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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.