How to Study in University: A Professors Confession

One of the most common issues I deal with during my office hours is studying issues.  The conversation with students usually goes like this:

Me: So tell me, how do you study?

Student: I write down everything you say in class and then a few days later (or right before the exam), I write it out again.

Me: So you write out word for word what I said again?

Student: Yes, I actually wrote it out four times.

Me: Oh dear…..

So many students don’t know how to study and spend an enormous amount of time using strategies that are not effective.  Unfortunately, I came to this realization of studying issues when I was a student as well in first year science.  I went to class, I wrote like crazy (most of the time not hearing everything the professor said), and then after feeling less overwhelmed days later, I rewrote my notes over and over again.  Or I would spend a ton of time trying to make my notes look beautiful.  It didn’t work! I was very frustrated at the lack of return on my time investment.  After a few very bad exams, I realized that I needed to change what I was doing, because it wasn’t working.  When I changed how I studied, my satisfaction with my university experience and my grades dramatically increased.

Now on the other end of the equation, I see that most of my students were just like me.  I wasn’t the only one who had gotten it wrong. I get the frustration.  I don’t have the magic answer, but I do know better ways of studying that shouldn’t be kept secret.  So here is my advice based on personal experience, and years of student feedback.

1. Listen as much as possible during lecture while taking notes.  Summarize the professors comments.  Although it is easier to just write or type madly, it is far more effective to capture the words in a summary form and listen more.

2. If you are too worried you will miss something important, record the lectures.  Of course it is common courtesy to ask permission from your professor to do so, but many will be absolutely fine with this type of request.  Also, there is a lot of easy tech available to do so.  If you are in a small classroom, this recording pen is kind of amazing!

3. The night after your classes, try and recall what you heard in lecture in your own words.  Don’t look at your notes.  Take out a blank piece of paper and draw what you remember (I like to use as many pictures as possible to summarize instead of getting tangled in lingo).

4. Look up what you don’t know.  Did the prof refer back to last years chemistry course when explaining the concept of osmolarity? Look back at your previous notes, or ask your Teaching Assistant, or post a question on the learning management system discussion board.  Do not move forward without understanding basic building blocks.

5. Draw a picture or flow chart to summarize the lecture.  Can you identify the most important points? Do you know how the points connect?  You have to structure the information in a way that makes sense to you.  Building your course notes like this is what is forcing you to learn, much more effectively then rewriting your professors words.

6. Don’t learn alone.  Do you have friends in class that you can talk to about lecture? Don’t be so embarrassed that you don’t understand a concept, sometimes talking it out with friends will help you learn.  Also, it helps to have another pair of ears in class in case you missed something important or in case you *gasp* missed an entire class.

7. Don’t be afraid of the Professor.  We don’t bite. Really.  I love when students come to my office hours.  We are there to help you learn.  I have often gone back to a topic once I find out that many of my students didn’t get it the first time.  It helps us be better at teaching when we know you don’t understand.  You aren’t doing yourself any favours by nodding in agreement instead of when you should be shaking your head and letting us know that you are lost.

8. Don’t wait until the day before the exam to study.  My brain is incapable of truly understanding and learning content in a short period of time.  All you can accomplish in a short period of time is memorization.  Most Professors want you to understand the content and will evaluate your understanding by application questions, not rote memorization.

9. Don’t lose sleep.  You don’t get a badge of honour for not sleeping all night to study for an exam.  Get some rest.  I have had far too many students fall asleep during an exam, it doesn’t pay off.

10. Call your parents and tell them what you are learning.  Especially if they didn’t study the same content, explaining to a “lay” audience is really helpful for your own understanding (plus they will probably listen to you because they love you).  It forces students to not rely on “big” words, and if you can teach others, you know your stuff!

 

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