help me develop good study habits. Tips for studying
January 8, 2009 10:28 AM   Subscribe

I am starting back to school for my masters degree after 3 years off. I graduated undergrad in '06 and to be honest i didnt have very good study skills. i did the least i could to get by. I know i'll have to focus and work much harder this time! Can anyone suggest some good skills i might develop for managing my time and staying focused. Where do you guys study? my bedroom is a bad option i think. How do you organize notes? What kind of music do you listen to, if any at all? earplugs a good idea? I just want do ideas i can implement to make my study time useful and productive!
posted by l2yangop to Education (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I did the exact same thing. 3 years off from my bachelor's and wasn't a very good student. However, in that 3 years in between I learned how crappy life is with a degree that didn't get me anywhere and a low GPA. Some places I applied would not interview me due to my college GPA, even 3 years after I graduated and had work experience. Other places just wouldn't respect my degree.

And when I went for my masters I had grown up a bit, matured, and was studying something I REALLY wanted to do--computer programming. I wanted to excel at it, and that personal drive made me decide to be a straight A student. I graduated with a 3.98 GPA (I had a 2.4x undergrad, and I would have had a 4.0 were it not for ONE SINGLE A-)

Studying at home at all, my room or anywhere else, was a problem for me. Too many distractions. So what I did was I went to school to study. No television, and the entire purpose of being there was to study. Sometimes I used the library, but normally I just used a random table in the student lounge. This kept me very focused and made the most of my study time.

Notes: It depended on the class, but I noticed most instructors tended to lecture based on the text, and in the order of the chapter. I would highlight my book, focusing on the areas in the lecture. Then I would study those pieces hard, either through reading, researching, memorization, flash cards, etc. I did take some handwritten notes from time to time but they never were of great value.

I didn't listen to music as I studied. Personal preference. If you do I suggest things that keep you focused and perhaps with no lyrics to distract you.

But in the end, if you WANT to succeed in this, you will. If you are just going through the motions, then you won't. Simple as that.

(oh and one other tip, if you find yourself falling behind, lost, or just with questions, get used to talking to your instructors one-on-one so they know you care about your performance)
posted by arniec at 10:41 AM on January 8, 2009

For me, I needed to totally isolate myself. If I had video games, a tv, or friends around I would work for five minutes then distract myself. Make it a regular habit to go to the library. Find a cozy spot where you can buckle down for a few hours a day. Avoid music and such at first, but add it if you think it will help. Just make sure its music that doesn't inhibit your focus. The music should only be used to block out surrounding noise, not to entertain you. Make your study time part of your regular routine, not an exception to the norm.

One of my friends committed to "working 9-5" every day. Between those hours he would only do school-related activities and break only for lunch. After 5 the time was his to do whatever he wanted, as long as everything was ready for the next day.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 10:41 AM on January 8, 2009

I sit for 7 hours a day in a small, six-walled "honeycomb" with approx. 35 sq. ft. of floorspace and 20 linear feet of shelving and hardcore fluorescent lighting. It is soundless except for the lone exhaust fan running overhead. I have a laptop, no Internet, and I listen to "Wandering Saint" by Dr. L. Subramaniam the entire time at low volume. I take a break every two hours or so, including 45 min. for lunch. If I am reading, sometimes I sit on the floor. I often have visions of total isolation a la 2001.
posted by mrmojoflying at 10:51 AM on January 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

From my own experience - If you have worked any sort of full-time job that is at all similar to studying (writing, programming, anything 'intellectual' in which you need to use your brain's problem-solving skills all day) then you will be amazed at how much better your study habits will be right off the bat..

Most college kids aren't used to 40+ hrs a week of monotony, so you might have a leg up on some of the straight-from-undergrad students.
posted by mbatch at 10:59 AM on January 8, 2009

I found it easier to study in grad school than in undergrad, because I didn't have to generalize and take classes in things I wasn't interested in. So you might get a boost just by having more enthusiasm for the material.

But I agree with the other guys -- the less distraction the better. I couldn't study at home because I would find other stuff to do. Studying at the library worked best for me. If I was at home reading, I made sure to turn off music, TV, and internet. Locking yourself in a room can help.

Explaining to yourself what you have just read -- either aloud or by writing it down in your own words -- is a good way of making sure you have absorbed the material.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:59 AM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was in a similar situation 1.5 years ago when I enrolled in graduate school after several years away. I agree with what everyone has said above, but I'll add a few things that helped me:

1) Technology is your friend. I had a laptop with Microsoft OneNote installed - I typed my notes into "notebooks" and was able to do some amazing formatting and graphical stuff with those notes. Also, with OneNote, you can record your lectures and embed them in your notes which is very cool for later review. OneNote is included with certain versions of Microsoft Office or you can purchase it on its own. That program was made for college students! Just make sure you back-up your notes to several locations for safe keeping.

I would also recommend tracking assignment due dates and exam dates in Microsoft Outlook or another calendar program/service (Google Calendar is a great web-based free version) and set it so that it notifies you of upcoming important dates. Whenever I got a new syllabus from a class, I culled all the important dates from it right away and put them into my Outlook calendar. At the time I also had a Windows powered Smartphone so I could sync my calendar with my phone to have it with me at all times. This was pretty handy, but certainly not necessary if you have your laptop with you. Outlook is also great for checking all your email accounts in one place and adding your new classmate and professor contacts.

2) Study in the library. It is easy to get distracted when you're reading or studying less than interesting material. I recommend taking yourself out of any environment where distraction is possible. The library is great because it puts you in a study mindset (at least it did for me!) and it adds some purpose - it becomes a part of your daily activity. Plus, it's pretty handy to have all the resources of a library at your disposal while you study.

3) Give yourself regular breaks during studying. It's super-important to step away and take a break during study sessions. Keep your brain limber!

4) Cut yourself some slack. Graduate school is different from the undergrad experience, and the fact that you have been away for a bit is going to require that you get up to speed with everything. I know I had to adjust to the lifestyle again - studying, group meetings, time management - it all seems so familiar but it will take some time to really feel comfortable with it.

Best of luck!
posted by karizma at 11:02 AM on January 8, 2009

Seconding OnenNote; I use OneNote and find it very convenient, though I don't use most of the advanced features. I also find I can't get enough done unless I get out of my apartment and go to the library.

IMO, the single best thing to do is just to treat your work like a job. Put in a full day usually, overtime when required (finals and big assignments), and stay motivated by giving yourself an occasional weekday half- or totally off when you've completed everything.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:15 AM on January 8, 2009

What worked for me for 4 years of Undergrad plus night school for an MBA was to create a study cheat sheet before each test or final. I would summarize what I thought I needed to know on a single sheet of paper, and then make sure I knew that stuff upside down and sideways. I occasionally got surprised by something on a test, but if you are paying attention in class you'll know what the Prof. considers important. The single sheet limitation forces you to focus on the important stuff. It worked well enough to get me two degrees as an undergrad plus my graduate degree.
posted by COD at 11:17 AM on January 8, 2009

The most important thing is to enjoy what you're doing: if you're passionate, then you shouldn't have much trouble working hard and being successful.

Don't be lazy about note-taking. I try to write a concise title at the top of each page and underline it in red pen. I put things like '!', '?' and 'Further reading' in the margin to flag-up the most important points in my notes. There are loads of 'How to Take Notes' tutorials online.

In terms of organizing notes, I date everything. I write in notebooks, with each notebook having its own number. All loose paper goes into folders. I use my digital camera to photograph each page in these notebooks/folders, so that I have replacement copies if I lose them. All my computer files are backed up regularly. Removable hard drives and/or web storage are cheap, and the whole 'my computer broke' line is a pathetic excuse.

Music: it depends on the task. I usually do difficult work in silence, but I find that most music without lyrics doesn't distract my concentration too much. Web radio can provide some much-needed variety.

As mbatch said, doing a 40 hour week is difficult. What's more difficult is doing a 40 hour week in which your entire time is dedicated to one extremely difficult intellectual pursuit. As a grad student, I like to break up activities and do several at once. I might do a bit of research in the morning, then go to the library, perhaps read some journals online for a bit, write some emails, then read a book or two. Trying to read journals all day or spending eight hours working on emails would soon become tedious.

Of course, this approach means that it's essential that you know what tasks you need to complete and when you need to do them by. A 'To Do' list might be helpful, but I like to use Google Calendar and a notebook. Planning and looking ahead are key.
posted by mattn at 11:22 AM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you can, find some study partners and make a pact to get work done together. Sometimes a little peer pressure (plus the incentive of some low-key social interaction) is just the little push you need to get things done.
posted by miriam at 11:50 AM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't overdo the technology. It can be just as distracting as it is helpful.

I had a few techniques for getting through my masters, although I did it right after undergrad.

First off, my desktop was for gaming and my laptop was for work. This helped me settle into a work time mentality whenever I was on the laptop. Of course I realize that strategy only works if you have two computers.

Despite having the laptop I prefered to take notes on paper when possible. I'm a big believer in muscle memory and it works better for me if I write instead of type. The notes themselves were taken on blank white paper. Each lecture took up 2-4 pages, which were stapled together and shoved in a folder. I like this method so much better than carrying around a notebook for each class.

Be careful what music you listen to. I try to avoid anything overly lyrical when I'm focusing on something. Sometimes I gave each class a different band. Just be deliberate with what you listen to so you don't end up distracting yourself.

Finally, don't save your homework for last. I've always been the type of person to do homework first and then go have fun. Reason being is that if I'm playing video games before work I have that work looming over me the whole time. If I get the work done first then I can game guilt free. Because of this, I never once stayed up past midnight to do work or study at college.
posted by valadil at 12:37 PM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try different methods. Everyone learns/studies differently; experiment a bit to see what works best for you. Things that work for me, from a humanities perspective:

Don't photocopy the assigned readings. This seems backwards, but bear with me: if you photocopy them, you rely on them always being there. They're on reserve at the library for 2 hours, so take them out for two hours and read them, carefully. Take very detailed notes. Pay attention to the general thesis, important points, and note down and examples that illustrate them well for you. Knowing you won't have access to the document in class later is good motivation to read carefully and read differently (exactly the kind of reading you'll need to know how to do; it's an acquired skill). The two hour limit prevents you from procrastinating. Just get it done within the deadline and move on. I did this through 6 years of grad school and I was consistently well-prepared, had better notes to work from, remembered more about the articles, and saved a hell of a lot of money. If you need them later you can always take them out again.

Only buy the books you absolutely have to buy. My first semester in grad school I had to read a book a week for a single one of my class. Not knowing better, I bought them all. It cost a fortune and I only spend a day with each book. A good library can save you a ton of money. Pick carefully. Buy the books you'll spend a lot of time with, or ones that you're sure you'll want to keep. You can always pick them up later if they really change your life.

Do NOT pull all-nighters. At the beginning of each term, write all your deadlines in a calendar. Create new deadlines; a week before anything is due, create yourself a personal deadline for it. Arrange it so that each project you have has twice the time you need to complete it, scheduled in your calendar. If you arrange it right, you can be happily working on any projects/papers you have safely knowing that you can comfortably dedicate yourself to it completely, with no other deadlines hanging over you.

Always do the reading before class/seminar. Always. You get more out of class and you come off as a better student. It's also way less stressful.

Don't "rewrite your notes". I don't know why people do this. It's a complete waste of time. Take notes where necessary, and take them in such a way that you will be able to remember the segment later. Most of my grad classes had no tests or exams, so notes take on a different meaning. Note down the big ideas.

Hope this helps!
posted by Hildegarde at 12:44 PM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I returned for grad school, my main problem was peers. Especially in computer science, it can be hard to find people who you relate to. The international students are often already well acquainted and cliquish; in addition to speaking the same native language, they have clubs and even their own dorms. And the field tends to collect and reward iconoclasts.

I've never been a big studier. In CS, the bulk of the time spent is homework. Even reading is only supplemental to actually writing the program. Every class I wish I had done better in came down to homework. Our algorithms class was mainly about solving problems in such and such Big-O time, and often those problems contained a trick you had to discover before getting to the analysis part of Algorithm Analysis. I observed a few classmates working in groups, but at the time I felt that was too close to cheating. I wound up with a D in the class, which is very not good in grad school. This was not the only class I didn't fare well in. I later retook the classes and did much better when I had some people to talk with about assignments.

Your situation probably differs, but I think it's good advice regardless of situation. Make some friends, and allocate some cost of social interaction into your time budget. Studying really shouldn't be reading the same thing over and over again. Read the text once, maybe twice, and come together to identify what's important from the text. Vocabulary, theorems, formulas etc. Coming up with these things helps because you have thinking is pretty much required; when I read, sometimes I catch myself thinking about something else for a paragraph while my eyes are just on autopilot.
posted by pwnguin at 12:57 PM on January 8, 2009

I had to schedule time in my day solely for studying, reading, or writing. And stick to it like any other commitment.

Also, get to know the people in your classes - they will be valuable to you for creating study groups, or taking notes for each other if you miss a class.
posted by at 1:26 PM on January 8, 2009

I found myself doing a lot better once I got a laptop and started studying at the school library or a student cafe nearby, instead of at my desktop at home. As far as music goes, I lean towards ambient electronic, reggae, or maybe jam bands at a volume loud enough that you can turn on loud enough to drown out the background noise and get into a zone, but without obtrusive lyrics and bad songs you have to skip over. I have a very large music collection, but I actually started to listen to streaming radio from those genres on my laptop to minimize interference and tedious track selection.

Simple stuff like keeping a folder for each class you take where you keep the syllabus, handouts, projects, notes, etc can be a huge help. I second making friends with others in your class, I was never one for study groups as I think I tend to study more effectively alone, but getting together once in a while to go over the reading, talk about projects, professors, sharing notes or work on particularly difficult problems can be hugely helpful. If nothing else, build up a list of gtalk contacts in your classes that you can turn to if you get stuck or just want a second opinion.

Grad school in most places is a lot more free form than undergrad, and that means that while you have more freedom with your time, if you don't use that time wisely you can get yourself into a big hole. Do some reading everyday, it will keep you focused and you will at get a lot more out of the classes. It does help to know where the late night coffee places are or have a source of stronger stimulants ready for those (inevitable?) all-nighters. Lastly, there have been quite a few threads here regarding advisers, it might be useful to look those over.
posted by sophist at 2:02 PM on January 8, 2009

Here's a little data point on music while you study, taken from an amazing book called Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister (the book's all about allowing creative professionals to be as productive as possible).

Two groups of students were asked to complete mathematical problems at a computer. One group was played Beethoven while they worked, the other was a control. Both groups achieved roughly equal average scores on the problems, but there was an additional element of the test, which was a kind of lateral thinking, what-do-all-these-problems-have-in-common type creative leap. The group without music performed significantly better on this last task.

The crude theory put forward in the book was that listening to music somehow engaged the creative, right brain and made it less creative, even though certain aspects of performance were untouched. Don't know if that's true, but I certainly find I'm more effective with white noise or silence than with music – even classical or ambient music.
posted by godawful at 2:39 PM on January 8, 2009

I agree, find a place where you get in to your own "study zone." For me, it's the library or my office--if I'm going to make a trip to campus, I'm not going to waste my time goofing around (though every once in awhile it happens).

Find friends in your program who you can discuss ideas with, send rough drafts to, and study with. It may be difficult at the beginning, especially depending on the make up of your program, but listen to what others say in class and make connections to those who have interesting and intelligent things to say. You also need friends to relax, complain, and have fun with.

I don't know what you're studying, so this advice may be more or less applicable, but I've found that I get more out of a class when I have a framework or context to place the readings in. Most professors put themes and major questions the class seeks to answer in the syllabus. Read it, and keep the questions in mind throughout the semester and while working.

I also agree that you should use a note-taking system that works for you, so that you can get the most out of the reading at the time it's assigned and so that you can easily remind yourself about the big ideas in the future. At the end of readings, write your own abstract to show that you've picked up on the main argument. I tend to think in terms of Q and A (What is this author's argument? What evidence does he/she use? Am I convinced?, etc.)

Finally, don't be too hard on yourself. Even if you're passionate about what you're studying, it doesn't necessarily mean you'd always rather do your homework than watch TV/listen to music/see a movie/go out. Seek balance. Though I did graduate school straight out of undergrad many people in my program came after years as professionals, and they found the transition difficult in certain ways that didn't apply to me (no more disposable income, no more "authority" as an established professional, etc.)

Good luck!
posted by kochenta at 3:07 PM on January 8, 2009

I just found some new software for taking notes (from my AskMe question): TakeNote. It's really simple and easy to use. I really like it. Though I still tend to take handwritten notes for courses I'm taking; my main use for the software is to keep track of research ideas.

As a grad student you might get some kind of office space available for studying, or perhaps a group study hall. My own experience tells me to study somewhere where I do not have net access. This means printing off all study materials and going to the library and sitting in one of those little study carols for hours. No distractions = more productivity. No music unless I'm doing brainless work (drills) which is pretty rare.

But the most important thing you can do in your courses is to stay on top of them. Don't sit blankly through lectures and then learn the material right before the exam. Follow it as it comes to you in the lecture. Then your studying will be simply review and reinforcement rather than tentative new learning.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:21 AM on January 9, 2009

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