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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For All The People Who Claim NOT To Be Creative: The Imagination Quiz

Do you believe that creativity is a quality that only ‘creative people’ possess? OK, so you may not be the most creative person in the world ever but can you honestly say that you have zero creativity? This doesn’t necessarily mean artistic skill; it’s about imagination. Are you an imaginative person?

Here’s a short quiz to find out:

Imagination Quiz

We often use this to dismiss our abilities if we feel they don’t come up to scratch, but this is weakness-focused reasoning. Adopting strengths-focused reasoning helps us to build on what we have. So:

Answer either ‘Absolutely 100% No’ or ‘yes’. If it’s not 100% ‘no. then it must be yes.

  1. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever watched a cookery programme on TV and found your mouth watering just watching the ingredients being prepared?
  2. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever read a book and formed an image of one of the characters?
  3. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever listened to music that evoked emotions or mental images of places or people?
  4. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever been worried about something?
  5. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever been frightened of something?
  6. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever had a dream, a nightmare or daydream?
  7. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever wondered whether there is life on Mars and what it might look like?
  8. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever had sexually arousing thoughts or sexual fantasies?
  9. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to change biological sex for the day?
  10. Yes or absolutely no? If you became a multimillionaire can you imagine something that you would do with the money?
  11. Yes or absolutely no? Have you ever seen a piece of modern art and thought ‘I could do that’?

And finally,

13.  Do you have any superstitions?

Scoring:

  • For every YES score ten points
  • For every ABSOLUTELY NO score zero points
  • Give yourself 100 bonus points if you skipped question 13.

If you scored ten points or more you qualify as a creative, imaginative person.

You could put your imagination to good use through visualization techniques to help support your goals just like top athletes do. So, instead of obsessing over a negative outcome, you can mentally rehearse a positive outcome.

Links:

Book: Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

Book: Changer votre vie ! : Petits exercices pour vous prendre en main

How Did You Get This Far? Solution Focused, Strengths Focused Learning

So How Did You Get This Far? Solution Focused, Strengths Focused Learning

If you got 40% and passed a test, what would be your first question? Would it be:

  1. What happened to the other 60%, or
  2. What did I do to pass and get 40%

If it’s answer 1, then you’re taking a ‘weakness focused’ approach.

If it’s answer 2, you’re taking a ‘strengths focused approach’

Personal development often focuses on improving weaknesses but there’s a body of research that argues a ‘strengths-based’ approach is more effective. In short, we can’t all be fabulous at everything.To attempt to do so would require massive effort. It’s more economical to invest more time in what we are already good at, so we can specialize and excel (we can then manage the weaknesses).

I remember hearing of a child who arrived home with a staggering 96% on a maths test. The response of one of the parents was ‘What happened to the other 4%?’ Whereas they should have be celebrating the 96%. The questions they should have asked are:

  • What did you do to get that result?
  • Was there anything that you really think helped that you can do more of next time?
  • What strengths and qualities helped you get this far?
  • What did you do differently this time?
  • Is there something that you use to do that you stopped doing this time?
  • What can you let go of that didn’t help?
  • What else did you do?
  • What else?

With the strengths focused approach you concentrate on what you have already attained and then build on it, whether it’s 96%, 57%, 40% or 22%. This makes sense as it is the same approach we use with babies. After witnessing a baby’s first step, surely you wouldn’t dream of saying ‘And why didn’t you run around the coffee table?’ No, you’d praise them, encourage them to try again and focus on how they managed to take that first step. Now think about the staggering amount that babies manage to learn in a very short space of time.

You can apply the same to any goal you’ve set and tried for. If you didn’t get that 100% result, try focusing on what you have actually achieved and how you got there. Using the above questions you will use the feedback to build on strengths. If you obsess over what you didn’t get, you’ll probably lose motivation and give up! So go back and review previous attempts at goals and apply the strengths-focused questions. You have everything to gain.

Links:

Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It!

A Short Course in Personal Development: Psychological Skills for Elite Performance

The four basic psychological skills for elite performance are:  relaxation; goal-setting; self-talk; and creative visualization. Here are three exercises utilizing these skills. Practised regularly they will support and enhance personal development and elite performance:

(i) Relaxation: Our ability to control our stress response has a profound effect on human performance and how we process information.

(ii) Self-Talk: The way we talk to ourselves – our inner dialogue – creates self-imposed limitations for how we view the world and what we do in the world.

(iii) Goal-setting & Visualization: This simple exercise is used by top athletes and uses creative visualization to support goal setting to create a sense of having already achieved the goal. It’s a good way to build and maintain motivation.

I use the concept of ‘personal experiments’ with coaching clients. This approach allows us to try techniques on for size, with no intrinsic sense of failure. We simply commit to the techniques for a given period of time (say two to four weeks) to allow ourselves to collect data. So give them a go and assess the results (and feel free to post any feedback). For some information, see the link to my self-help book below.

Links:

Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

Positive Worrying & Future Desired Outcomes

We usually assume that no good can come of worrying but it doesn’t stop us doing it. We run our mental ‘home movies’ of future events as if they had already turned out badly. We re-run old conversations and worry that we should have said this or wished we hadn’t said that. So can any good come of worrying?

Worrying is usually thought of as a bad thing because it focuses on the negative. However, it is possible to use the same set of skills with a positive focus. You may be surprised to hear me speaking of worrying as a skill, but it’s something we practise and we get good at it. That’s a skill.

Worrying actually involves two key psychological skills:

  • the ability to form vivid mental images,
  • the ability to create  inner  dialogue (self-talk).

Both are usually stuck on the ‘deflate’ setting. Once we switch the emphasis to ‘inspire’ we can create and rehearse positive mental pictures and words instead.  This is what I call, positive worrying. Using these skills helps us to support our goals, taking exams, on a date, taking a driving test, giving a presentation, and so on. If you’ve got a desired end result in mind, the you can use positive worrying to build yourself up instead of keeping yourself down.

Positive worrying involves creating a mental image of the end result, or the finished line, not how you got there. Focusing on the end result creates a sense that you’ve already succeeded and helps to build motivation. It’s a technique that top athletes use to support elite performance.

Here’s a short video explaining more about ‘positive worrying’ followed by links for an inner dialogue (self-talk) exercise and a basic relaxation technique. Use them all to help create a positive change in the way your view yourself, your skills and your goals.

Links:

Self-Talk: Water Wings & Concrete Galoshes.

Two-Minute Stress Buster.

Book: Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It.