The most common barrier to success encountered by college students is a lack of effective techniques for study and exam preparation. If you are one of the vast majority of students whose answer to the question, "How do you study for your tests?" is, "I go over my notes," then you need to take a serious look at your study skills. Here are some suggestions to increase your effectiveness as a student.
Day to Day
Take good notes. Very few students leave high school with this skill. College of DuPage's Learning Lab can help you here. Some suggestions and observations.
1. Always take the notes for a particular class in the same notebook. Spiral bound notebooks were invented because they solved the problem of keeping related information consolidated in one place. Take advantage of this.
2. Date each entry into your notebook.
3. It is usually best to keep the notes for different classes separate from each other. Spiral notebooks with built in dividers are excellent for this purpose.
4. Your notes should contain as complete a record of what the instructor said as possible. Of course, you should not try to write every word spoken, but don't leave out ideas. When you study, your notes should call back to your mind the entire sequence of ideas presented. Take care to spell all new words carefully. It you don't know how to spell a word, ask your instructor to write it on the board. Most will automatically do so for new or difficult terms.
5. Anything the instructor writes on the board should appear in your notes. If the instructor took the time to write it out, he or she considers it important. You should do the same.
6. If possible, try to take your notes in some kind of outline form. The organization of ideas is as important as the content of those ideas, especially when it comes to learning the material for an exam.
7. You might find it useful to have a second color of pen or pencil available for highlighting important ideas or indicating vocabulary.
Be involved in your classes. Don't simply pretend you are a sponge, ready to soak up whatever the instructor says. You are there to learn, not to be taught.
1. If the instructor is moving too rapidly for you, or if you don't understand what is being said, say something!
2. Ask questions if you are confused. Confusion is definitely your worst enemy.
3. If your class includes group activities, participate as fully as you can. Such exercises are done for your benefit, not to provide a break for the instructor.
Review your notes every day. This suggestion is one which we have all heard a thousand times. Unfortunately, most of us never really believe it until we actually try it. Spend 30 minutes or so each evening going over the notes from each class. There are at least two tremendous benefits to be gained from this discipline.
1. Research has shown that reviewing new material within 24 hours of hearing it increases your retention of that material by about 60%. This means that you will be 60% ahead of the game the next time you walk into class. If you want to significantly reduce the time necessary to prepare for exams, this is the way to do it.
2. Reviewing material before the next class period enables you to identify points of confusion or omission in your notes, which prepares you to ask the questions you need to ask before the next lecture. Again, confusion is your worst enemy.
It is excellent policy to give high priority to new vocabulary. Language is the most fundamental tool of any subject, and it can seriously handicap you to fall behind in this.
Keep up on your reading. Unlike most high school teachers, many college instructors don't give specific reading assignments. You are expected to go to your text for the reading related to the materials covered in class. Be independent enough to do this without being told.
Using Your Textbook
Don't expect your instructor to give you detailed, page by page textbook assignments. While some may do so, many do not. College teachers are much more likely to expect you to use your own initiative in making use of the text.
In most cases, it will be most useful for you to at least skim the relevant chapters before each lecture. You should receive a course outline/syllabus at the beginning of the quarter, which will tell you the subject for each day. You may receive chapter references (or even page references), or you instructor may expect you to be perceptive enough to refer to the Table of Contents.
1. When you first approach a chapter, page through it fairly quickly, noting boldface headings and subheadings, examining figures, illustrations, charts, etc., and thinking about any highlighted vocabulary terms and concepts. Also take note of the pedagogical aids at the end of the chapter--study questions, summary, etc.
2. When you have finished surveying the chapter, return to the beginning and read in more detail. Remember to concentrate upon understanding. Don't simply read through the words. Any words which you don't understand you should look up. If you own the book and intend to keep it, you may want to write definitions of such words in the margins. You may also find it helpful to make observations and other useful notes in the margins. If you don't intend to keep the book yourself, you should carry out similar activities on a page in your class notebook.
3. On this first trip through the chapter, you should concentrate upon catching the major subjects and points of the material. Also take note of those things which you don't understand. If the lecture on the material doesn't clarify those points, you should ask your instructor to explain.
Following coverage of the chapter's material in class, you should go back to the book and read it again. It will probably be helpful to skim through it first, as you did when you first looked at it. The tables and figures should be more readily read in detail. If you are a truly conscientious student, you will outline the chapter and prepare a vocabulary list of the terms which are pertinent.
At this time you should think seriously about the review and study questions at the end of the chapter. Do your best to answer all fo them as if they were a take-home exam.
You may also want to develop a system of cross referencing symbols to use when comparing your class notes to your notes from the text.
Remember that your instructor will probably not use the same words which you find in the text book. nothing is more frustrating than to discover that what you hear in class is no more than a rehash of what you read in the book. However, if your instructor knows his/her subject, and the author of your text knows his/her subject, the meat of what they say should be the same. NOTE:Nobody is infallible. Your instructor may make mistakes. Don't expect him or her to be more than human.
Here's another thing we have all been told thousands of times: Don't leave assignments until the day before they are due! If you have a paper to write or a lab report to prepare, begin it as soon as possible. In most cases, instructors will be delighted to receive work early. Remember that many papers or projects require quite a bit of research before you can even begin writing. In most cases, it is impossible to accomplish the necessary preparation in one day or even one week. In some cases, instructors won't accept late work at all. They are perfectly justified.
Another sore point: Be aware of the appearance of the work you submit. You should want to be proud of every assignment you submit, and that includes being proud of its appearance. If possible, assignments should always be typed. Never turn in an assignment written in pencil. Pages torn out of notebooks are sloppy and unsightly. Think about this point every time you hand an instructor an assignment. That paper represents the quality of your work, and your instructor is perfectly justified in taking its appearance into consideration when assigning a grade.
An increasing number of instructors are requiring that all outside work be typed. If you don't type, you should consider learning how. If you don't want to do this, you should begin investigating ways and means of getting someone else to type your papers. This will often mean paying a professional typist. Costs vary, but be prepared to pay a considerable amount. A really good typist may be able to turn out 6-10 pages an hour. Think about what you consider an appropriate hourly wage when you consider how much you should expect to pay a typist. Another point you must consider is that it will add to the time necessary to prepare a paper it you have to go to someone else to type it. In planning the time necessary for typing, consider the following points:
1. Your typist may have other customers who are just as anxious as you are.
2. A paper takes time to type.
3. Even the best typist makes mistakes. your paper must be carefully proofread by you.
4. After proofreading, the typist must have time to make the necessary corrections.
Preparing for Exams
Keep in mind that you want to be an active learner, not a passive one. The more you use and manipulate the information, the better you will understand it. Using and manipulating information in as many ways as possible also maximizes your ability to access your memory.
Do not wait until the night before an exam to study! Of course, you should be regularly reviewing your notes, but the preparation still takes time.
If your instructor hasn't explained to you how he or she designs exams, ask. this is a perfectly legitimate concern. However, keep in mind that an instructor has the right to design exams in whatever fashion he or she sees fit, and in most cases you have no business asking for changes in that design. You need to learn to handle all testing styles--including the dreaded essay exam!
A good first step in preparation is to read through your notes a couple of times. While you are doing this, you might also
1. Highlight major topics and subtopics, with the goal of generating an outline of your notes. Even if you take your notes in outline form, this is a good practice. Major topics often extend through more than one day's lecture, and it is easy to lose track of the overall picture from day to day.
2. With a second color, highlight all vocabulary terms.
Outline the entire set of notes. When you study a large body of information, you should study from concept to detail, not the other way around. It will, in fact, be much easier to learn the details if you take the time to learn the concept and theory first. The least efficient approach to studying is to attempt to memorize your notes from beginning to end. It's not the words which are important--it's the ideas.
Consider ways of dealing with the information other than those used in class. the more ways you can manipulate and experience the material you are trying to learn, the more secure your understanding and memory will be. Some suggestions:
1. Make charts, diagrams and graphs.
2. Make lists.
3. If the subject matter includes structures, practice drawing those structures. Remember that a drawing is useless unless the important structures are labeled.
There are almost always types of information which you will have to memorize (eg. vocabulary). No one has ever invented a better device for memorizing than flash cards.
One of the most universally effective ways to polish off your study activities is to prepare a self test.
1. Challenge yourself as severely as you can.
2. As you are studying, keep a running collection of "exam questions." If you seriously attempt to write difficult and meaningful questions, by the time you finish you will have created a formidable exam. When you begin to feel you're ready for your instructor's exam, take out your questions and see if you can answer them. If you can't, you may need to go back and reinforce some of the things your are trying to learn.
Never, ever pull an "All-Nighter" on the night before an exam. This is a "freshman trick," meaning that good students learn very quickly that it is futile. What you may gain from extra study time won't compensate for the loss of alertness and ability to concentrate due to lack of sleep.
On exam day:
1. Try not to "cram" during every spare moment before an exam. this only increases the feeling of desperation which leads to panic, and then to test anxiety. You may find it useful, on the night before an exam, to jot down a few ideas or facts which you wish to have fresh in your mind when you begin the exam. Read through your list a couple of times when you get up in the morning and/or just before you take the exam, then put it away. This kind of memory reinforcement not only improves your performance on the test, it also improves your long-term memory of the material.
2. Be physically prepared.
a. Get a good night's sleep.
b. Bring necessary writing materials to the test--at least 2 writing tools, erasers, blue books if necessary, calculators if appropriate and allowed. Be aware of what the instructor has specified as permitted for use. Some instructors object to exams written pencil; some prohibit use of tools like calculators. It is your responsibility to know these requirements; you should be prepared to take the consequences if you don't.
c. This may seem silly, but go to the bathroom just before the exam. Don't expect your teacher to let you leave to do this during the test! The tension which generally goes along with taking an exam may increase the need to perform this physical activity, so you may need to go, even though you don't particularly feel like it.
Some Final Suggestions
You should receive a syllabus for each class. This is the Rule Book for that class (in my classes, we call it the Survival Manual). Know everything on that syllabus! Your teacher has the right to expect you to know and abide by any rules and stipulations on that document, and it is perfectly within his/her rights to penalize you for failing to do so. Respect dates and deadlines, and expect to lose points if you turn things in late.
Never miss an exam if you can help it. You will rarely be more ready for the exam in two or three days than you are on the scheduled date, and the annoyance the teacher will feel about having to arrange a special exam time for you can actually hurt your grade in the end. Miss exams only if you absolutely have to.
Save everything. Never throw away a handout or a returned assignment or exam. With this in mind, equip yourself with a pouched folder for each class.
Develop systematic behavior patterns associated with your schoolwork.
1. Keep your class materials together and neat.
2. Never allow yourself to be caught at school without the necessary notebooks and materials. If you develop systematic habits with respect to attending classes, etc., this will be no problem.
It is excellent practice to set aside a study area at home, and to designate a particular span of time each day as study time. However, don't fall into the trap of feeling that study should never exceed the preordained time limits. You put in as much study time as is necessary to master the material for your classes.