good about what they are doing without engaging in the mental struggle to comprehend. So, it is a double hit. The activity of underlining isn’t effective, and it keeps students from focusing on other strategies that are, like summarizing key themes and chapters to themselves. What does work very well is writing down pithy, concise summaries in the margins of a book instead of simply underling.

  1. Stop procrastinating by applying the Pomodoro technique

Everybody struggles with procrastination on some level. I like to call checking Facebook and Twitter and text messages examples of “micro procrastination.” You have something you want to do, but it’s not pleasant, so you make an excuse to do something else for just a little while to avoid the unpleasant task of studying. The Pomodoro technique is another tool that came out of the “Learning How to Learn” course I mentioned above that really helps students deal with procrastination.

To apply the technique, you tell yourself that you are going to study for some reasonable amount of time. Call it 40 minutes. After 40 minutes, you are going to give yourself a 5-10 minute break. That’s it. The results are typically that you get much more accomplished in those 40 minutes then you would just trying to study for 50 minutes. Why?

The human brain is not good at switching frequently between tasks. So, the “quality” of studying the emerges from focusing for 40 minutes and then allowing yourself 10 minutes of free time, when compared with studying for 50 minute straight, but 50 minutes that includes 5-10 text message responses and a few off topic yahoo page checks, etc., is really remarkable. The “learning per minute of studying” that occurs when you are focused and on task and not distracting yourself with emails, text messaging, etc. is extremely high.

To summarize, classes in college are structured very differently than classes in high school. To be successful, college students need to recognize these differences and apply new techniques to get the most out of the time they allocate to studying.

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