Towards Effective Studying

Note:  This was originally written by me for university students, but applies equally well to other forms of study.

To achieve a good mark, of course you need to work hard. However this alone is not enough, you need to ensure that your study and examination techniques are efficient. This page contains some practical information on how you can improve your study methods.  Try to adopt as many of these practices as possible, although remember that some may work better or worse for you.

1. The foundations of knowledge
2. Some principles
3. Preparing for classes
4. Consolidation after class
5. Preparation for labs
6. Preparation for tutorials
7. Some hints for effective studying

1. The foundations of knowledge

Many courses assume you have a working knowledge of certain topics when you enter (usually maths). If you have studied this topic before but can't remember it fully then you can't effetively concentrate on learning the new subject -  spend some time to ensure you are familiar with the foundation aspects of those previous topics.

Some topics (again maths would be one in an engineering or science basis) are subjects that it may be worth while devoting some time to in order to remain fairly conversant with as you continue your studies.

2. Some principles

When you first learn a concept, it is stored in your short-term memory. It will disappear very quickly unless you can transfer it to your long-term memory. The best way to do this is by repetition and testing. The Teletubbies use repetition, but in a degree program this won't be done for you, you need to do this yourself, outside the lecture. Repetition usually means attempting many example questions.

How do you know if a concept is in your long term memory? Test yourself to make sure.

There are two main approaches to learning, surface and the deep. In the surface approach the student tends to learn unconnected facts, and can then reproduce these when required. The deep approach is characterised by the student trying to really understand what is being taught, trying to connect up the equations and the facts.

In an exam, students who used the surface approach will get good marks in some questions but will fail any question that asks them to draw their own inferences or step between areas of learnt information. These are good exam questions. In addition, these students will often fail to complete labs satisfactorily and will perform badly when they start their work after graduating.

Students who use the deep approach often combine this with areas of surface approach learning in some subjects. They do well in 'thinking type' questions and in labs. This sort of approach to learning is more common in polytechnics, so students that chose this root may have an advantage.

Here is a quote I read about learning, for people who used the deep approach:

"Learning is about trying to understand things so you can see what is going on. You've got to be able to explain things, not just remember them .......... When you have really learnt something you ... see things you couldn't see before. Everything changes."

3. Preparing for classes

What do you do in class? Sleep, frantically copy down notes, daydream or concentrate? Maybe you find it hard to concentrate. This can be for a number of reasons (out late last night, thinking about your girl/boyfriend, already got lost earlier in the lecture...).

Sometimes you can miss a point at the beginning of the class, and then everything after that is meaningless. Sometimes you think you don't understand so you give up.

Maybe you are so busy writing down every word you hear so that you can only devote 10% of your brain to understanding. That's not enough!

The best students will prepare beforehand by familiarising themselves with the subject (even if it is only a 10 minute skim through the textbook), or by briefly reading through the notes of that subjects previous class. If you do this, you will find it easier to concentrate, you will only need to write down the important points  you hear (not every single word), and you will be more likely to understand.

If you found some points you didn't understand then it is vitally important that you sort these out before the next class. If you don't then that small area of misunderstanding will grow and grow and you may never be able to catch up. Eventually you will find that you don't understand most of that subject, and you will have forgotten where your misunderstanding began.

4. Consolidation after class

After the class, you need to try and transfer that knowledge to long-term memory. Try various things - sit down with your friends or a study group to discuss the important points (even deciding which points are important is valuable). You can ask each other questions, to help to explain areas you didn't understand.

Some students will find a quiet place and re-read the notes whilst it's fresh in their minds. You can go home and then try out any techniques you have been taught - perhaps attempt some example questions?

Whatever you do, at least look at the notes before the time of the next lecture! Maybe highlight some important sections.

5. Preparation for labs

For most (all?) labs you will be given a handout in advance. Since you have limited time to complete the experiment, it makes sense for you to read this before you get to the lab.

The best scoring students arrive at the lab already knowing what they have to do, and start immediately. The worst students arrive, and then begin to read the lab sheet for the first time. The lab is noisy and busy so it's difficult to concentrate on reading the sheet. So they spend 20 minutes just reading, doing nothing. Even if they fully understand everything, they now don't have time to complete the whole lab, so they lose marks.

The good students will also have time to sort out any misunderstandings they may have before the labs begin, or soon afterwards by asking the technicians or lecturer.

6. Preparation for tutorials (for university students)

What is a tutorial? It is your last chance to correct any misunderstandings you might have, and to clear up any areas of confusion. It is not an opportunity to try out exam-type questions!

For this to work, you need to arrive at the tutorial already realising the areas you don't understand. If a student arrives at the tutorial with no preparation, they will suffer. The tutorial is a safety net to catch all your problems.

Good preparation is to read your lecture notes, attempt the tutorial questions, and identify your areas of weakness. It might help to attempt the questions and then discuss them with your friends. Do not discuss them before attempting them yourself because this will hide your areas of weakness. They will only be hidden from you - the exam questions will soon uncover what you didn't know.

7. Some hints for effective studying

Remember - your course of study will be finished soon. If you find it hard work, think about early years at school: you studied for many years but it now seems to have passed quite quickly.  And now you can see the value of that hard work (it got you to where you are now). Later you will also think your degree was finished very quickly and you will definitely see the value of this hard work.

This has been complied based upon information imparted through study at the University of Birmingham Staff Development Unit and
Nanyang Technological University Continuing Education Department.
© Dr Ian Vince McLoughlin, 1999