Teach me how to study!
September 20, 2009 8:31 PM   Subscribe

What is the most effective way to study?

I don't know how to study. I've looked through all the previous posts about studying and study skills, but none of them really address my problem. I'm not a grad student, I'm not in serious trouble of failing any classes, and I'm not studying for a specific test like the GRE's. I just don't know how to study

The problem isn't my notes- I *finally* got that under control this year. I'm a sophomore with double majoring in bio and education, double minoring in chem and , and depending on the class I either take notes in Notebook view on Word (the ability to record lectures into my notes is a godsend) or just on paper. I do my homework and I go to all of my classes. But when it's time to study for a test, I draw a blank. For biology and chem, I've been making notecards- which is really good for vocabulary, but not so good for concepts and ideas. I feel like there has to be a better way than notecards. And what about math classes or classes where notecards aren't really practical? Should I make study guides? How do I know what to put on the study guides? Would it be better for me to make outlines throughout the semester of things to study from so I don't have to compile it all before an exam into a study guide?

Like I said, this isn't because I'm doing poorly in my classes. I switched my major from a social science to biology and I'm being faced with studying for math and science classes now. I was a straight A student in high school and I don't think I ever studied for a single test- but things have changed now and I need to pick up some study skills, quick.
posted by kro to Education (27 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Most schools have a study skills center, staffed by trained tutors and educators who are very used to dealing with this exact issue. A lot of the better colleges pull from the ranks of the smartest high school students - many of whom never had to study a day in their lives - so they make an effort to provide support while you learn the particular skills you haven't needed up until this point.

As far as studying for tests in math and science classes go, I would usually make up a page of critical equations and bullet points. In some classes you were allowed to bring a single double-sided sheet to the test, but I found that I rarely ended up referring to them on the exams. Making the sheet was itself a helpful study guide. Eventually I would up making up pages in a similar format while studying for other classes, even when I couldn't bring them with me.

And, props to you for addressing this before it becomes an issue!
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:41 PM on September 20, 2009

After every lecture, recopy your notes in complete sentences, accompanied by diagrams if necessary, so that the meaning is completely clear to you. Work in supplemental details from the textbook if they're relevant. If there's anything that's unclear to you-- either from your notes or in the textbook-- be sure to stop by the professor's office hours or ask some fellow students. Be utterly vigilant about following up on things you don't fully understand, and stay up-to-date on your set of recopied notes.

In essence this forces you to distill, re-understand, and reinforce the concepts you learned in class. It also gives you a convenient packet to study from when the exam rolls around. One way to study for an exam is to formulate your own exam questions. Ask yourself, "if I were teaching this class, what kind of knowledge would I want students to come away with?" Then try to answer them without the aid of your notes.
posted by ms.codex at 8:44 PM on September 20, 2009

I always found that, if I otherwise felt unprepared, recopying my notes by hand drove them into my memory.

"By hand" meaning pen & paper, not typing; I found this act to be a better memory stamper.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:46 PM on September 20, 2009

Best answer: I would look into a program like Anki (for the Mac) or Mnemosyne (cross-platform). They use spaced repetition algorithms in flash card to help you remember literally everything you want. There's a Wired article from awhile back on the creator of this algorithm, Piotr Wozniak. I highly recommend you check it all out. It's been incredibly beneficial in my own studies.
posted by JoshSmith at 8:48 PM on September 20, 2009 [7 favorites]

Reprocess everything - rewrite, reformat, summarize, synthesize, draw connections, apply to examples. Reading/listening don't reliably lead to remembering - processing does.

Your notes are your personalized textbook for your exams. Write things so that you will understand them.

Understand the big picture of a topic and then get the details. The brain remembers details better if they're placed in context.

Practice doing tests/exams. Make up sample questions, answer textbook questions, or look at previous test/exam papers if they are made available. Answering is a skill that takes time and practice to develop.

Boredom is the enemy of good study. If you're getting bored, you won't remember, so switch to different study instead of switching off.
posted by Paragon at 9:02 PM on September 20, 2009

Every one learns differently. Hearing, seeing, doing, fidgeters, etc. (there are fancy names, but whatever.)

So, the hearing person really benefits from hearing the lecture. the seeing person needs to see the slides, see the lecturer. the fidgeter is the guy who covers his notepad with doodles. the doer is the person who takes the concepts and applies them. It doesn't harm to try out different methods of getting info to stick in your brain, but know that some will work better than others.

I like the Cornell note taking method, but it does take extra effort outside of the lectures to make it work. Basically after the lecture you write a summary of the lecture in the space left at the bottom of the page, and keywords in the space at the side. (more on wikipedia, ) This way you compile the study guide as you go. More intuitive for some subjects than others.

For the maths subjects, they are going to be making you do problems on the exam, yeah? (As opposed to an essay) The best way for me to study for these is: read over my notes (skimming, usually.) Working through a practice exam. Work out my weak areas, read up on them, keep doing practice questions.

For the ideas, just make big notecards. Summarize the idea in your own words.
posted by titanium_geek at 9:10 PM on September 20, 2009

I'm currently a highschool (honors) student, so take these with a grain of salt, but here's some of the stuff I do:

You said that you take good notes. Do you review them before the test? Maybe this is so obvious that you're not mentioning it, but you should read through your notes multiple times before the test.

Also if you have textbooks for your classes, which you probably do for the math and science courses, you should reread the chapter that its on. (This won't work that well for a final, obviously).

One thing that I did for math last year (precalc, so possibly not relevant) was make a study guide before each chapter test. In the study guide, I would write down relevant formulas, concepts, and specific types of problems that would be on the test. I would use these to study for the test, and then when I had my semester final I would be able to use these to review instead of all of my notes. I'm not sure how your classes are structures, but this strategy could probably work pretty well.

If I wasn't clear about how I did this and you're interested memail me.
posted by kylej at 9:12 PM on September 20, 2009

Best answer: You really really really need to read this blog: Study Hacks. Wonderful advice that I wish I'd had during my undergrad years.
posted by peacheater at 10:14 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

For most of my undergrad I would recopy my class notes into separate notes - just the act of re-copying them makes everything stick for me. This worked a lot better if there were weekly quizzes or something, that way I'd keep on top of them. After re-copying the theory, I'd do practice problems that I knew I had the answers to (I was in engineering), and then try the problems I didn't have solutions for, just the final answer. If I could get those, I was good.

The last thing I'd do before I went to bed was to write a master study sheet on 1 piece of white paper - just key formulas, lists, stuff that had to be completely memorized.

There were a few times when I absolutely did not have time to make study notes, and the best alternative is just to do as many practice problems as you have time for, and hope for the best.

I also have a horrible long term memory, so after re-copying notes for the midterm, I'd never look at them again and end up making completely new ones for the final.

And only study with people if they're as smart as you or smarter, otherwise it doesn't help.
posted by piper4 at 10:17 PM on September 20, 2009

Close the Book. Recall. Write It Down.
posted by Dave 9 at 10:21 PM on September 20, 2009

Nthing spaced repetition.
posted by Nattie at 12:25 AM on September 21, 2009

One of the best ways of retaining information (for me at least), is teaching it to others. Do your classes have study groups? Can you organize one? Is there tutoring? Or can you become one? Do you have non-bio major friends who would like mini-lessons?
posted by shinyshiny at 1:18 AM on September 21, 2009

I liked the articles on the Study Guides and Strategies website. (straight-A student here ;))
posted by gakiko at 2:00 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also Nthing spaced repetition (in this case, N = 3) Here's the Wikipedia article. This is a great way to memorize things.
posted by delmoi at 2:36 AM on September 21, 2009

To pass my law papers I have found the mnemosyne program mentioned above super helpful - the act of formulating stuff from your notes into question/answer format helps it get into your memory, and if you practice with the program reasonably often you will know everything you've entered into it off by heart in no time. I enter info into the program straight after lectures.

Not all info is best learned like this though - other than this I just write my notes out a few times, or I make mind maps with colored pencils on big a2 pieces of paper which can be as simple or as complicated as you need them to be, and are good for understanding how complex information fits together.
posted by sartre08 at 4:01 AM on September 21, 2009

Along the lines of "teaching it to others" -- one of the best study tricks I stumbled upon was to pretend that I was giving a review session to other people. The rules were that I couldn't refer to my notes for anything other than to get the general topic areas: I had to be able to glance at the topic and be able to then explain it (comprehensibly) to somebody who didn't already know it. I went so far as to go to deserted lecture theatres and use the whiteboards there. (Best is if it was the same place the test was to be held - the actual location then helps prime the answers). As long as you stay honest with it (i.e., don't let yourself get away with explanations you know aree half-assed) this works marvellously: to explain something well you really have to understand it. [If you ever plan on going into teaching or academia, it's also great practice for that, too!]

For math: practice, practice, practice. Knowing the formulae is useful but the tests are all about being able to apply them. Very often you will be given a problem which is very similar to example problems you have already worked out in class. If you know how to solve all of those (and can do so relatively rapidly, which is where the practice comes in) you're golden.
posted by forza at 4:14 AM on September 21, 2009

Lifehacker has a bunch of articles about studying in general and reviews technological aids for taking notes and reviewing them as well. Rewriting notes by hand is better than re-typing them (I've been looking for a study that came out recently on this very thing and I can't find it. Grrrr!) but if that doesn't work out for you, some of these tech solutions may.
posted by Mouse Army at 5:00 AM on September 21, 2009

Things that worked for me:

Read ahead of the class. I typically had all my required course reading done in the first 3 weeks of term so that I could focus on learning. This way you can recognize what the instructor is picking out of the material and emphasizing as important. It will also give you a framework for understanding what the instructor is teaching and give you the ability to ask the important questions about what you don't understand when you don't understand it rather than banging your head against the desk the night before the exam. Keep your textbooks in your backpack (This is specifically meant for English students who don't seem to bother even touching textbooks until the revision period if at all). Take them out and read them when you have an hour to kill.

Study for a bit right before going to sleep. Every night. That way you will think about it while falling asleep and possibly have better long term memory consolidation overnight (if you believe that theory of dreaming) because that episode of Mad Men won't be interfering with your course content

Chunk up what you want to memorize into lists. Then you use expanded rehearsal to memorize the lists. This technique is to study a list then flip it over and write it out from memory right away. Do it again but with 1 minute delay. Gradually increase the delay. Once the delay is long enough study other lists in the delay interval. Keep testing yourself until you have it cold and can recall it with a delay of a couple of days.

Focus hard for about 20 minutes to 45 minutes. Then spend 5-15 minutes day dreaming or looking at the cuties in the library. Rinse and repeat a few times. Don't study for more than a couple of hours a day. Note that this doesn't include reading the text the first time. That's different from studying.

Do not burn yourself out studying. You will need energy, focus and creativity for the exam. If you work to hard at studying you will have no gas left in the tank for the exam.

Take a chocolate bar and a caffeinated sugar cola into the exam. Sugar and caffiene both help performance. Don't take the caffeine if you are the kind of person who freaks out. Eat a good breakfast on the test day.
posted by srboisvert at 5:18 AM on September 21, 2009

A teacher elaborated on the pacing/spacing effect on Hacker News and the comment blew up karma-wise. It's well worth a read as his results are pretty stunning.
posted by wackybrit at 5:27 AM on September 21, 2009

Short answer is how to study depends a lot on how you learn best.

A more complex answer consists of some suggestions based on my own experience (both as a college student and as a college prof):
Go to office hours. Bring specific questions, assignments, exams, etc. Don't show up expecting to monopolize the time or to have the prof / TA review the entire lecture for you, but DO bring things you wish to review or have explained. Walking in with specific questions is greatly appreciated, and spending just a few minutes a week talking to the instructor will both make sure he / she knows who you are and that you have a better idea what parts of the lecture are considered most important.

Do the readings. BEFORE class. Take notes as you go. Try the example problems at the end of the chapter (the ones for which you have answers supplied) even if they aren't assigned. Go to class and take a separate set of notes. This seems idiotically simple but you would be surprised at how much it helps - reading helps you get the facts down, then hearing the lecture helps you get the facts into the correct framework. Your classmates (who haven't done the reading yet) will be scrambling to write down the facts. You will be able to actually pay attention to the lecture itself.

Learn how to take notes. You might be surprised to find out that you don't know how to do it. You need to learn how to quickly write down enough to help you understand the concepts or direct your readings for reviews, but you cannot and should not try to write down everything. (See the last point above - read first, take notes in lecture, then review the readings with your notes in hand.) If you try to write it all down you'll spend too much time being complete and actually miss important things that are said by the instructor. You're trying to make a sketch of the forest, not a portrait of each individual tree. (Caveat: If the prof / TA repeats something and / or writes it down in big letters etc. it is important and you might want to copy that statement word-for-word.)

Form a study group. Take turns teaching the material to your classmates in the group. If you can explain it to someone else, it means you understand it to some degree. There are times when I didn't fully understand a concept until I taught it to others in class, despite having an advanced degree and being the instructor for the course.

Get enough sleep. Again an idiotically simple idea but honestly, you aren't going to remember things if you're tired. I've had a student go from failing to thriving simply because I told the guy to take two days off class and sleep (and to continue sleeping more regularly after that). I expect you aren't at that extreme - but if you are not getting enough sleep (and who does, in college?) you're not doing yourself any favors. If you cant change your sleep schedule at least study in the daytime when you are fully awake, and don't leave it to the evenings or weekends.

Finally remember science is all about frameworks. Having your head full of random facts without understanding how they fit together might help for multiple choice but won't do you any favors when it comes to essays. You need to learn the vocabulary, you need to learn the facts, but you must spend time figuring out how these facts fit together. This is where your instructor can help. Try thinking about things differently - instead of asking how all the facts go together, ask how this overarching theory / concept / etc. is supported by the facts. Think in generalities. The examples used in class are there to help explain the concepts or the supporting evidence, but far too many students study only that specific example and completely fail to see how the general concept can be applied to a new situation.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:39 AM on September 21, 2009

Take notes as you read. Outline a chapter, or write helpful explanations in a notebook or the margin of your book.



these two things got me through college.
posted by chicago2penn at 6:21 AM on September 21, 2009

As a student of Chinese, I'm Nthing spaced repetition. I use Anki. Currently, I have to learn and digest about 2-300 characters a week. It is grueling work, but would be utterly impossible without Anki.
posted by flippant at 6:42 AM on September 21, 2009

There's some really good advice about studying in this thread.
posted by Kimberly at 8:08 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a bit like you. I hate studying. I hardly did it in high school and in college it was really straight forward since almost all my classes were math/science/engineering:

1. Do practice exam
2. Review problems that were toughies from the homeworks
3. Write cheat sheet based on homeworks and notes

Many times I only did #3, if the class allowed for it. If it was an open book, exam, I would only do #2 or nothing (bad habit from grad school).
posted by chiefthe at 9:17 AM on September 21, 2009

I learned best by listening in college so here's how I usually handled things:

read before class so you know what the professor is talking about - having the context of the chapter in mind helps you place the professors lecture in a defined relative space in your memory.

Listen to the lecture and take minimal notes - my notes used to be in lists of single words or short phrases that I felt were key words in the lecture

As soon as you can after class (such as during a break between classes or while eating) elaborate and write about the keywords you jotted down during class

Always take notes by hand with pen and paper - something about the motion and focus of it all cements things in my memory. Also, it allows you to draw pictures, charts, arrows pointing to related concepts, etc. as you wish. I used to actually just buy a ream of plain unlined paper and use that for notes. They looked messy with arrows and lists all over, but teh important thing was I understodd them and they helped me. (Substitute "you" for "me".)

keep 9-5 hours for school if you can. leave schoolwork alone outside of these hours. It takes some discipline to get yourself in this schedule, but once in it you will realize how much free time you now seem to have since you aren't spending half the day worrying and procrastinating.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:08 AM on September 21, 2009

+1 Mnemosyne . It uses a modified version of the Supermemo algorithm (which itself can be thought of as a modified version of the Leitner Box system.

The idea is, if you put in everything you need to know in a question/answer format & study it every day, the program will determine how often you need to be asked each question. More frequently for questions whose answers you're not sure about - less frequently for questions whose answers you are sure about.

Step 1. As soon as you can after class transcribe your notes into a flash card program. At home, on your laptop, whatever, do it as soon as you can. Chunk it down into tiny chunks so you're testing yourself on one concept at a time.

Step 2. After you transcribe the notes, transcribe the reading in the textbook. If your teacher assigns the readings before class, then it doesn't have to be right after you transcribe your notes.

This is tedious work & you can split it with someone else who's taking the class if you want - they do the textbook, you do the notes, or v.v.

Step 3. Review the flash cards every day. Religiously. Every day. Did I say every day?

Step 4. Make sure you have current backups of your files!

Step 5. Relax - you've put in a lot of work & you're doing a lot to learn the material. Take a few practice tests (even put them into a flash card file if you like).

You may think that this isn't good for conceptual stuff like Biology or Math, but you'd be wrong. You may have to figure out more complex ways of asking the right questions to test yourself on the material, but there's a lot to be said for rote memorization, even when it comes to understanding things. You're shoving new information into your brain & whether it's conceptual or fact based, the best way to make it stick is through repetition.

It may seem like learning about cars by memorizing the location of each bolt rather than getting the general idea that there's an engine & an axle, but trust me, this works even on complex material. I "grok" the whole so much better when I've thoroughly familiarized myself with each of the parts.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:41 PM on September 21, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I think I'm going to try using Anki for a while and see how that works. To the suggestions that I should be taking notes with pen and paper- that's what I used to do, and it didn't work AT ALL. I spent more time trying to write down what was being said or looking at my paper than really grasping the concept...I can type my notes, not have to look down all the time, and concentrate on what's actually being said. It's the same reason rewriting notes doesn't help- I concentrate on the act of rewriting, not what I'm actually writing. I'm going to check out some of the links too and see if they help.
posted by kro at 6:57 PM on September 21, 2009

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