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How to Study in College in 10 Steps

Written by admin, Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 in Culture, Getting Things Done, School and Work

I have a lot of friends who have recently asked me a very simple yet a very complex question: how to study in College. It seems a little bit of a ridiculous question, but doing it is much harder than you think — even college seniors frequently find themselves having trouble keeping up with work. With that being said, here are 10 steps I think are essential to studying properly in college — most of which you’ll never hear from any orientation seminar.

10. Avoid disadvantaging yourself mentally.

Because you are fundamentally exercising your brain when studying, avoid disadvantaging yourself by clouding your brain. You can inadvertently hurt your retention capabilities and focus through bad diet, choosing a bad location to study, not sleeping enough, or even doing something ridiculous like drinking alcohol before you study. If you want to learn properly, treat study time like a religious mendicant treats prayer time — do it with focus, prepare for it, and never put yourself in a position where it becomes difficult to do.

Also, a big part of this is to be careful with caffeine. Caffeine is a great way to keep yourself focused and energetic, but it can also crash on you and make your mind worthless — and too much of it can make you too hyper to function. Learn to use it in moderation or don’t use it at all. Same with sugar.

9. To hell with (most) study groups.

Study groups are a common pratfall of most. While it may seem tempting to join up with your buddies to all collectively work on material, the reality is that study groups very rarely do anything but make you all collectively distracted, or at least encourage you to feel like you know material you do not. Unless you absolutely must, avoid study groups and “group cram sessions” — they are absolutely useless. If you don’t know much of the material, they can make you feel like you know more than you do, or worse scare you from showing you how little you do. If you know a lot, they simply become a waste of time as you babysit people who don’t know the material. If you study properly and take proper notes, there will be nothing that a group can help you with that you cannot figure out on your own through better, more efficient methods.

8. Actually pay attention to lectures.

This is a big one. Pay attention.

Don’t screw around on your cell phone, laptop, or anything else. Prepare for lectures, take notes, and actually process what the professor is saying. Ask questions if necessary. Work with the material in your head. If you have trouble getting lectures the first time, record the professor with a tape recorder (get permission first) and listen to the lectures again. Many, many college courses will have tests that focus more on lecture material than actual course material, so this is absolutely essential.

Oh yeah, and for obvious reasons, do not skip class, ever. Pending you are not egregiously contagious, even if you are sick, go to class.

7. Deep process everything.

“Deep processing”, in my terms, is the ability to understand information beyond the basic facts. This is how most people learn the most efficiently.

The way to “deep process” something is to learn information about the subject deeper than the required knowledge actually goes. For example, if you need to remember something relatively unfamiliar (let’s say something like “The Kaaba is in Mecca”), your goal is to not only learn more about it to solidify the fact, but also to connect it to different parts of your life. For example, in the aforementioned case, you not only want to deepen your understanding of what the Kaaba is (for example, reading the Wikipedia page, looking at pictures of it, etc), but also trying to connect it to something in your life already (like “Hey, that’s where Malcolm X went! I saw that in that movie with Denzel Washington!”, etc). For example, to remember a lot of stories and themes from novels I studied early in my college career, I would always hop onto JSTOR to read academic articles about them, I’d check the Wikipedia page to see an overview, and I’d even see if I could rent a movie inspired by the book itself. The idea is, in short, to keep looping the information around your head in different ways until the information becomes as familiar as your name.

Naturally, deep processing helps a lot — especially with tests involving essay portions. The more information you know about topics, the more information you can display about that topic, and thus the more you can write.

6. Use flash cards or other tools when necessary.

When it comes to rote memorization of basic facts, figures and words, nothing quite beats flash cards.

Flash cards don’t have to be cumbersome and annoying — there are plenty of flash card apps out there now (the Flashcard Exchange and Smart.fm come to mind) that allow you to create and use flash cards to memorize information on your computer and sometimes even on your cell phone. This especially helps for languages with complex character sets (the Flashcard Exchange saved my butt big time with Japanese), as the familiarity of seeing the gestalt of the word not only helps quick recognition, but also generally helps you read complex alphabets faster. Repeating something over and over — though the process is boring — helps you remember it. This actually tends to explain, among other reasons, why you likely remember intense amount of detail about your favorite songs — you hear them over and over, and you develop a mastery of them.

Warning — do not over-use flash cards. Flash cards are for rote memorization of material in small bites, not much more. It is generally preferable, in many disciplines of the liberal arts, to get the idea of something rather than getting it by name. It, of course, depends on your professor, but never use flash cards and rote memorization as a replacement for good working knowledge of information.

5. Recover information by re-reading material.

In the same vein as flash cards, re-read material if you can.

For example, if you are ever in a situation where you use a textbook you will be tested on, don’t just read the textbook before the class time or right before the test- read it multiple times, with increasing ferocity as you approach the day of the test. For example, if you have a Psychology class and you need to understand a chapter on conditioning, the ideal way to memorize the book would to read the book right before the class on the chapter, re-read it the weekend after the class (so you can apply what you heard in the lecture), and then read it a day or two before the test day, and, if possible, the day of the test. This certainly depends on your retention level and how much time you have available to you, but it helps — the more you read something in-depth, the more you notice.

Hell, even if you don’t remember what you read, you’d be surprised what you can remember merely by remembering how it was laid out on the page or the graphic associated with. I’m not kidding, it works.

4. Complete things at least a day or two in advance.

This is one of the biggest pitfalls of college students in general — very few students do anything in advance, preferring rather to do things the day (or more usually, the night) before their work is due — be it a paper, studying for a test, or the like. Do not do this.

I like to consider writing a good paper or studying for a test like being a really neurotic sniper — take three hours to aim before you take the one second to shoot. In the context of a paper, have a working draft of even a two page paper at least 2 weeks before it is due. Keep returning to it over those two weeks to check it over — read it aloud, fix grammatical errors, add more to the paper, and do everything you can to further refine it. Like a good piece of art, continue to slowly and meticulously craft it, approaching it with a new mindset each time. If you can, send a well constructed draft in to your professor and have them examine it and tear it apart. Work at the thing until you are so sick of seeing it that you’d like to see it burned in a fire.

I especially recommend this for anything long or resembling a dissertation. A good 50 page paper, for example, requires actual hard work — there is no messing around or writing it the night before. Even if you have six months to write something, have it written the first month, and use the remaining five to attack it like crazy. Trust me, this results in better work overall — no-one ever sounded like a genius vomiting something out in a panic on paper the day before it was due.

3. Actually do the work.

No, seriously. Do it.

If you are assigned to read a book, read it, don’t read the stupid Spark Notes. If you have to do research, actually do it, don’t mess around with only one source. If you have to do an experiment, actually do it, don’t pretend you did it. The time expenditure required for this sort of work is horribly annoying, but it is absolutely required — the more time you spend on something, the more your effort will (generally) show. There is no shortcut when it comes to cramming stuff into your brain.

Sure, you will meet people in your college career who manage to skate by doing minimal amounts of work for good grades, but they are merely cheating themselves out of educations. Having to work very hard to learn something does not make you stupid or slow, it makes you normal and hard-working. Just do the work.

2. Take good, efficient notes — and then take them again.

This is one of the biggest tricks I learned in my entire college career: don’t just take tons of notes, and don’t just take them once. Take efficient notes, and then further refine them again later.

The best way to do this is to simply carry a notebook around with you and take notes for all of your classes. Don’t carry around a laptop — I mean a literal pen-and-paper sort of notebook. With your notes, try to address the big points of the lecture or presentation you see — don’t write down everything, just write down the things to remember. This is a learned skill, certainly, but try as hard as you can. Write down quotes you find important to remember, write down interpretations of information and data in your own words — hell, even draw pictures if you have to.

Then, take these notes a week or so before test time and type yourself out a big study guide from them. Take your notes, identify what you now know as important, and make one big study guide from your notes. Add in information from your textbook or other reading material (that is, take notes from the material and add them to your study guide), and arrange it logically. Bold key terms. Insert quotes in relevant areas. I personally like to make everything one big bullet list, like a huge tree of information descending from the core topic of the class — but do whatever you like. Organize all the data you need to know — even the stuff you think won’t be on the test.

Then read the study guide often. Refer to it in class. Flip around it. Look at it during commercial breaks of TV shows. Have it laying on your kitchen table when you eat breakfast. Just look at it.

Oh, and right before the test? Read your notes and the text — not the study guide — again. You’ll see the data as outlined in your study guide, and be able to see it all working together in the big picture. Then look at the study guide again. Suddenly, the heavens will open up, everything will be in its proper place, and you will see everything nicely in order, rank and file. You will know the information and have processed it up and down, and it will show during test time.

1. Eliminate all distractions.

This is the biggest factor in how well you study, period. No amount of study tricks or techniques will save you from having to work on this issue.

Eliminate all distractions, period, end of story. Never use a computer for studying unless you must — you will be distracted from your work. Do not study in a public location — sequester yourself from society. Do not watch television while you study, or even listen to music with lyrics — and if you use a MP3 player of some kind, set it on shuffle or otherwise prevent it from requiring your attention too often. Turn off your phone or mute it and keep it away from you. Get comfortable and don’t feel like you have to get up — get a comfortable (but not too comfortable) chair and desk or table and stay there. Get a good, cold drink, but try to avoid snacks if you can. If you can, clear your head of issues related to the day — do it at a time where you don’t have to worry about errands, future classes, or the like. Remove from your mind any errant thoughts — don’t worry about girls, friends, other problems, video games, or really anything that comes to mind — make yourself a vessel for information. As I jokingly tell friends, this is a zazen approach to studying — and it works.

This applies for any sort of studying, reading, or anything close to it. Focus is everything — under no circumstances should it be challenged.

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3 Responses to How to Study in College in 10 Steps

  1. Eric says:

    #1 – the not using a computer one is my downfall as a Computer Science major. Solid advice, though.

  2. Merry Christmas says:

    Thank you Kirk! I like your guides, especially this one. I didn’t really do the stuff written here back in college but I graduated, although with a regrettable grade average. I’m currently studying for an exam for postgraduate school and this really helps. Thank you again!

  3. Johnathan says:

    What an inspired post! Excellent work!

    I completely agree with your point on study groups; I found them an utter distraction at best. I remember trying this out once and only managed to author a solitary paragraph the entire time I was there; most of the group were more interested in talking about their upcoming vacations and finding change for the vending machine than doing any *real* work.

    Number eight is my top recommendation. If nothing else, you can bluff your way through most assignments just by turning up to the lectures!

    Similarly, you’re spot on with your thought process for number four: “Keep returning to it over those two weeks to check it over … Like a good piece of art, continue to slowly and meticulously craft it, approaching it with a new mindset each time”. However, always be careful about handing drafts to professors – some have a huge workload and take real exception to those who give them extra material to wade through!

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