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Eight Steps of Successful Studying

For many students the concept of study brings to mind the mythology of late term cramming efforts and all-nighters . Getting set to study can sometimes be a matter of realizing if you don't get started right away and use whatever time remains you may well end up failing the exam. For the next few days you frantically compile and study your notes until you feel you have a grasp on the information, undertaking intense study sessions only to feel frustrated at your results later on. Sound familiar?

The strategy of cramming at the last minute often fails because you have to assimilate and integrate vast quantities of information in too short a period of time. You are likely to feel overwhelmed and overloaded with details and ideas that do not seem connected. Such feelings will likely contribute to a broader sense of anxiety and dread about the exam. You cannot expect to perform well consistently with this sort of preparation and attitude. When you cram, you do not allow yourself adequate time to integrate ideas, to consolidate information into meaningful patterns, to analyze and criticize the ideas, to reflect on ideas so as to gain a deeper understanding of their connections, to test yourself by recitation and elaborative rehearsal. Instead, you struggle to hold all the terms and concepts in your memory long enough to make it to the exam room. Some information "spills out" on the way: the newly-learned material is not well connected to previously retained information. Under the pressure of the exam, you may find that you forget pertinent details, that you cannot see important connections, and that you cannot adequately analyze and interpret the questions so as to draw on what you do remember.

Less frantic, and usually much more productive, routines can be put in place without great effort for both long term and short term study. The key thing to do is to make reviewing a regular part of your study or homework routine. A sensible approach to reviewing regularly might entail starting a study session with a quick review of material covered the last time you studied the topic under consideration. Focus on key words and phrases. Keep this sort of reviewing brief (about 10-15 minutes duration) -- think of it as a "warm-up." Each week or so, briefly consider recent lecture notes and reading notes from your various courses. Check the course description and list of lecture and reading titles on your course syllabus: themes, concepts, and important details should make sense together. In lectures look for repeated concepts or ideas identified by key transitions such as "more importantly..." or "generally,..." or "In sum...". In texts and articles, use introductions, abstracts, headings, subheadings, bold face type and summaries to identify important topics and material. Check past assignments, tests, and essay topics for relevant topics of study. Attend tutorials and class review sessions and study groups. Ask other students, the TA, the Prof. and so on what is important and compare this with what you thought was important. The idea is to consolidate and integrate your prior learning as you proceed through a course of study. Such consolidation and integration is most effective when it is gradual and regular.

Eight Steps to Effective Study
If you haven't been studying regularly, then there is still hope. You might find it helpful to begin with a series of basic steps to settle down to studying, begin consolidating your course work, and set your sights on a strategy for achieving a specific goal on your exam. The steps are directed at settling you to the task of studying for the exam. They involve selecting key course information, ensuring that you are aware of possible topics for the exam, that you are establishing an environment conducive to good study, and that you are developing strategies to study and working to manage this process of study effectively.

  • Complete all necessary or central course readings and compile all of your notes from various sources (such as lecture, tutorials, texts, past assignments and tests etc.) as they are relevant to your upcoming exam.
  • Review past assignments and tests for topics, question types, and feedback and re-read the syllabus for the course focus and description. Often past assignments highlight key course concepts and offer example questions which you can use to test yourself. With the help of the course syllabus, determine your learning objectives and the course focus. An example of a learning objective is "Students should be able to apply the theories discussed in the course to relevant real life situations."
  • Ensure that you know the format , location, date, time, focus, and weighting of each test or exam to help determine your emphasis for each course. Know what percentage of the final course grade is accounted for by this exam. (Incidentally, one suggestion for setting time limits for studying states that you would plan to spend one hour for each percent of the final grade that the exam is worth and then add one quarter of this time to account for interruptions and difficulties that you didn't anticipate. These estimates are over and above those related to completing term work.)
  • Set a realistic goal for the exam and determine a daily amount of time to study each course. Write it down along with all the steps of preparing in a calendar or planner.
  • Decide how to balance "study" and "regular course work" during this preparation period. Loosen, cancel, postpone, or decrease other commitments to leave more time for study and proper rest and relaxation and prepare a place to study away from distractions like TV, other people, telephone etc..
  • Locate as many study aids, such as course notes in the library, past exams, or study guides, as possible. You might approach the Prof. or TA to see if they are interested in helping develop practice exam questions or you might develop a study group to build-in interaction around the course material. It should be obvious that collecting these study aids without using them to practice recalling your material is of limited value.
  • Determine what the major sections, concepts, ideas, and issues of the course are. What do you need to know for each one? From your experience with course reading and lectures, what portions of the course have been given special emphasis? Why? In what ways has the instructor modeled the process of thinking associated with this course or discipline? What questions might help you to understand and recall and relate the elements of your course? It is important to note that the way in which the course is organized relates directly to "what's important" and to how you will likely be tested on this material.
  • Ask: When is the soonest I can begin to study? In general, settling down to study and selecting information central to the test or exam should be a straightforward task.

These steps are constrained heavily by time pressures which, in large part, are due to difficulties students have with managing their time. Try to start early and remember that you are learning how to direct your efforts strategically to produce a more effective set of skills. A word of warning -- many students place efficiency above effectiveness when it comes to study. They rationalize that doing the work of effectively learning and studying their course work cannot be done because of time constraints. They expect to learn effectively even though they cut out important steps in understanding and storing their course knowledge. There is little point in being efficient, if you aren't getting the results you want; as you continue to use your newly developing strategies, you will find ways to streamline your approach.

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