Many people think of their academic potential as a fixed quality, like their height. This is what psychologists call a “fixed mindset.” This is not only inaccurate, but it also has a negative effect on your motivation.
Studying is a skill set, it’s something you learn, like a sport or playing a musical instrument. Yes, there are people who have a natural talent for these things, but nobody gets really good without developing their skills through practice. Whatever grades you’re currently getting, you can increase them by changing your habits — here’s how.
It’s very common for people to study by exclusively consuming information. For example, reading textbooks, reviewing notes taken in lectures, or listening to recordings of lectures. However, this passive approach to learning is highly inefficient.
We remember things better when we have to actually test our memory. You have to practice going into your brain, digging around for the right information, and then pulling it out. This means you need to perform recall tests. There are two excellent ways you can do this:
- Flashcards: Either use actual cards, or get a flashcard app. Either way, you have a question on one side and the answer on the other. Work through your deck, and put every card you get right to one side. Put every card you get wrong to the back of the deck. Repeat until you’ve answered all the questions.
- Mock exams: Put all your notes aside, and write down everything you know about a certain topic area. Then check your answer against your notes, and add in everything you missed out.
This will help ingrain the knowledge into your memory, and you’ll be getting a lot more practice for your exams. Every study sessions should at least partly comprise of recall tests.
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Spaced repetition learning
When you learn something new, it’s important to keep reviewing and testing yourself on this new knowledge. When you first learn something, you should do these reviews fairly often. But as you start to drill the information in, you can gradually increase the intervals between the relearning sessions. This is spaced repetition.
So start immediately after a lecture — go somewhere quiet, review your notes, and give yourself some quick recall tests if possible. The next day, review them again, formalizing your system of recall tests for this information. Then review again in a week, then after two more weeks, then after a month, three months, six months and so on.
Schedule reviews ahead of time using a diary or calendar, either digital or paper, whichever you prefer. This way, throughout the academic year you are regularly reviewing old material as well as new material, instead of reviewing everything at the end of the year just a few weeks before your exams.
Be flexible with your scheduling, don’t think of it as set in stone. If you are passing your recall tests easily and feel you have a good grasp on a certain topic, you can leave more time for the next review. If you struggle, schedule more frequent reviews.
Mental work is mentally tiring. After a while, you’ll have a weakened ability to concentrate, process information, and recall information. The answer is not to “push through,” but to take a break. Let your neurons rest for a while. You’ll come back stronger in the next work block.
So for example, you might work for 45 minutes, then rest for 15. Everyone’s work-to-rest ratio will be different, so experiment, but that’s a good place to start. You may find that over time you are able to maintain the same focus with shorter rest periods.
During your work blocks, you only do work. Turn off your phone, close all unnecessary browser tabs, and consider installing software that blocks access to social media and other distracting sites for set time periods.
During your rest periods, do nothing mentally taxing at all. You could go outside, get a drink, or maybe just lie down for a while. If you can get into a garden or green space that’s ideal, as nature has been shown to have a restorative effect on mental faculties. As soon as your rest period is up, don’t procrastinate — get back to work straight away.
There are some exceptions to this. If you don’t feel mentally drained, and you are in the “flow” state, it’s often better to just ride that wave. This is because if you break that flow, it can take a while to get back into it, just as a car takes a while to get into top gear. This is common in computer programming, artistic work and sometimes writing. You’ll have to use your judgment, do some experimenting, and see what works for you.
There are many tips and tricks for modern academic life, but these three key principles should form the basic foundation of your approach to studying. If you use recall tests your retention of information will be much greater. Spaced repetition will also boost your retention, but it has the added effect of intelligently planning your revision schedule for the year. Working in focused blocks help you be more productive day-by-day. Put these three into practice, and you’re well on your way towards better grades.