How to Study: Prequel

January 15, 2009

My last two posts dealt with student adversity, what it feels like, and how to deal with it. I also talked about good study habits, which are essential to deal with academic difficulties. It is important to remember that good habits are yours and not someone else’s. You have to find what works for you. Studying itself is not that hard once you find the rhythm and routine that works for you. In short, there is a lot of effort up front to find your method, and there is no short cut for that.

Today I will write about how to get into a frame of mind to be able to develop good study habits. These are the habits I wrote about in the previous blog post. The habits are concepts, their exact form depends on your rhythm, and that is what takes searching and working hard to imbed those habits into your routine. But before you start doing this, let me mention something I have seen in many students in trouble. If you are a student that has been struggling academically you are probably feeling low and demoralized. Everyone is telling you that you are no good, and should give up. You are saying this to yourself too, probably. The first thing you must do is break out of this cycle of self-defeating thinking. Here are four simple guidelines.


  1. Stop being negative. Easier said than done. But necessary. The good news is that you are now in the worst place already, and things can only get better, since you have decided to begin trying. The fact that you came to talk to your advisor about it means you are already on the mend. Things are starting to look up. Isn’t that a simple thing to tell yourself? Do so, its true.

  2. Stop procrastination, and begin working. The biggest reason people procrastinate is because of fear of failure. All I can say to you is that its a stupid thing to be afraid of. The probability of succeeding if you don’t try something is zero! The probability of succeeding if you try is definitely greater than zero. The probability of failure is irrelevant, isn’t it? What I am saying is, focus on the probability of success and ignore the probability of failure. You will feel better immediately.

  3. Reputation and ego don’t count. The real cost of failure lies in feeling bad about yourself. You may worry that others will think worse of you too. My advice is to stop caring about what anyone else thinks. You should even stop caring about what you think about yourself. Thinking about what you think about yourself is already getting you down, so why keep going there? Just do what needs to be done, and do it as well as you can. Enjoy doing it, not what you or anyone will think after you have done it. Most of the time, when you have done something after deciding to just enjoy doing it, the results are really good, and you begin to feel better anyway. You will feel better even if you don’t get results. The act of doing something itself works its own wonders. Just working on it helps intrinsically. Don’t think, just do.

  4. Start somewhere. At some point you will need to get a good rhythm going to get results. But thats not the first step. The most important thing before you develop a routine is to break your current inertia. Just make a list of a few important things you know you have to do, but have been avoiding, maybe because your ego cannot deal with it. Forget everything else. Now, take any one thing and begin on it. The harder the better. Don’t think of anything else and give it all your attention for an hour or two. Get in the zone. You will find that what you thought was hard turned out to be not so. And then everything else will feel so much easier. You are suddenly on your way.

Well, I hope this helps. Once you are rolling, see if my previous post helps. Its a eleven-point plan for good study habits. But for now, keep things simple with a priming four-pronged attack to get you on your way: (1) Negate negativity, (2) Procrastinate no more, (3) Ignore ego, (4) Go after Just One Thing.

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How to Study

January 13, 2009

Many students end up doing badly because they have not been able to find a rhythm for their academics. This can be disconcerting and lead to plenty of frustration. However, it is not that difficult to work out an approach that works reasonably well. This is not to say that one size fits all and that there is a single solution that works for everyone. But there are some general principles that seem to work well in helping a student find his/her working style/rhythm. So here are some pointers.

  1. Study First. Deal with the academics before everything else. Let play come later. This is a very important guideline, especially for a struggling student. Of course you need a balance between work and relaxation, and working all the time is not going to be good for you. But not putting the study time first will in fact prevent you from reaching a sweet spot in terms of balance. If you get your work done first, you will in fact enjoy the remaining time much more, as you would have earned the much needed time off to relax and rejuvenate. Ask yourself in all honesty, do you think you will enjoy your life more by doing this the other way around? I doubt it. And believe me, I have tried it too. It did not work. So let me say this one more time, make this the mantra — Study Comes First.
  2. Write. Writing helps push what you learn into long term memory. It also helps you understand better. This is especially true for technical material in math or science. But it works well even for literature and languages. When you sit down to read and study, keep a pad and pencil at hand. Scribble down things as you go along, or try to create a summary of what you are reading. I call these “marginal notes”. I keep them and I find that when I want to review the material after a few days, it comes in real handy. These are actually nothing but crude mind maps. Writing small marginal notes and filling all the ideas from a chapter of reading on just one page really helps put the material into visual memory as well as distills down a full conceptual understanding that is easy to retain. If you are working through a chapter, it is also a good idea to underline or highlight important sentences, but just as useful is to write “margin notes” (different from marginal ones!). Then when you re-read the chapter, those notes ping your brain and resurrect rapidly all the salient points you had stored away. It has been said that thinking flows from the tip of a pen. This is very true, your brain focuses so much better when you hold a pen in hand and scribble along points to remember as you read. So remember, keep Writing.
  3. Walk and Talk (to yourself). There is documented research showing that memory is enhanced when walking. I have often found that after an hour or two of study, reading and making notes, it helps me immensely to close everything down and take a walk, with the sole purpose of recalling back everything I have just read. It is like playing the movie of my study time back in my head as much as possible. When I was a student, I would always quickly look back over my marginal notes, and then take a walk, talking it all back in my head. I have found a marked difference between my understanding of the material when I did this versus when I did not. The contrast is quite remarkable. It is a way of revising the material by walking the talk. There is something about walking that helps a lot. Maybe the act of walking keeps other distractions at bay. So, take a Walk to Remember!
  4. Be Neat. The hallmark of good learning is a tidy mind. How do you keep your mind tidy and everything you are learning straight in your head? Its simple – keep the learning environment tidy as well. Make sure your notebooks/binders are organized in a tidy manner. This takes only a minute or two a day, but it certainly helps. You can plan to do this every night before closing shop for the day. Also use the same time to make the plan or list of things for the next day. Putting your agenda on a list is another way of being tidy. But most important, make every effort to write in a tidy manner. It is amazing what a difference it makes to retention. Reading tidy, well organized notes makes learning vastly better than working from chicken scratch. So make every effort to do this. Nowadays, with computers, we write less and less. No matter. If you are working on a computer, try hard to have an organized system of working for each course. Decide on a system for folders and directories. Decide on a file naming convention so you can find things easily. So try hard to be neat in every way, and it will translate physical neatness into mental neatness, and bring great academic results.
  5. Stay Current. Be up to date in your understanding. Be on the ball every day. This means finishing classes for the day and taking the time to review all the material that day itself. You can do this along with the time you spend tidying up things. If you find there are things that you did not understand from class, dig deep into your text book till you resolve your confusion. Or ask someone for help. But do not let it go. It always comes back to bite you. The things you neglect to study have a probability of appearing in the exam that is five times that of the things you do study! I hate to remember how many times I have fallen prey to this fateful probability. And then there you are, sitting in the exam, kicking yourself for skipping over the topic when you had all the time in the world to learn it well. Now it is too late. So do it all the same day. Its not hard, and once you get into the routine, you will find it easy to do on an ongoing basis. The best part is when you get to exam week, you have nothing to do, but be fully rested for the next day. I remember getting into this rhythm about somewhere in middle school. Once I had gotten into the habit, it was terrific. I would even find myself reading ahead, which made the next classes so much easier to follow in class. I recall never even studying during exam week. When everyone else was burning the midnight oil, I would be lazing and relaxing, being outdoors and truly nailing the exams the next day. So be on top of things, its a good feeling, and gets great results.
  6. Read around. Do not ever restrict your reading to just the material prescribed for class or the assigned text. Take the time to read around the topic as well. This helps in two ways. First, you see the material from different angles and this solidifies your understanding. It creates a gestalt that is deeper than one that is based on only a few points of contact. Second, you will understand the linkages between what you are learning and other important related concepts. This brings a holistic understanding that improves retention. Context is a very important part of understanding and memory. So read more, read outside the box.
  7. Practice. Just like sports, practice helps. Repeating things trains the mind just as sports practice trains the body. This is why homework is very important. It really makes you good at what you are learning. It has been said that no one even begins to be an expert in anything until they have spent ten thousand hours of practice at it. So make the time, it is well spent.
  8. Block out time. Students who find it difficult to concentrate and focus need to first solve this problem even before they can get down to the business of study. So it is important to ask what is causing the lack of focus? In my experience, it is almost always some other distraction, coming from an inability to realize that studying is a priority. What can one do? The solution is to block out a fixed time each day, at least two consecutive hours, where you commit to going to the library or sitting at your desk and not doing anything else but try to study. You can plan this time slot the night before, when making your list for the next day. Trust me, this works very well. It is a device that effectively keeps the distractions away. Oscar Wilde would do this and he was one of the most prolific writes of our times. He would sometimes sit for four hours and write only a few words, but it would be the most wonderful writing. If you sit down for two hours, inspiration, learning and understanding will come. Of course, just two hours of study is not enough, and you will need to put in more time some other time of the day, but having a predetermined allocation is the strong base that helps focus. You should preferably put this time slot as early as possible in the day so that you can get started and put Work First. Even if you have no work at all, still, use the time to review or practice. The time to yourself, immersed in working the mind is very good to help you achieve a calmer and more serene educational experience.
  9. Challenge Yourself. Take each course seriously. Go for an A in each class. Of course, this does not mean you will get an A. But if you aim lower you will end up much lower. So much of education and life is setting expectations for yourself. And you will surprise yourself. Why not take the chance and enjoy the surprise? You are in college to get an education. Why not give yourself the best one you can get?
  10. Promise Honesty. Never cheat. Do not even think about it. Yes, there are times when you feel like getting help from a friend on a homework you are explicitly supposed to be doing alone. Resist that temptation. Ill-gotten results are dishonest and the one you are making a fool of is yourself. Promising yourself to never cheat will also leave you no choice but to work hard and be your own person. Its a gift you can give yourself.
  11. Teach others. Being a good student also means helping others learn. And of course, there is no better way to master a subject than to teach it. Even if you are not going to be teaching others all the time, try and do it some times. And when you are studying, ask yourself whether you have learned the material well enough to be able to teach it to others? If not, give it another read. I think this is the single best way to become a better student. Asking yourself each and every time if you know what you studied well enough to teach others will automatically ensure that you follow all the other guidelines described above.

Well, these are just a few simple ideas that served me very well in all the years I was a student, from high school, to undergraduate and in graduate school. To recall, these are: Write, Walk and Talk, Be Neat, Stay Current, Read Around, Practice, Block out Time, Challenge Yourself, Promise Honesty, and Teach Others. Its a simple eleven-point plan. You know you can.


Student Adversity

January 12, 2009

This is my first post this year, and it comes at a time when things look very gloomy in the world. The recession appears deep, and students are struggling with finding jobs or even paying for their education. I still think investing in human capital remains the best investment.

However, the real investment in human capital is not monetary (paying fees) but instead, it is sweat equity. Students often imagine that their mere existence on campus after paying their fees goes directly to their human capital bottom line. Wrong. Human capital accretion comes from investing time and energy into really learning. And more, from learning how to learn.

An undergraduate education is intense. It takes students time to settle down, by which time they may even have missed many important concepts, all of which needed to be deeply understood, so that the student can move on to the next level. But students wing it, thinking they will pick it all up later, or worse, convince themselves that it is not really important anyway. That puts a students on a slippery slope to real ignorance, and leads to deep erosion in human capital. Sooner or later you get found out, the evidence starkly staring back from the grade sheet, or if you are unlucky, you get caught in the workplace, when there is even less chance of taking remedial action. So my advice to all undergrads is: pay attention, do not slack off, and the harder something is, make an even bigger effort to master the material. It will pay off handsomely.

Here is an interesting way to think about why you need to pay attention every day and work hard to make sure you get the concepts now. Doing so will lay a solid foundation for the subsequent classes. Many courses are sequential in learning, especially the math and science ones. An excellent analogy to college classes is a video game. These games are extremely structured and sequential. And they are utterly unforgiving. You can never proceed to the next level until you have mastered the prior one. My advice to students is to treat your classes in the same way. Do not assume you can proceed to the next course in the sequence without mastering the ones that come before. Even though you clearly can move on without mastery, it still pays to treat it like a video game. That way you will get much more out of your education. Young adults, especially boys, know how willing they are to put in hour after hour into mastering a video game, especially one in which they compete against multiple players. So why not put the same effort into classes? Your course work is the same, its a multi-player game in which some win and some lose.

As I write this, I am trying to put myself in the shoes of a struggling student, one who has seen his grades drop off, cannot get organized, finds it hard to concentrate and focus in class, feels like nothing is going right, is suffering from low self esteem, and feels like he/she may never recover. Almost every term, there is a student in my office who is in academic difficulty, and is going through a great deal of emotional stress. It has been so for the past fifteen years I have been a university professor. What advice do I give? I always listen and then try to find a constructive solution to the problem, but until now, I had never thought about putting it all together into a constructive set of suggestions. I do not know if this is feasible, but I intend to try. So here goes.

  1. All is not lost. Thats the first thing to realize. No matter how difficult the situation is, universities are remarkably good environments in which you get lots of chances. And even when you think there are no more chances, a creative professor/mentor will always be able to find some way to help you out. Remember, college drop-outs are those who gave up themselves, not those on whom the system gave up. So the first step is to realize that there is always a way to betterment, provided you realize two things: (a) Take responsibility, (b) Work very hard. Lets talk about each in turn.
  2. Take responsibility. Remember, by the time you are in college, you are an adult. You are independent. No one can better help you than yourself. Every so often I have a student in my office who insists on blaming his/her predicament on the system, the adviser, the teacher, parents, etc. This is a huge mistake. Sure, we are often put in difficult situations by ending up in situations that we had no choice over, and it is easy to blame the circumstances. But no matter how justified your external problem, its better to realize that it pales in significance to your internal responsibility. Everyone ends up in situations beyond their control. How you handle these situations is what matters more. And the first step is to take full responsibility for your own success, learning and condition. It is very easy to blame your professor if he gives you a C in class, but instead you should thank him. He is nothing but the video game, saying “game over”, but he is also saying “try again, I know you can do it, do better next time”. In fact, you should be saying to your self, “try harder”. I promise you, just Keep Trying and things will suddenly start to get much better.
  3. Work very hard. College is a wonderful time, if you work hard. I know of nothing else that pays such huge rewards for hard work. In real life, there is often a lot of luck involved. Not so in college – work hard and success is pretty much guaranteed. If you do not work, you will also do poorly. Again, it is so video game-like. Get a little distracted and you never get to the next level, nor do you score well on the current one.
  4. Less is more. Okay you are saying, I take responsibility and I wok hard, it seems so simple, but I have already been trying to do both these things and it just does not seem to be working, and I am frustrated and troubled, what am I to do? I am amazed at how many students just seem to be unable to dig themselves out of a hole, and there is a simple reason for this. They have poor habits. If you get up late most days, spend a lot of time watching TV, find it takes a long time to settle down to work, cannot find things when you need them, spend way to much time talking with friends, etc., then you need some urgent streamlining. Just remember one thing: “Less is More”. Make a list of things you do on an average day. Then simply knock off half the items and commit to not doing them for a month. You will feel less overwhelmed by all the things you try to do (they are now halved after all). You will feel more in control. You will actually start getting things done.
  5. Sequence better. Every night before going to bed, take out a piece of paper and make a list of things you need to get done the next day. It has been shown that doing this calms the mind, and enables better sleep. This means you get up refreshed the next day with a clear mind, and perform better in class. More important, you are committing to completing tasks the next day, and can plan your time accordingly. The next day, keep the list with you as you go to class, study group, mess, gym, etc. After each activity take out your list and cross of a completed item, and also scan it to see what you have left to do that day. Steadily and calmly work through your list.
  6. Manage distractions. Today’s undergrad has huge distractions. There are friends always coaxing you to join them in leisure activity. TV beckons. The internet is a constant craving. Your cell phone keeps ringing, and you keep responding to text messages in class. How can you ever get anything done? There is no easy way to deal with distractions, but to exorcise them ruthlessly. Stay away from technology as much as you can. When you use the computer keep the browser closed. Do not look at email. These are “filler” activities, to be done when there is nothing better to accomplish, or when an “earned” break is availed of. An earned break is one that is only taken after completion of an important task. Note also that it becomes easier to manage distractions when operating under the “less is more” assumption. If you are trying to do too much, then nothing gets done properly. But more important, less gets done, because less bandwidth is applied to each task, and all tasks ends up taking longer. Yes, it is hard to give up many of those fun things in life. But remember, that fun stuff is a distraction and it is not even real. It loses its appeal quickly, unlike real accomplishment. Real results from hard work are the most self-reinforcing things we can ask for.
  7. Be honest. To yourself. This means taking a long hard look in the mirror and being truthful about who you think you are. Do you want to do better? Just when you are feeling tired and lazy and do not want to work, even though it is critical you do so, you might hear a small voice in your head saying – “Heck! No worries, its all fine. Nothing will go wrong, the exam will be easy, you already know more than you need”. When this happens, stop it immediately. Don’t lie to yourself. Be honest to others as well, especially teachers and parents. It never pays to hide something no matter how ugly you think things will get when you come clean. By not being honest you pay several costs. First, you feel uncomfortable because you are lying, either to others or to yourself. Second, you are lying to yourself, and whats the point in cheating on your self?
  8. Communicate with your elders. When things are not going well, students have a tendency to withdraw and not talk to the very people who can help them. Sometimes they do not want the advice they know they will get. These are the wiser ones. They know what to do to solve their problems, but are in denial, and don’t want to hear of it. So they withdraw from speaking to elders. Bad mistake. Find at least one if not more than one elder person to talk to every day, and if possible many times a day. This could be a professor, parent or senior student. It will definitely take the sting out of the emotional distress you feel as a struggling student. Once you feel calmer, you will be able to work better.
  9. Report on your day’s activities. One of the biggest problems I have noticed is that students in academic difficulties have low self-esteem. And it does take some time to dig oneself out of the mire. In the interim it is important to begin to feel better about your situation. One very useful device is to commit to making a daily report to an elder. It also helps communicate with your elder but just telling someone else that you planned a list of items for the day and got many of them done will immediately bring a feeling of accomplishment, even if in very small doses. To validate your accomplishments, it is important to speak to someone older, else you do not get a sense of validation. A daily verbal report also motivates you to make sure that you have something to report, and incentivizes you to work hard to have something by the end of the day.
  10. Give yourself plenty of time. One of the reasons students get into difficulty is that they do things at the last moment. This never works, trust me. And it only makes things worse, because last minute preparation for exams infuses great panic. In such a state you can never perform well. The same applies to daily work as well. If you get into the habit of waking up early you will find yourself automatically getting a lot more done. Why? Because there are far fewer distractions in the early morning. Most others are asleep and you can get started and almost finished by the time anything else gets started. By giving yourself time, you can work calmly and steadily to reaching your planned goals for the day. If on the other hand, you plan to get your class preparation done by going to the library after dinner, there is a good chance nothing will get done properly. You are tired after a long day, will get sleepy and most problematic, if the task takes longer than you expected, you have left no slack to make sure you will get things done. Thats a huge risk. Many students and adults too, just do not get this at all. They are perpetually ill-prepared. I don’t advocate getting up at 4am or something, but I also don’t advise getting up past 10am. The main idea here is to get up early enough to get some decent work done before the big distractions of the day kick in. Also, by getting a few things done early in the day, you set yourself up for a better subsequent part of the day too. You feel happy and calm to have got some work under your belt already and this reflects in the work you get done subsequently. Nothing breeds on success like success! So give yourself time to get things done. Again, remember that less is more. Do less and give yourself more time to do it by getting started early in the day, and eliminate distractions. Do this, and you will be a powerhouse of accomplishment.
  11. Be self-aware. This is really nothing else but being honest with yourself. Do not convince yourself that you are a real genius by talking like one. Sooner or later people come to know you are full of it. But being self-aware also means recognizing your weaknesses and working harder to overcome them. Some students fail to perform adequately because they don’t study enough. Somewhere along the line they erroneously convince themselves that they have mastered the material or worse, that it does not to be mastered. There is only one antidote, work harder (Harder subsumes smarter as well). Recognizing you are below average is the first step in working your way to becoming above average.

So, if school is proving to be hard, and you are struggling with classes, try to commit to the practices I described above. I assure you I myself used these ideas with my students and it seems to help them. I use them myself too. In short, if you want to turn things around, do less, do it differently, do without distractions, and work very hard. Just do it!

It is often said – “Nothing changes until you do”.