Finding the middle ground between monomania and apathy in studying
August 21, 2015 12:55 PM   Subscribe

When studying, how do you find a balance between obsessively picking through every little detail to the point of burnout and falling back on a definition of "good enough" that really isn't good enough? I would especially be interested in suggestions for a context where there is a lot of reading thrown at you with little structure, like graduate or medical school. Any suggestions on how to structure such material without wasting time or burning out?
posted by Seeking Direction to Education (6 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Tim Burke, one of the excellent history profs at Swarthmore college, who is in a department famous for 15 page reading lists, wrote a blog post called "How to read in college." I found the recommendations invaluable for surviving seminar classes where there could easily be 1000 pages of reading assigned in a week.
posted by rockindata at 1:12 PM on August 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

I highly recommend the book "How to Become a Straight A Student" by Cal Newport. It goes over note-taking and study habits based on the type of of class, and what type of homework/tests are involved.
posted by LilithSilver at 1:47 PM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

It sounds like from your question that you want to make learning a more active experience, or at least that's my impression. Remembering material essentially means that you have to make it meaningful for you - it has to be important enough to remember. Memories are most internalized with a personal or an emotional connection to the material. To make it meaningful, you have to reinforce the material outside the context of simply reading it. Can you join a study group, or make one? The content of the material - what importance does it hold for you? What importance does it hold for others? Talking about the material helps reinforce it verbally, whereas if you're just reading it, you're not really internalizing the knowledge in a concrete way that you can actively recall later. Reading is important, but it's passive in a sense. Communicating with other people about the content brings up things that you wouldn't have thought of yourself, and increases the likelihood of retaining the information because it's in the context of a social, shared experience.

Are deadlines a motivator? Take a chunk of reading that you have to do, and give yourself a deadline. Turn the headings into questions, and use Quizlet or plain old cards, ask yourself the questions to see how well you know the material.

Are you a good writer? If so you can use this to your advantage by writing a few pages worth of a summary of what you've read. If time permits, that is. I found that I learned the most in college when I had a short deadline for reading lots of material combined with a "5-page per week" rule for writing. No excuses - 5 pages per week, and if I tossed 1/3 of it the following week, fine, but I needed to complete 5 pages. I completed a 100-page thesis in this way, over the course of 3 or 4 months. And I passed my defense, so I guess it worked for me!

It sounds counter-intuitive, but take breaks. The more you bury yourself in the details without a break, the more you'll burn out. Even a five minute break every hour or so can make the difference. Have a stretch, feed the dog, get up and move. Change study locations. Read outside, read in the coffee shop, read on the couch, read at your desk. Try to associate the material with a time and a place, and that will help you remember it. Be mindful.

Have you heard of Barbara Oakley? She wrote a book on learning how to learn, which may or may not be useful for you because it's math and science related. There are lots of reviews, though - and IIRC, reviewers said that the book was applicable to learning in general. There also is a class on Coursera (free) on the subject.

Good luck! Post back if you can, what works for you. I'll be following this thread, thanks for the Ask : )
posted by onecircleaday at 2:03 PM on August 21, 2015

Seconding Cal Newport; it's also worth looking at his blog - scroll to the bottom of that page and you'll see some of his student-oriented stuff, which used to be his primary focus.

I once had an amazing professor who really broke down the syllabus for us, and was clear about the relative importance of different readings. In part this was because it was a survey of political thought, where it was really important to understand the relationships between different thinkers and arguments. He was explicit about what order we should read things in and even, to a large extent, what to focus on. I've found that approach helpful in a wide range of courses. Take your syllabus and figure out why you're being asked to read all of this stuff. If you can identify a few core texts, start there (often these will come chronologically at the beginning or end, as either a primary text or a recent rethinking of a subject). Use secondary material to sort out the connections between different texts. Book reviews, more general books, and wikipedia are all good resources there. Treat texts as in conversation with one another, and then enter that conversation. Read actively, taking notes, focusing on important parts. Keep the overall arguments of the text in mind to keep yourself from getting bogged down in details. (While this is a bit humanities oriented, you can still frame medical texts as patterns and recognize where the details fall in terms of the whole.) Even if you're not writing a paper, act as though you are; pull out big themes and ideas and (temporarily) take a stance in relation to them.
posted by earth by april at 2:03 PM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Med student here! My skills in this arena are a work in progress at best but I have learned a few things. I would consider these specific to medical/scientific studying (much like rockindata's post is very humanities oriented).

1. If you take the time to read every single resource that has been provided, you will almost always discover that they are redundant many times over. In my current course, I've been given an 800 page PDF of prose written by the instructor, Powerpoint slides, prose notes on the slides, lectures (during which the slides are presented), and several textbooks. There is no way I could review all of these resources and get anything else done. Luckily, this is a feature, not a bug -- I am in no way an auditory learner, so I skip lectures and read the Powerpoint slides and prose notes thereof (which, having attended a few lectures, are a very close rehash of the lecture itself). Conversely, a dedicated auditory learner could probably get all the information they need from attending the lecture and skimming the notes.

2. Delve when you need to. If mitosis makes perfect sense to you, don't waste your time doing the supplemental readings on it. If mitosis is a completely opaque box of WTF, do the readings (or watch the videos or attend lectures or utilize whatever supplemental resources are available).

3. Learn concepts first. If you start the learning process by making flashcards and memorizing the steps of glycolysis, you can certainly memorize them, but it will be a brute force, unpleasant and burdensome process. If you start by understanding concepts -- what's happening and why and what can go wrong -- by the time you reach the memorizing details phase, you will already know a lot of them.

4. Tailor your level of detail to the task. In a perfect world we would all have enough time and energy to learn everything inside and out. In the real world, I need to learn basic science so I can be a better clinician and my medical school has defined the level of knowledge of basic science that they think is appropriate as a passing grade on the final exam. It doesn't feel good or scholarly to say "Do we need to know this for the test?" but calibrating to that level is the only way to keep your head above water sometimes. Look at past exams, practice questions, problem sets, etc and talk to your fellow students, TAs, professors etc about expectations.

5. Commit to taking multiple passes through the material as time allows (this requires doing your work on schedule/not cramming but you should be doing that anyway). You don't need to get bogged down in details on your first pass because you will be coming back this way again. Concepts first, details later.
posted by telegraph at 2:12 PM on August 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

There's a big difference between reading humanities/arts literature and reading/learning science information formed all school. Ilł try to find it, but there was an article I think on the Cornell website that discusses studying for biological sciences.

My classmates and I often do active reading/studying using different colored pens when reading and note taking. It's a lot of work.
posted by discopolo at 2:16 PM on August 21, 2015

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