A Letter to New Students – How to Study (for Success)

Dear New Student,

You are about to embark on an exciting journey so I thought I’d offer a few pointers that have served me very well in my learning journey so far. Returning to education as a mature student, I took an evening class in psychology. I quickly realised that psychology had to have insights about the most effective ways that humans learned. So the first thing I did was to scour the psychology books. I figured I would get psychology working for me right from the start. Working with our human abilities and capacities is a way of working smarter but not necessarily harder. Recently, I overheard two new students discussing future plans on the bus recently including how they intended to approach studying, particularly lectures. Both were very keen on getting digital recorders with voice recognition software. Both confessed to be “not very good at taking notes”. So, that is their first mistake.

How to Approach Lectures
It’s a common misconception that the purpose of lectures is to communicate lots of information that you “capture” in someway and regurgitate in essays and exams. Not so. The lecture is not supposed to replace your independent study, it is supposed to set the scene for it. Lectures are merely springboards to learning not an end in themselves. Until our heads have USB sockets, somethings are best done the old-fashioned, but psychologically informed way.

Learning is not just about recognition and recall, it is about understanding and application. Once you understand something and can apply it you won’t struggle to remember it. We process information at different levels. Some information stays at the surface and is quickly forgotten. The stuff that we encode and process at a deeper level is more permanent. So if you make an effort to learn how to make notes more effectively in lectures, you become more actively engaged in the lecture. If you switch on your digital recorder, then you can sit back and daydream and let the machine do the work. The problem is that when you come to listen back to it, most of the visual cues are gone. There’s also a tendency not to bother to transcribe the recording because you “can do that at anytime”. There’s also an ethical point. You do not have the right to record other people without their express permission. So what is the most effective way to get the information into your head?

Make notes in lectures. Don’t aim to take down every word. The aim of the lecture is just to get a feel for the topic and to become familiar with concepts and terminology. The purpose of the lecture is to set the scene for your own reading. Once you realise this, the pressure is off to capture every word. If the lecture raises a question in your mind, jot the question down too. If you get chance, ask the lecturer the question at the end of the class. Get used to asking lectures in front of the whole class. Someone else probably wants to ask the same question too. People may even approach you afterwards and you may start your own study groups. Never underestimate the importance of explaining stuff to other people. It’s not giving your knowledge away. As you find different ways to explain things, it deepens and implants the knowledge even more deeply for you. I used this approach at University and did much better than people who tried to keep all their knowledge to themselves. So be a sociable learner.

Aim to review your lecture notes as soon after the class as possible, and always within 48 hours. Add everything else you can remember and any thoughts or questions that occur to you. Underline things you don’t fully understand. Then go to the library and find the relevant books, find a space to sit down and add to your basic notes. Clarify things you don’t understand and answer any questions you have written. Rushing to be the first to get the books and having them gather dust for weeks is not learning! 

Now this sounds like a lot of work. And, yes it probably is more work that switching on a digital recorder. However, which method will give you the best foundation. The active approach I have outlined is like learning how to swim. The passive, lazy-ass, technological approach may only just prevent you from drowning. Don’t rely on the life-jacket when you can learn how to swim. Yes the active approach to learning is more time consuming, but as you begin making more connections in the information, you develop more memory hooks to hang new material on. Once you’ve learned one stroke in swimming, different strokes don’t require the same degree of effort. Sometimes it seems as if facts, figures and dates seem to remember themselves because you have provided a foundation.

Your Own Imaginary Lectures
So what to do with your expensive digital recorder? Well, use that in your own private study time to record your own voice. Now this seems crazy, but practice giving imaginary lectures on key topics. Imagine you have an audience and talk to them on your chosen topic for 20 minutes. Try to do this without notes or just glance at your notes but do not read from them. The aim is to keep going for 20 minutes. If you can’t do it, then take this as a sign that you need to add to your notes and read around the subject a little more. Repeat this process until you can deliver the 20 minute lecture. You could then try it out in your study groups. What this technique does is create a little stress. This increased arousal helps improve performance. It also forces to use your own words and make connections. After you’ve recorded the lecture, play it back and make notes of the new thoughts, insights and words you used. 

Finally, a note on notes. When you revise for your exams, do not just read from your notes over and over gain. This just aids recognition not recall. Yes, you could probably recognise your notes if some on read them out to you, but you would be able to spontaneously tell anyone their contents. Always take an active approach to learning, such as drawing diagrams and mind maps, coming up with memory hooks, progressively condensing notes and saying them out loud at the same time, as well as giving the imaginary lectures. All of these require more than one cognitive process an so the information is encoded more deeply. Besides that, just reading through your notes, passively, is very, very boring. If you find studying a bore then it’s up to you to get creative and make it interesting.

I hope this advice helps you as much as it helped me. I’ve included a few links below with more study skills tips that I use with students in academic coaching. I’ve also included a link to my book which contains lots of techniques for elite performance, including a section on learning styles. 

I wish you well in your academic career. 

Yours lifelong learnedly,

Gary Wood

PS. More links for study skills below, and if none of these answer your question, please submit suggestions for future study skills posts in the comments box.

Links:

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