By Jonas Larson
Studying can be draining, particularly if you aren’t enjoying a specific course. So revising your notes, or even studying them in the first place, may feel burdensome. But studying doesn’t have to feel like this. During my three years at university, I’ve used a range of techniques to not only help me achieve the results I want, but actually begin to enjoy the process of study.
Note that your techniques should be customised to your course. Success for me, as an economics student, requires regular revision and problem solving tailored to a heavily weighted final exam. My tips below also serve in addition to the general life advice of exercising, eating well and sleeping enough. It is critical to take care of your body and mind so you can do your very best.
1) Interrupt the “forgetting curve”
Understanding seems easy when presented and broken down on a lecture slide. When lecturers and tutors outline what we need to know while guiding us through a problem, we usually follow along. If there are parts we don’t understand, we can always ask.
A successful student, however, needs to both understand and memorise. Even if you feel like you understand the slides, test circumstances are completely different. Here you’ll have to quickly recall facts and procedures. Beyond passively reading, therefore, you need to continually challenge your brain’s ability to recall information.
One effective method is spaced repetition. It seeks to interrupt the ‘forgetting curve’, a concept illustrating that you’ll forget what you make no effort to retain. Merely taking notes is a poor way of retaining content and preparing you for assessments. Spaced repetition, on the other hand, seeks to repeatedly expose you to content you need to remember. Taking this gradual approach to memorising makes it much more manageable and less stressful than cramming. Combined with active recall, where you force yourself to answer questions about the content, spaced repetition allows you to stay on top of what you’ve learned and discover what you don’t understand.
There are various alterations of, and platforms for, this technique; find what works for you. What I’ve found helpful is to create a Google spreadsheet. After lectures, or at the end of the week, I’d write down questions about what I learnt in one column. The answers go in the adjacent column in white text to blend with the background. As you test yourself, colour the cells green, orange or red depending on your confidence in the answer. Do this at regular intervals and you won’t be overwhelmed by trying to remember everything during exam prep. Anki and Notion are two other apps I recommend.
2) Get inspired
Inspiration is everywhere. Talking to professors and alumni who’ve been where I am made it easier to envision the future I want. It’s enabled me to contextualise my present studies within a broader purpose. Understanding how studies fit into the wider narrative of my life inspires me to remain committed.
There’s also a host of YouTubers out there with channels documenting their student experience and tips on how they best learn. Keep in mind though, that as you watch these, you only see a limited segment of their lives. You usually see parts they have selected to be the ‘best’ parts of their lives. So don’t be discouraged if you feel what they’ve shown or explained isn’t working for you.
Learn from your missteps. You won’t ever reach perfection, but you can be consistent and create habits. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.
Ali Abdaal, a Cambridge graduate, is a YouTuber who’s inspired me: www.youtube.com/user/Sepharoth64
If you’re studying to understand a concept, don’t multitask. Your tasks will take longer and you risk deceiving yourself into thinking you get it without actually understanding (to listen and to understand is not the same). And you may struggle to later retrieve the content if your memory didn’t solidify it.
If you find it difficult to concentrate on one task, you can break the task into smaller, manageable chunks, then fully commit to it. This is linked to the Pomodoro technique, which I frequently use when studying: full focus for 25 minutes, take a break for 5 minutes, then repeat. Approaching your task thinking: “I only have to focus for 25 minutes” makes it less daunting. And often the thought of doing something is worse than just doing it. You can find an online version here: www.tomato-timer.com
A long-term strategy to improve focus is meditation and mindfulness. This doesn’t have to be more than five minutes of focusing on your breath. Thoughts are normal. You strengthen your focus every time you redirect your attention from a thought to the breath.
4) Attend lectures
Every lecturer emphasises this at the start of every semester. It’s easy to tune out and think that you’ll be fine watching the recordings. This may be true. But if your aim is to learn efficiently, attending lectures has numerous benefits. At the moment, we are all unfortunately tied to our screens more than we might like, but when you can attend face to face classes again, I encourage you to do so for the following reasons.
Lecture attendance compels you to pay attention by deterring the urge to engage with distractions, such as your phone. In the comfort of your own room, your phone can easily make your one-hour lecture three hours long. In-person attendance makes it easier to fully absorb and understand the content.
If you don’t understand something, you can clarify it immediately after the lecture with the person who actually presented the information to you. Immediate clarification saves you time and effort down the line and prevents you from forgetting to clarify it.
And if you’re a visual learner, lecture attendance may help you recall information during an exam. A lecture theatre provides much more sensory stimulus than a computer screen. This helps our memory to more clearly distinguish different topics, as the context of each lecture will be different. Indistinguishable recordings on the same computer screen don’t provide much sensory stimulus and omit the lecturer’s nonverbal cues, which may convey useful information.
5) Utilise office hours and consultations
As you study, you’ll uncover knowledge gaps of which you weren’t aware. Immediately upon discovering this, write down the question and attend or arrange a consultation. Not only will your question be clarified, but you may be challenged to think about extensions of your problem you didn’t know were possible.
Such extensions cement your understanding and provide helpful exam preparation, providing an excellent opportunity to contextualise your specific problem within the broader scope of the course. You will connect the dots and see how each piece fits together. Many subjects test how the overall model changes when removing, altering or adding components. Success requires you to understand how everything fits together.
Consultations also provide you an opportunity to answer questions of other students. Teaching someone else ranks among the best ways of seeing whether you’ve fully understood a concept. Don’t forget the resident tutors at the residential college can also consult with you if you aren’t able to meet with lecturers right now.
6) Use the end of the week to look back and ahead
At the end of the week, it’s a good idea to go through what you learnt. Ensure your notes— and your understanding of them—are in order. Repeat and reinforce your knowledge. As you do this, you may also want to reflect on what went well and what can be done better. Look at your schedule and plan ahead. Any due dates coming up? Do you have any plans outside studies you should consider? If you spend the weekend organising the week ahead, you don’t have to stress throughout the week itself. As mentioned, consistency is key.