As we approach the end of September, most students in college are taking their first exams of the semester. I am sure that many of you who are students have, or will be taking, your first exams! In recognition, now is an opportune time to discuss how to study effectively, especially for chemistry, physics, and mathematics.
Studying effectively is actually code for having a very good set of habits. Certainly, there are study techniques that should be employed, but all of those techniques are useless unless you are studying effectively. What do I mean studying effectively? Studying every day.
The hardest part of studying effectively is making it a dedicated part of your routine, especially when mounds of work begin to form. I wholeheartedly believe that by studying every day, you will actually reduce the amount of time that you need to work through assignments. Why? The concepts will be more developed and recalled in your mind, your questions will have already been answered before you start problem sets, you will be able to develop and ask more critical, in depth, and penetrating questions prior to exams, and you will not have to cram for hours right before the exam, because you have already been studying!
By way of parable, here is a question I often posed my high school students when I was in the classroom: “Why do you take notes?” Not surprisingly, many of them would shrug at me, and eventually, after an awkward pause, me then posing the question for a second time, and after further awkward silence, someone would blurt out, “I dunno. Because that’s what we are supposed to do?”
When I first heard this response, I was dumbfounded, and I admit that the sarcastic side of my personality took over, firing off a witty retort about what was the point of writing any notes, and that they were simply wasting ink, to say nothing about funding the paper industry. However, on retrospect, my students were absolutely right – they were expected to take notes, recapitulating in verbatim what a teacher wrote on the blackboard. However, they were then never shown what to do with their notes. They were not taught good study habits, to review their notes to study each day, several times if possible, and develop the habit.
It certainly is one thing to simply state that we should study every night, for each class. Even writing it down now sounds a bit idealistic. However, what if we structure studying together, and create a simple plan to incorporate studying each day? Once we have a set time in place, we can then develop techniques to employ during that study block. “Starting the Academic Year Right – Part I” https://wp.me/p2Iytq-E has a section on how to develop an effective schedule, and “Starting the Academic Year Right – Part II” https://wp.me/p2Iytq-1t discusses how to make sure to plan in needed overtime for your studying, as well as the importance of balance and discipline.
I am a firm believer that only studying the night or two before is an ineffective way to study. You are running on inertia, perhaps recalling a bit what you did in a previous problem set (there is a question for a future posting – how do you use your homework as a natural study tool?) In STEM courses, there is no substitute for practicing the skills, the habits of mind, learning the basic facts and concepts, and how to actually think through a problem (check out “The Lost Step in Solving Physics Problems” (https://wp.me/p2Iytq-1B) to learn about an effective way to solve physics problems). There are very few people that I have met that can not only learn all of the skills and habits of mind for an exam, but also train to be proficient at both, the night before an exam. Skills require constant practice, and patience, and the best way to get the practice that you need is to do a little each day.
As a side example, my students are often bewildered that I can recall the values constants in physics, like the mass of an electron, or Boltzmann’s constant, or that I can take the square root of numbers in scientific notation while lecturing at a white board. The reason that I can do both is I use the constants all the time, sometimes five classes a day, and perform mental math every day. As much as I want to embrace my nerd side and impress friends and family with such recall, teaching, and practicing, beat it all into my head.
We now come full circle. Every student must give themselves time to review, reflect, discuss, develop questions and research answers, and seek assistance, with the subject matter and skills learned in class, outside of regularly assigned homework, problem sets, papers, and projects. It must be at a regular time, with a structured plan (use your planner to outline what your study plan will be each day!)
To this end, I trained my students to review their notes every day, once after class was done, when they were home, and a second time before the next class began. Additionally, I often have students solve a problem, sit back and reflect on what was done without commentary, and then solve the problem again, this time articulating the steps that were performed to complete the problem. Everything was structured, demonstrated, at a set time during the day, and then expected to be done on their own.
In a way, studying became another homework assignment, that was to be done every night, and evaluated when I gave an exam.
Our Action Plan:
- Place into your schedule, at minimum, a thirty-minute block, dedicated to review/studying, each day.
- Make sure that you have time off built into your schedule as well!
- Using your planner, make sure that each quiz and exam that you know about is listed in both the month view, and on the say in the day view. Check out “Starting the Academic Year Right” (https://wp.me/p2Iytq-E) about planners, and a recommendation on a good planner.
- Each day, map out what you want to study the following night, and record it in your planner.
- As you study, keep track of questions you develop, and schedule time to meet with your teacher, professor, tutor, or study group to discuss your questions.
- Check this blog during the course of this semester, and the spring semester, for tips and action plans on techniques that you can use to maximize your study time!
Try this out this term, and let me know how it goes for you. If I were a betting man, I’d bet that you will not be disappointed.