This short article offers guidance for students and all learners including those studying for exams. It is based upon my personal experience and contains some helpful concepts. Of course, everyone learns slightly differently, so take this and adapt as needed to suit your needs.
Over the decades I have learned some complicated content under tough circumstances. When I entered college, I had never taken a physics course but somehow decided to become a physics major. The textbooks, courses, and materials were daunting but I developed methods to learn, even while sleep deprived and when my mind and body said to stop. I went to law school at night while working full time and encountered similar challenges. I have continually refined my methods as I studied for course exams, the bar exam, and then certification exams in technology, information security, privacy, fraud investigation, and more.
Here are my tips:
1. Put in continual effort. Studying and learning is process that takes time and effort. Plan ahead so that you are ready for any exams (or other deadlines) and so that you retain knowledge.
2. Don’t cram. Last minute frenzied studying is not a good way to learn or retain information. Instead, resolve to put in continual effort.
3. Learn the concepts. Take time to learn the general concepts and underlying reasoning. This helps you put yourself in the general right direction. Don’t simply memorize facts and details.
4. Memorize certain important details. Despite my advice above, some details might need to be memorized. Some tests require certain memorization. And where you are trying to grasp difficult materials, committing some facts to memory can give you solid early footholds as you climb.
5. Do not panic and try to relax. Some stress can improve focus, but too much (or panic) does not. Remain calm when studying. Think of it as a process where you take one step at a time, learning initial concepts and facts and not trying to learn everything at once. This might be referred to as “scaffolding” or “chunking”. To alleviate stress, take deep breaths, do pushups, take a break, etc.
6. Try to stay alert when studying and keep your mind focused and on task. If boredom, distraction, desire for sleep, or other impulses kick in, try these activities to keep you in the game:
- Read the study material aloud
- Repeat a fact aloud until you have memorized it
- Write the fact down repeatedly until you have memorized it
- Prepare and edit your personal outline/study guide/notes (keeps your brain engaged)
- Stand up while studying (hard to fall asleep when standing up)
- Pushups or other brief exercises to get the blood pumping.
7. Designate a study period, focus, and don’t get distracted. (20, 40, 60 minutes straight). This might be referred to as a “Pomodoro”.
8. Take a break and come away from the material. Your mind needs a rest, and learning and solidifying of learning can occur during these breaks.
9. Do not hunt for “magic” solutions. It is often a confusing waste of time, where many hucksters promise you the perfect solution, the actual test questions, or other sham promises. Instead of looking for an easy way out, resolve to put in effort.
10. Don’t cheat or do anything unethical. This goes without saying but some are tempted and some actually do it. Those that do demean themselves and will never learn the material nor gain confidence in their own abilities. It also violates rules.
11. Study and pass your requirements honestly and with your own effort. Learn the material, do the work, develop and increase confidence in yourself.
12. See advice from Barbara Oakley in Learning how to Learn. She has a free online course in the references, some of which I have incorporated above. Of course, she lays it out better.
13. Taking an exam? All of the above applies, you need to learn the material to sit for the test and do well. See my article on How to Take an Exam.
14. Writing a paper? All of the above applies, except it is about putting your learning onto paper and refining it, rather than remembering it. Researching, writing, and editing a paper requires continual effort, and when done properly the student learns a lot and submits a quality paper. Those who do not put in effort will not learn and their paper suffers. Shortcuts (especially copying — plagiarism) must be avoided as it results in a terrible paper and ultimately damages the student and grade. See my article on How to Write a Paper.
Hopefully this helps you to improve your studying and learning techniques. If you are motivated by a deadline such as an exam or paper, remember the goal of the deadline is to motivate you to put in effort to learn the material, and then to assess your efforts. Thus, keeping a focus on ensuring you are are learning the material and improving your knowledge will serve you well.
Additional Reading & Learning
A copy of this article is hosted at my website at https://johnbandler.com/how-to-learn-and-study/ where I also include a number of references and links for additional reading.
This is part of a sequence of articles available on Medium:
Posted 8/1/2021. Updated 8/5/2021.
Copyright John Bandler, all rights reserved.