Effective Studying – how to ace your Courses

If you don’t have much time or if you want to get an overview of this post first, you can refer to the summary at the end of this article.

Some people seem to only have to look at something to grasp its meaning and keep it in mind. I’m definitely not such a person. For me studying means hard work and great time investments. However due to my high effort and by employing the right methods, eventually I usually ace my courses.

My basic principle is to study steadily, but usually not on the expense of my well-being. Following this rule has a very positive effect on my study outcomes. Since I study continuously missing out a couple of days for example because of an illness or other urgent issue doesn’t drastically diminish my overall performance. Before the exam when others start to study and panic, I’m usually relaxed and only have to review what I’ve already studied throughout the term. Since taking good care of my health allows my brain to function well, I can study more effectively. By making studying a routine it also requires me less willpower to get started, I give my brain more time to digest the knowledge and it’s more likely that information sticks in my head. The mind often processes information at times when we don’t actively study e.g. when taking a break, doing sports or while sleeping. Thus getting sufficient sleep, taking breaks and exercising regularly or doing at least a little walk once in a while can be beneficial for your study performance.

In general the more you expose yourself to a subject in different ways, the more proficient you’ll become in that field. Active learning methods are said to bring best results. The greatest learning outcome can be expected when actually doing things. Talking about ideas is regarded as the second best way to enhance understanding followed by absorbing audio-visual presentations. In contrast the percentages of what we remember from things that we only read, hear or see are comparatively low. You should observe yourself to find out which learning style works best for you.

In any case you can further boost your learning effectiveness by adopting smart habits such as taking notes and making summaries. Especially for courses which require you to have profound knowledge of the contents, transforming lecture materials into questions with answers gives you a good basis for studying. I recommend doing this electronically and to use a spaced repetition program. I use Anki for that purpose. The Anki software allows you to create flashcards at a PC and you can sync these cards for example to the Anki smartphone app. This way you can study on the go and quiz yourself whenever you can spare some minutes e.g. when being on the bus or waiting somewhere.

One golden rule is that best results can be achieved by learning from the best or to be more precise by learning like the best. Consequently aim for the best mentor of a subject and use the best available study materials. A great teacher can make a big difference for your study success. However especially due to budget restrictions one has often to compromise in this regard. Nevertheless when having to decide between buying a highly recommended ebook for about 10 $ or a rather unknown one for just 1 $, there should be not much to ponder and you should regard the 10 $ as a good investment.

Although this blog post got relatively long, I regard it just as a brief summary of some of the study methods that I find very useful. Complementary to this post I highly recommend you to also read these two articles, so that you learn how to be organized and how to combat study lethargy:

Focus: how to get most out of Classes and Readings.

I often lack focus in classes. I get easily distracted by other thoughts and after many classes I don’t remember anything of the contents which were explained. Also when reading I sometimes go over and over the same passage without really absorbing any information. To achieve focus it’s important to have interest in the topic, stimulate the brain by having an adequate level of difficulty and to get rid of thoughts occupying the mind.

Writing down what’s going on in my head so that I will not forget about it, sometimes helps me to free my mind from distracting thoughts. However in some cases I want something to get resolved so urgently, that getting it actually done seems to be the only way to get it out of my head.

If you lack interest in a subject that you are studying, it’s important to provoke curiosity by deriving questions about the contents. When you have questions on your mind about the topic that you are dealing with, your brain will be more focused and active since it tries to answer the questions. Likewise non-related, unresolved issues on your mind may distract you.

If a subject is too easy for you, you may also struggle to focus. If that’s the case then you can make following the lecture more challenging for you by only paying partial attention and e.g. summarizing contents of the lecture, studying already the next chapter or solving practice problems at the same time.

However I guess the opposite is more common. Gaps in my knowledge can make it very hard or even impossible for me to follow a lecture which may result in poor concentration. As a consequence all missing background information should be obtained as preparation for the class. By preparing and studying the contents of difficult classes already a little bit in advance, I could highly increase the value that I’ve taken out from lectures. If lecture slides are digitally available, I usually print them out and make sure that I understand at least all terms that appear in the slides. Whenever I come across something that I have to look up, I add the info on the hard copy and eventually bring these documents to the lecture. By having scanned the slides already before the lecture, I get a rough idea about the topic, I can develop questions in my mind and focusing in class gets much easier for me. During the lecture I try to further complement my printed lecture slides by taking more notes on them. This additional information allows me to better understand the content when I review it later and prepare for a test.

Also I aim to sit in the front row, ideally at a spot where the professor can watch me. This way I feel more restrained and shy to use my smartphone or do anything other than focusing on the class. Being in front of the professor has also the advantage that I can easily ask for clarification and further information to maximize my benefit of the class.

Methods such as SQ4R are great to improve reading effectiveness. The idea is to study contents while reading them. Instead of just scanning materials and going through them as quickly as possible, one attempts to read actively and to answer questions. This way chances increase that I really get the point and that it will stick in my brain. Additionally I usually take notes, so that I don’t have to reread everything, when I want to refresh my knowledge about the material at a later point in time.

However if reading difficulties are due to a bored mind, reading faster by applying speed reading techniques may be the key to improve your comprehension of a text. Speed reading is also recommended when you do research, since you have to evaluate many sources regarding their relevance for your research case and reading everything thoroughly would be way too time consuming.

Learning ‘Facts’

When having to memorize a lot of information, it’s useful to consider how the brain stores and accesses data. In general when learning new facts the brain connects it to existing knowledge and to retrieve data the brain needs a clue which helps it to find the data in this huge information network. Furthermore the ease of information retrieval and how long we are able to remember something depend on the depth of the knowledge trace in our brain. For example a very extraordinary occurrence usually creates a deep trace in our brain allowing us to easily recall the event for a long period of time. However weak traces in the brain of minor spectacular incidents may fade soon, so that we forget the occurrence completely.

Since the brain connects facts to existing information and because retrieval requires a clue, it’s always important to attempt to relate any information with something that we are already familiar with. When doing so, thinking of the fact which I already know can help me to remember the new info as well.

Furthermore creating very crazy, absurd and unusual images as clue for information that I want to memorize can form strong traces in the brain and information will be accessible longer and more easily. This memorization technique is called mnemonics. When I started my Master studies I had great difficulties to remember all the names of my lab members. For example one guy is called Yoon Seon. I was finally able to create a clue helping me to recall his name by relating it to the name of a friend of mine who is called Jun and who has a son. Since the pronunciation of Yoon Seon is very similar to ‘Jun son’, thinking of my friend Jun and his son makes me remember the name Yoon Seon. If you’re not familiar with mnemonics, I recommend you to further research about this concept.

One more peculiarity of our memory is important to know. For example when trying to remember a list of things such as vocabularies, several facts or a speech, it’s more effective to focus on a small part instead of attempting to study everything at once. In the case of vocabulary I find studying about five to ten new words until being relatively proficient with them useful, before tackling the next bite. Once again spaced repetition software is an excellent aid in this context.

Studying ‘Concepts’

When not merely having to memorize facts, but having to understand and apply concepts mnemonics may be insufficient to handle this task. Being able to explain a concept in relatively simple language is a great indicator that I understand it well.

Thus summarizing, discussing ideas and solving related problems are excellent methods to study concepts. However gaps in my knowledge and details being not understood may prevent me from grasping the whole issue properly. Thus filling such gaps may be necessary. Different explanations from various sources such as books, lecture slides or videos can improve my comprehension tremendously. Since language and thinking varies a lot among people, an explanation working for one person may not work for someone else. I’m especially a fan of studying by watching lectures and tutorials on youtube. This gives me the advantage that I can pause or repeat something whenever I feel like. Of course to sustainably benefit from this, I take notes, as I would do in a real lecture.

Since our brain stores information in a knowledge network, having a broad expertise on a topic makes it easier to grasp and remember further information, as it gets wired to more links and references in the brain. To really master a concept e.g. when having to apply mathematic formulas, it may require much practice until one is able to solve problems quickly enough in a test.

Assignments and Projects

As a rule the earlier you start working on a task, the better will be your final result. Especially course homework, projects and reports can be tricky, since they usually have hard deadlines and require you to acquire all necessary knowledge enabling you to fulfill the work.

At first you should make sure that you comprehend the task completely. Research all required background information and clarify whatever you don’t fully understand about the task.

I recommend using mind maps when doing research and gathering information e.g. to write a report. This usually helps me to find a structure and to identify the work being necessary to complete a task. Then I’m ready to plan further steps. Especially when working on assignments of a large extent such as a term project, it’s important to regular discuss the current work status and next steps with an adviser to prevent going in a wrong direction.

Additionally it’s important to be well informed about formal requirements and to schedule enough time for formatting.

Emergency tactics: When all effort seems to be fruitless.

To achieve at least the best we can, we must never give up. During my Master studies I worked especially hard for one of my most challenging courses. As usually I studied regularly for the class and tried to fill all the knowledge gaps. However I struggled a lot to find good sources for some of the course contents and the explanations in the book that I had, didn’t help me much to improve my understanding. Although expecting to not get an awesome grade in this course, I felt confident one week before the final exam. Four days before the exam our professor gave us practice problems, which we could solve as preparation for the test. Initially I felt very motivated to do the exercises, but soon I got disillusioned. I was not able to solve at least one of the problems, not even by using my course materials and doing online research.

Since it was just four days before the final exam, I wanted to make best use of the remaining time, so that I could at least make a little achievement. I tried to continue studying, but my head just blocked all thinking. I felt so disappointed and hopeless. All the effort that I’ve given during the semester seemed to be fruitless. Soon I concluded that studying in this condition doesn’t make sense and I went to the gym. After the gym session I went to the cinema and watched the movie that I planned to watch once the exam would have been over. I was very tempted to just give up. What could I achieve by studying within three days, when I was not able to grasp it already during the term?

However in the following morning I regained my vigor. My morale was boosted. I was determined to study at least for a predefined time for the remaining three days until the exam and try the best I can within this period. I scheduled an appointment with my professor to discuss the practice problems with him. I asked other people, if they could explain me some of the contents. Sometimes just trying to explain someone what I’m struggling to understand helped me to suddenly comprehend it better. Also I adjusted my goal. Instead of trying to solve all the problems, I only focused on one. I wanted to solve at least one problem. Once I finally solved one, I picked one more. Due to this approach and the discussions with other people including my professor, I could finally solve a couple of the practice problems and my performance in the exam was not extremely poor.

Last but not least always keep in mind that we cannot give more than our best and we have to accept that our brain needs time to understand and remember things. However based on my experience a lot of stuff sounding complicated can be understood easily given an explanation in simple language.

Summary
  • Aim for the best mentors and learning materials.
  • Make studying a habit, study regularly.
  • Get sufficient sleep, take breaks and be active.
  • Take advantage of active learning methods.
  • Expose yourself to a subject in various ways.
  • Identify your learning style.
  • Take notes.
  • Make summaries.
  • Transform study contents into questions and answers and quiz yourself by using spaced repetition software.
  • Be organized.

Focus

  • Prepare for lectures by clarifying at least any unknown expressions occurring on lecture slides.
  • Sit in the front row and take notes on printed lecture slides.
  • Clarify whatever content of a lecture is not fully understood the latest in the next lecture.
  • Get rid of distracting thoughts e.g. by noting them down or resolving the issue.
  • Increase your interest by having questions concerning the study contents in mind.
  • If a class is too easy pay only partial attention by solving practice problems, summarizing the lecture or studying other contents at the same time.
  • Study while reading e.g. by applying a method like SQ4R.
  • Apply speed reading methods when your brain is bored otherwise or if you have to deal with big quantities of text.

Learning ‘Facts’

  • Relate information to existing knowledge.
  • Use mnemonics for example by relating information to bizarre images in your mind.
  • Focus on memorizing short lists of not more than about ten terms, before moving on to the next portion.

Studying ‘Concepts’

  • Summarise and discuss concepts that you want to understand and solve related problems.
  • Fill knowledge gaps.
  • Learn a concept until you can explain it with simple words.
  • Use a variety of sources to benefit from different explanations.
  • Watch lectures and tutorials online, e.g. on youtube.
  • Acquire broad knowledge of a topic to gain expertise.
  • Master a concept by solving many practice problems.

Assignments and Projects

  • Start as early as possible.
  • Make sure to understand the task and have sufficient background information.
  • Structure your thoughts with the help of mind maps.
  • Plan how to solve the task.
  • Seek feedback regularly from an adviser.
  • Be aware of formal requirements.

Emergency tactics

  • Don’t give up!
  • Try to get any possible help.
  • Adjust your goals and focus on just a small part.
  • Try to explain your difficulties about the contents to someone.
  • Make a commitment how much time you’ll spend on studying and stick to it.
  • Keep in mind that you cannot give more than your best.
  • Accept that understanding takes time.

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