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Advice on Successful Studying

From the perspective of a successful student.

Written by SuJung Lee

In high school, I was involved in the student council, the debate team, the archery team, and the art committee. I also held a part-time job, and still maintained a 95%+ average. In university, I took on both a specialist in philosophy and a major in Economics. I volunteered regularly, was involved in several campus initiatives, held a part-time job, and still maintained a 3.7+ GPA.  This was not easy. There were many moments of stressful self-doubt and anxiety-ridden panic attacks. However, what made me a successful student was not my list of accomplishments, but my ability to overcome the stress and anxiety that lay in the background of these accomplishments. Having defined “success” in this way, my purpose in this article is twofold: (1) to shed some insight into the daily mindset and routine of a successful student; and (2) to use these personal experiences to generate general advice to other students.

In my mind, there are 4 key factors required for success in studying: motivation, organization, focus, and specific strategies. Before reading further, please keep in mind that, while these factors can be categorized neatly in theory, they are in reality co-dependent. In other words, each of these factors both affects and is affected by the other factors.

  1. Motivation

 

This is perhaps the most difficult factor to satisfy. Motivation is ultimately an internal move to action – no one but you yourself can motivate you.

  • Motivation is a positive energy – it should excite you to action. So do things that will spark excitement – get a pretty agenda, some nice stationary (personally, I get really excited about thin pens and funny-shaped post-it notes) … and so on.
  • (For older students) Drink some coffee or tea; studies show that a little bit of caffeine boosts productivity
  • Start your day off with exercise; chemicals in your body, called endorphins, also get you motivated (and feeling good about yourself). Parents, you should encourage your children to perform daily physical exercises
  1. Organization
  • Get an agenda. Make a habit of using this agenda regularly. Record all your deadlines and appointments, set reminders about these 3 days before… Write everything down.
  • Set your own deadlines. Do you have a paper due in 2 weeks? Plan to finish it earlier. The act of picking a date (again, physically mark this date in your agenda) pressures you to get things done. Even if you don’t finish by this date, at least you’ll have it at the back of your mind.
  • Clear up your work environment. If you work in your room, make your bed, clean up your clothes, clear your desk, clean the windows… etc. The act of cleaning is therapeutic. If you work in the library, only take out the books you need and keep everything else out of sight. An open environment prevents distractions, and helps productivity.
  1. Focus

This is also another difficult factor for many people, and is closely tied to your level of motivation. Focusing is about consistency, not intensity. As long as you have a schedule that you stick to, you don’t need to have the meditative abilities of a monk.

  • Set up a timetable for the day. Prioritize what needs to be done in order, then allot yourself specific time frames to check off each item on the list (e.g. between 8 a.m. – 9 a.m., I will finish reading a chapter of textbook x). If you have high levels of anxiety, work on the things that you are most stressed about first. If you have many high-stress items to finish, work on them in the order in which they are due. Be realistic about what you can accomplish and the time required to finish them. If you find that you’re spending too long on something, move onto the next item on the list and come back to it later. Be strict with yourself.
  • Set short-term goals. E.g.: “By the end of the hour, I will have read 1 chapter of the textbook.” Having such goals will direct your focus, so that you can fixate on one thing at a time.
  • Take breaks. If you have a shorter attention span than others, take more frequent breaks (every 20 minutes or so). If you’re stuck on a problem, move on to a different problem. If you have writer’s block, read something else to relax yourself. But push yourself to stick to your schedule.
  • If you find yourself dozing off, consider taking a 10-15 minute power nap (again, this depends on whether or not you’re capable of waking up in those 10-15 minutes). If this is not possible, take a walk outside for 10-15 minutes to wake yourself up. No one can work when they’re sleepy, and you need to kick the fatigue out of your system.
  • Surround yourself in an environment conducive to studying. If you need silence, go to the library. If you need steady background noise, go to a small café. Study with friends you know you can work with; avoid those you know are distracting.
  1. Specific Strategies

Specific studying strategies depend on the subject of study. The goal is to make the most use out of your time. Here, I will focus on strategies for the core subjects math and English/humanities.

  • Math
    • Practice, practice, practice. Unless you’re a math genius, you will need to practice applying the concepts you learned in order to truly understand how they work. Do every single one of those homework questions. Circle the ones you don’t understand, and come back to them later. If you still can’t answer them, ask others (either your peers or your teacher).
    • Identify the type of questions you’re having trouble with. Then, get more practice by looking through your textbook/other available resources and working on just those question types.
    • Once you’re comfortable with all the concepts you’ve learned, work on as many application and thinking/inquiry questions as possible. Once you’ve been exposed to many different types of problems, you’ll be able to anticipate the kinds of problems your teacher will test you on. Moreover, you’ll be better able to recognize similar problems. Once you’ve been exposed to different ways of solving problems, you’ll be equipped with a better arsenal to help you tackle problem types that you haven’t seen before.
  • English/humanities
    • Do the readings. I had so many friends in high school who didn’t bother reading their English books and just got by with reading Sparknotes, Coles notes… etc. While a lot of them did pass, there are many reasons this was a poor use of their time:
      • (i) You still have to write essays on the readings, with references from the readings. Going back to the readings to look for specific quotes, without actually having read the book, is a lot more difficult and time consuming than just doing the readings to begin with.
      • (ii) You won’t be able to write original papers without reading the book. Original thinking comes from you, when you personally engage with the text. You can’t personally engage with the text if you don’t personally read it. There’s nothing wrong with consulting secondary sources (e.g. Sparknotes) if you’re having trouble understanding the author, but these sources should complement your own thinking and not hinder your own opinions about the text. Make sure to cite any resources you use!
      • (iii) You won’t remember what the book was about or its significance. It’s a waste of time. It seems so counter-productive to invest so much time into learning about something only to not have truly learned it. You are just depriving yourself of the experience of reading a great book in exchange for mediocre marks.
    • Take notes. The additional responsibility of writing notes forces you to actively engage with the text instead of passively absorbing it. Plus, having notes will make it easier to reference specific parts of the text when you write papers. Organize your notes to distinguish between what the author says (e.g. specific arguments/examples) and your own thoughts on the text (e.g. your reaction to a certain part of the text). And make sure to record specific page numbers in your notes!
    • When reading articles or academic papers, always identify the author’s main conclusion. Then, locate the author’s argument for his/her conclusion. Finally, reconstruct the author’s argument in your own words and in the order that makes logical sense to you. I cannot emphasize this enough! The act of reconstruction puts you in a position to identify the key logical moves in an argument, as well as any holes that emerge in the argument. In so doing, you are automatically critically engaging with the argument.

The big takeaway: like most things in life, successful studying is not just a matter of sitting down in front of a desk and forcing yourself to study, but a holistic process. The above breakdown allows you to start building good habits for that holistic process.

As I mentioned earlier, each of the factors are tied to the others: high motivation leads to better focus; better study habits and organization lead to better focus; improvement in focus will allow you to develop better studying strategies that work for you… and so on. The reality today is that, in order to be competitive, students must both maintain various extra-curricular activities and achieve high academic standards. Hopefully, this article provides some guidance on how to overcome the stress that inevitably accompanies this demanding schedule. From one student to another, I wish you the greatest success.