With the exam season approaching, here's some great advice on how to get the most out of your study time, in this repost of Andrew Fuller's popular article.
Getting better marks has a lot to do with how you approach studying. Having a goal is useful; having a system to increase your marks is essential.
The most powerful ways to increase your marks don’t involve you working harder, but they do involve you working smarter.
Study in Silence
This is the single most powerful way to increase your marks. Spend at least 20 minutes of your study time in silence. No texting, music or computer screens. Outcomes improve when you practice in the same conditions you want to perform in. There won’t be music, mobile phones or computer screens in the exam room.
Organise and Transform the Information You Want to Learn
Just reading your notes over and over again doesn’t really work. Your memory stores information best when you organise or transform it. This means organising your notes so that the main idea is highlighted on each page.
Then take your notes and turn them into a flowchart or a mind map, or see if you can fit them to a song you know well or make it into a sound recording. The more times you can transform and re-organise the information, the more firmly it is remembered.
Put Off Pleasurable Activities Until Work is Done
This is a painful one but if you play computer games before you get down to studying, the levels of dopamine in your brain lessen and you will lose the drive and motivation you need to study effectively. Work first, play later.
Talk Yourself through the Steps Involved
One of the things that highly successful students do is to explain out loud to themselves the steps involved in completing a task. This applies to every subject area. By saying out loud, ‘First I have to do… Then I have to do…’ and so on, any part that you are uncertain about becomes clear and you can then use this to guide where you need to do more.
Ask for Help
Teachers want their students to be interested and to do well. You will be amazed if you ask a question how many other people don’t understand it either. If you are really scared about asking questions in class, have a private talk to your teacher about this.
Just writing down the ideas that you have makes a powerful contribution to your marks. Don’t just write down what the teacher writes. Make notes of any ideas you have as well. Never rely only on the worksheets given out by teachers or your own capacity to remember information later.
Write and Re-write Key Points
Writing down the main points of the area you are learning helps you to remember them. If you can add in re-organising and transforming them into different formats (drawings, flowcharts, podcasts etc.), that makes it even more powerful.
Make Lists and Set Priorities
Make a to-do list each week. Write down in your diary the most important things to be done in each subject each week.
High scoring students do a little bit of work on each subject, rather than doing a lot of work on one subject every so often.
If you are doing subjects that involve presenting a folio or preparing a presentation, it is still important to do work on the other subject areas.
Prepare for Class
Become knowledgeable about the area you are learning about by doing your own research. If you can learn about the area before you start not only will you have an advantage, it will also make more sense to you as you begin classes on it. Take notes on your own research.
If you can, read over your notes before class to re-fresh your memory.
Keep a Record of How Much Study you Have Done
It increases motivation when we can tick things off lists and when we can see how much we have done.
Use Memory Aids
These are tools that help you to remember information. For example, ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit’ help people remember that EGBDF are the lines of the music staff. The rhyme, ‘30 days have September, April, June and November’ helps us to remember the calendar.
School requires more memory skills than any job you can think of. The best way to remember something is to transform it. If it’s visual, put it into words, if it’s verbal, create a picture or graph of it. Use lists, acronyms, tables, graphics, and link new information to things you already know.
Long-term filing [of information] works best if you go right to sleep – the minutes before bedtime are crucial.
Your memory and understanding is strengthened when you create tests for yourself. Give yourself a test each week for the rest of the year so you can focus more time on learning the parts you don’t fully understand or recall.
Set Study Times
Decide when you are most alert and to set aside some time at that time of day to study. If you wait until you are in the right mood before beginning to study, you may wait forever.
Memories seem to be strengthened when you do some exercise about four hours after a study session. Exercise also lowers your stress levels.
Your End of Year Marks are Not Your Future
While we all want to do well at school, your end-of-year marks are not a measure of how intelligent, creative or wonderful you are. Your marks don’t tell us how well you will do in a career or in life. Do as well as you can but don’t ever think that if you don’t do well, you can’t be a success.
Lower your Stress Levels
The biggest barrier to getting good marks is not your brain; it is your stress levels. If you are someone who stresses about tests or exams, read my previous post How to Prepare for Test and Exams.
Andrew Fuller is a clinical psychologist specialising in the wellbeing of young people and their families. His most recent book is Unlocking Your Child’s Genius (Finch Publishing, 2015). Copyright Andrew Fuller.
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