General Study Hints

Developing a sense of motivated interest is essential to long-term recall of large quantities of complex material, which is, after all, one of the important tasks of a student. You need to have a genuine sense of curiosity and interest in your courses in order to learn and retain material and perform well in exams. Without that sense of motivation and interest, your course work may come to seem like drudgery, a boring and meaningless chore. When that is the case, you may well have difficulty remembering what you read in your texts and hear in your lectures, regardless of what study methods you employ. Strive to find areas of interest and a personal sense of purpose in all your courses. You must take responsibility for developing your own interest in what you are studying.

Even with a strongly motivated interest in your learning, you may, as you prepare for exams, develop a sense of anxiety or dread about the upcoming exam. Perhaps you are not sure what the key concepts are. Perhaps you wonder if you will successfully remember the material and produce it on the exam in such a way as demonstrates your understanding. When it comes to preparing for exams, there is no one right way to study that will guarantee success. One thing is for sure, however; we can develop a sense of confidence from knowing we know that we know what we know.

One way to know that we know what we know is to use the simple four-step strategy listed below. The strategy begins where we left off in the last section, with identifying key concepts and proceeds through understanding, organizing, and remembering key course information.

1. Identify the key ideas.
That is, pick them out and articulate them. When reading, you might want to survey the text for introductions, headings, sub-headings, bold-face/italic type, key terms list, summary, conclusions, reading/learning goals and repeated material. It is also helpful to look for a thesis statement and a statement of how X proves the thesis or to determine the information type; e.g. compare/contrast text focuses on the similarities and differences. When making notes from text or from lectures, listen for outline topics or lecture titles or see the syllabus for lecture titles. As well, it helps to review prior notes for a "forward link" from a past lecture and to pay strict attention to that which is repeated, dwelt on, or written on the board or overhead. Be sure to elaborate the core ideas with some reference to those things which relate to the definition, explanation, comparison, or critique of a concept, idea, theory, or term.

2. Understand the key information.
That is, develop a thorough understanding of course materials by reviewing notes to fill in any missing thoughts or ideas immediately. Identify and resolve unclear information as soon as possible, ensuring that the notes make sense to you. Additionally, with your full set of notes late in the term, re-read the course description and look for how the lectures have addressed the key themes, concepts, and issues of the course.

An excellent strategy for elaboration involves generating a series of generic questions which will help you to elaborate your learning and get you to consider different aspects of the material you are learning and articulate answers and discuss them in relation to the course. Many students spend a lot of their time memorizing the details of their courses and focusing on the ideas as they are presented without elaboration of these ideas, without making the ideas part of their own understanding through a process of thinking at various levels.

Part of the reason for the lack of elaboration or thorough understanding is that students face a number of time pressures which, if not dealt with early and effectively, can leave them without the necessary time to consider a deeper approach to their course content. Another overwhelming reason for this is that students have only a vague sense of what exactly they need to do to elaborate effectively on their course concepts. When answering these questions you might work alone or you may want to work in a small study group where you have the opportunity to gather input from your peers. As you answer the questions, try to integrate information from disparate sources, and express ideas in your own words. Do not simply repeat verbatim the words of the text or the formulations of the lecturer. By expressing the information aloud in your own words, you provide yourself with a sort of personal "lie detector": you see whether you truly understand and remember the material.

3. Organize these key ideas along with the necessary supporting information.
That is, determine how the key ideas relate to each other, to ideas from other lectures and to themes of the course. This leads to you generating a "bigger picture's view" of the key concepts in a course of study. Some examples include the following.

When reading, use chapter outlines or theses as organizing guidelines and look for relationships between items in the outline or thesis. When note-taking, consider Cornell notes format with key terms in a margin or a cover page for sections and lectures of a course. Finally, consider a visual information map or charting information to show how the course concepts, themes and issues are connected. Relational Understanding refers to the idea of grouping related information together and choosing a key word, short phrase, or mnemonic retrieval cue to act as a trigger for your recall of the related details.

By practicing recall using the retrieval cue, you build up a strong association between the cue and the details. Eventually, when you see the cue, you can recall easily the associated details and related ideas. Some studies of memory suggest that the retrieval cues are most effective when they are selected at the time of the initial learning. Strong, precise nouns and verbs are probably the most useful kinds of cues. In addition, organizational charts or relational diagrams -- often referred to as mind maps or information maps-- can also be a way of grouping and organizing a large amount of information in a small space for the purposes of making it more concrete and easy to review.

Four questions can guide you to making an information map: what are the major sections, concepts, ideas of the course? what do we need to know for each one? what questions will help me understand and recall and relate these sections, concepts, and ideas? how can I structure these questions and information relevant to answering them into visually or spatially organized study aids?

Whichever strategy you choose to organize your ideas, be sure to study in a way which is related to how the course is organized - eg., it is probably not very helpful to spend the bulk of your time just memorizing definitions when the emphasis of your course lectures and readings has been to apply theoretical models to various social phenomena. Where there are definitions or concepts to memorize, use key words as memory cues and practice reciting definitions both in the terms given and in your own words. Where many theories or time periods or phenomena are compared or contrasted, consider developing summary charts and practice articulating the similarities and differences. Where perspectives on a series of issues are central, become fluent in what each perspective holds to be true, how they differ, how they sit on issues, whether one or more is superior to others and why. When the vocabulary of theory seems to be the focus, understand the following: which terms are associated with which theory; what the course or text uses as a common definition; how you would define the terms by example; what the theory that groups the terminology is about and how it differs from other theories; what the theory and terminology are when stated in different words; and what the key defining details are between one term and another.

4. Develop Your Memory and Quiz yourself.
Many students believe they have "bad" or faulty memories. The real problem usually relates not to impaired brain function, but rather to unrealistic expectations about how their memories should work. Many students simply do not approach their studies with a strategy that facilitates long-term recall of their course work. These students have neglected to study so as to enhance their recall. They have failed to recognize that understanding is not the same as remembering.

For university students it is important to distribute your practice; that is, review newly-learned material often, starting as soon as possible after the new material is first encountered, spacing several review sessions between the initial study session(s) and the final review sessions before an exam. Several brief intermediate reviews of course material serve to refresh your memory for the details and also afford you opportunities to see emerging patterns, connections, and relationships among ideas and concepts. Frequent effective reviewing not only helps to reinforce your recall of important concepts, but also highlights areas where your comprehension and recall may be faulty. The sooner you identify areas of uncertainty and confusion, the better. You can take action early to eliminate your problems so as to avoid last-minute panic while cramming for a test. In so doing, you counteract the natural process of forgetting. If you do not review regularly, and if regular reviewing is not built into the class discussions, lectures, and the texts, then you are likely to forget significant portions of what you learn, even if you understand the material well. Then your final review sessions before an exam become re-learning sessions that may make you feel nervous and anxious.

Mnemonic devices have helped many students. In general, mnemonic devices refer to systems and techniques that aid and improve recall. They also can function as useful retrieval cues when you employ relational understanding or chunking. Such techniques are consistent with established principles of learning and memory such as meaningfulness, association, organization, visualization, attention, and interest. They can include abbreviations, acronyms, rhymes, images, numbers, phonetics, and so on. They involve associating the details you wish to recall with something else that is memorable because it is funny, bizarre, vulgar, or sensual, for instance. To cite one example, you could recall the spectral classifications of stars used by astronomers by remembering the mnemonic "Ottawa boasts a fine gorilla, knowing many new stars." The first letters of each word in the sentence correspond to the classifications O, B, A, F, G, K, M, N, S commonly used to classify stars.

One key advantage of mnemonics is that they help you to test your memory. Various other strategies exist for this as well -- re-do assignments, essay questions, cue-cards for terminology, anticipate questions on the exams (these may come from old assignments, class, essay questions, labs, chapter reviews, tutorial discussions, past exams, study partners, study guides etc... ), look at past tests, sketch out answers to these questions, form a study group to make questions and discuss answers from memory (try to answer detail questions, concept questions, and questions which focus on their relationship to the course and beyond from memory ), write key course ideas on strips of paper or use flashcards and randomly choose these to talk about. Maybe choose three strips at random and discuss their meaning and interrelationships. Lay the strips all out on a table and organize them into categories or draw information maps. From memory, answer questions you generated in step two. Have somebody quiz you, practice labeling diagrams, and filling in charts. When making notes, use organizing feature to suggest rehearsal mode; e.g. the Cornell method, which uses key words in a column, is good for definitions. Self testing provides feedback which is an important ingredient to any good study routine.

Feedback should be collected both during the term and from your own work during study through self-questioning and self-testing techniques. Using the feedback you collect is vital in improving your approach to your course content. Some feedback comes from assignments and tests in the course but many students find these too infrequent to give them a clear sense of how they are faring in the course. For this reason, it can be very important to make your own feedback. One of the best ways is to test yourself regularly. There are many kinds of tests and exams, but in general, the preparation steps described above will be effective regardless of the testing format. Some students mistakenly assume that they should focus exclusively on memorizing details when the format is multiple choice, and on broad patterns when the format is short answer or essay. In fact, you also need to see the broad patterns, connections, and relationships to be successful with multiple choice tests, and you need to be able to provide supporting details to write effective short answers and essay answers. Though these general strategies can go a long way to improving your approach to studies, you may find it helpful to consider some specialized preparation strategies and in-test strategies for multiple choice and essay style exams.