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The fundamentals of good study skills

Laws of the internet #415
Every new scientific study must spawn an avalanche of self-help articles, regardless of how impractical or downright freaky the resulting advice is.

If you followed all of the recommendations you read in popular blogs, you’d only ever study in an oxygen tent whilst listening to binaural nose flute music. This is fine. If you want to chew gum and clench your fists whilst cramming, nobody will stop you. People will stare, but nobody will stop you. However, without decent basic technique, focusing on these tiny changes is like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

Sadly, good fundamentals don’t make for good clickbait. They aren’t a “shocking secret that examiners are desperate to ban” and they certainly don’t contain “a weird trick capable of reducing your belly fat”. They are, however, your best bet for better grades, so here goes.

Step one: find a good teacher
You get to pick your textbook and by extension, your teacher. That might seem like a minor point, but I can’t emphasize it enough. Clearly explaining tricky concepts in an engaging way is a rare skill indeed. Textbooks vary enormously in quality and are one of the biggest limiting factors in your success.

If I were struggling with a subject, I’d ignore all other advice and focus on finding a great textbook. If yours seems like it was written by the Terminator, ditch it before he bores you to death.

Step two: embrace moderate challenge
Some learning techniques are passive and spoon feed you information. Reading is the main culprit, but there are more insidious ones that seem active but don’t force you to think for yourself, such as highlighting your textbook and blindly following along with tutorials. As a general rule, if you can do it whilst hammered drunk, it isn’t giving your brain a tough workout.

If you want to do more than parrot information, you need to answer questions, evaluate content and apply what you’re learning as you go along. Good textbooks will help and encourage you to do this, and you should fight the temptation to skip over the questions and exercises they contain. There are also specific techniques you can leverage such as SQ3R and the Q system.

The caveat here is, don’t go too far, too fast. Most textbook chapters end with a bunch of straightforward questions, followed by a handful of more involved questions, and finally a few really bloody hard ones. Avoid the tougher questions on your first exposure to a topic. Revisiting them when you’re more comfortable and familiar with the material is likely to be far less frustrating.

Step three: consolidate what you learn
Forgetfulness is the enemy, and unlike most enemies, we can’t sneak up on it and hit it over the head with a shovel. We need to find other ways to defeat it. The simplest of these is consolidation.

Revisiting topics that you’ve covered during the previous few days will drastically increase your retention. All it takes to reinforce the material is answering a few questions on each topic. This might seem slower than just ploughing on like an unstoppable learning machine, but it will save you a lot of time in the long run.

Step four: self test
Most students tend to re-read too much and self test too little. Self testing reinforces your memories and gives you a objective view of what you do and don’t know. This is crucial because we tend to focus our efforts on what we are struggling to understand and neglect simpler information that we need to memorise.

I’m not talking about using past paper questions, although those are an incredibly important part of studying. I mean more straightforward, direct questions, like flashcards. A thorough set of these can allow you to cover an entire syllabus in a couple of hours rather than a couple of days.

Step five: learn what makes a good answer
Once you understand and can remember the whole syllabus, you need to master expressing that knowledge. For multiple choice answers, this is a case of building up familiarity with the style of questions being asked, but for written exams we need to learn how to interpret questions and predict what the examiner is expecting – it is far easier to give good answers when you know what makes them good. This is where past exam papers and marking schemes really shine.

Your aim is to be able to read a question, look at the number of marks available and jot down what each mark is for. If you know the material and can do that consistently, you should be able to ace the paper.

That was a whistle stop tour of the fundamentals. If you want to delve a little deeper, why not check out my short series on how to study effectively.

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