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During this post I’ll attempt to convince you of something that you probably won’t believe. That is: I actually enjoy studying. I know that sounds improbable, but if you hear me out I’ll try to explain. Some people actually enjoy studying on its own. A far greater number of people (at least in my opinion and including myself) like the idea of studying, but find the actual practice of it to be more of a chore than a joy. Knowledge is a powerful thing, and it says a lot that so many of us would like to think of ourselves as master scholars. The ability to study efficiently makes for both higher grades and more free time. Most college students say that while college requires far less in-class and homework time, much more material is left out of lecture and must be learned through studying the textbook or (more commonly) the lecture slides. This sudden strain on my time-management skills forced me to innovate in my freshman year at NYU; I’ll share some of the most valuable things that I learned in the hope that you might have a smoother transition. The following tips work best as a system; when you accomplish one, I think you’ll find that the others follow suit naturally. The first tip that I have is in preparation for the semester, and it revolves around your schedule.
University classes are very flexible on time. Some of the larger (read: 101 or pre-health) classes only meet at one time during the week, but other classes will be offered several times and may start as early as 8am or as late as 6pm. My advice is to plan your schedule carefully, building in time for studying. If you enjoy studying over lunch, then space your midday classes out to allow for that time at a dining hall. Or if you like waking up early and getting work done, plan your classes later in the morning so that you have more pre-class time to be efficient. I can’t stand the morning, so I have my classes in the afternoon, allowing for studying in the early evening and providing time in the morning in case I need to get some last-minute work done.
The other schedule tip that I’ll suggest is to take classes with your friends. They can provide motivation to attend classes with no attendance policies and can share notes with you if you do miss a day or two. Professors sometimes ask the class to discuss questions with a partner, so it can be helpful to have a friend with you. Taking classes with friends will also allow you to take advantage of my next tip, making this probably my most important(!!) advice.
The next thing that I learned changed my college life completely. As soon as I made friends with people in my classes, I started studying with them. My grades immediately went up. Studying with others accomplishes two things: it makes time pass quickly and allows you to learn from each other. Time seems to pass so slowly when I study alone, but with people to talk to (and, yes, occasionally get off task with), study time becomes social time in my mind, and although we do have fun, we’re efficient and get through a lot of material. I remember one span of three days during finals week during which we studied 8 hours per day – 24 hours total. It was exhausting, but it was also fun (and we all aced the test). Another thing that makes studying with friends so beneficial is that it allows you to both learn from others and teach others. They say that you only know something well if you’re able to explain it to another person, and I’ve found this to be largely true. And even people who like to study alone can’t deny that having two or three brains working on a problem is better than having one. I would have been lost in the material without my study mates!
My next piece of advice is someone antithetical to the idea of this post insofar as it implies less study time, but it’s very important. If you go to class and take good notes, you don’t have to worry nearly as much about studying. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who skip my classes on a regular basis. A clean set of notes, however, is the product of going to class, and allows you to spend far less time going over the material, making study time more efficient. If at all possible, I suggest taking notes by hand. If a professor provides lecture slides, I like to print those out in “handout” view and annotate the slides directly – again by hand. Computerized notes sound like a good idea on paper (see what I did there?), but writing by hand is more engaging than typing and disallows you from becoming distracted by other computer windows or tabs. Functionally, in classes like chemistry and calculus it’s impossible to take complete notes on a computer, as you have to draw out structures and formulas often. So either get a notebook or collect your loose-leaf in a binder and you’ll be set!
My last concrete revelation from freshman year was that I needed to follow what the professor said about studying. That sounds obvious, but oftentimes I feel that students ignore a professors’ advice in favor of simply rereading a textbook or their own notes. As a general rule, it’s not facts that are important in many upper-level science classes - it’s the concepts underlying the facts. In the dreaded organic chemistry, professors acknowledge that many exam questions are completely new to students. These kinds of questions require you to apply what you’ve learned previously to new problems. In order to do well in many university classes, the key to studying is to figure out what to memorize and what to simply understand. You’ll often find that you need to memorize far less than you thought. If a professor lectures using a PowerPoint, most of the exam questions will come from the slides, and the textbook should be used simply as background reading and to explain concepts that you don’t understand. If the class is centered around discussion (like a literature course), taking notes of the professor’s ideas and thoughts regarding a text can really help while writing essays studying for exams. If a professor writes on a board during lecture (no matter the subject), it’s nearly always beneficial to copy what he/she wrote.
I hope that these tips help those of you who are heading off to university classes soon. If you have any questions or additional tips, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you and might include your tips in a future article! Everyone has a favorite way to study, and once you find yours I think you’ll find that studying can be a rewarding experience. And as far as rewards go, acing a class feels pretty good.