This tutorial on study skills can be looked at as a quick start guide or an overview of the whole study process. You can do many things that will improve your study sessions and ultimately lead to better exam results.
Most students have one or two study “methods” that they use all the time. This is fine, but there is a lot more to it than either reading or note-taking or highlighting text. You have to be aware of what you are doing and how much you are actually learning.
In this tutorial, I have pointed out the study concepts that I would use when studying that you may not even be aware of. These methods will give you something to think about, some new ideas that you can add to your own routine and improve what you currently do.
My whole philosophy is based upon looking at exam questions, how an exam is structured and working out the best way to study for that exam.
The aim is to study as effectively as possible with the minimal effort needed to achieve it. It doesn’t have to be too painful!
The two things you need to be aware of are the quantity and quality of your study. The quantity part should be easy and simply comes down to motivation. If you are not doing enough, then I can’t really help you.
The quality part is the difficult part, and that is where most people need help. All these tutorials will improve the quality of your study.
Break It Down
A great tip for studying is to break things down into small sections. I put this “tip” first as it carries on right throughout the whole study skills section and into the exam technique.
For me, this is possibly the best tip you can get with any of this stuff. You can use it to structure revision sessions, break up questions into smaller, more manageable sections or as a general method to structure anything.
As soon as I get any problem, the first thing I do is to look at how I can break it down. Whether it’s a short three mark question or a full essay, you can always break it down and make it structured.
A major problem students have making a start with revision or studying as they probably want to be doing something else. On top of this, you will have several subjects, many topics within each of those, lots of course work to do, busy lives etc. The end result is that it can be very overwhelming, and you end up doing nothing or wait until it is too late.
If you have a project or a subject that has many parts to it, you can’t possibly do them all at once, even though they may carry equal importance. That’s just the way it is.
You need to devote your attention to one part at a time and FORGET about the rest of it. This undoubtedly carries over into other areas of people’s lives. I’m sure you know someone who has 101 things to do, and they end up watching tv all night? This is the overwhelming effect in action.
So the first thing to do is break it down into sections, as many as you like, it doesn’t matter; in fact, the more, the better. This takes some of the weight of your mind and, most importantly, allows you to actually do something. You then can simply focus upon one small part at a time, giving it your full focus. But you must not start to think forward to the other sections. Block them out and be single-minded.
It is better to spend a long time doing one small part very well than a diluted half-hearted effort at many sections.
By breaking things down, this is really the first step in giving your study some structure and organisation. Another word associated with structure is “prioritise’. It may seem boring or irrelevant to your specific subject, but this is massive. If you are not structured and organised, then you are in trouble.
Make a Start
Having talked about overwhelm, a great little tip is to simply make a commitment to begin. Don’t worry about what you’re going to do, any specific problems or topics; your sole focus should be just to start.
Making a start is by far the hardest part. Starting might seem like the most basic thing we could talk about but making the mental effort just to open a book is a huge problem for a lot of people. If you can make starting a habit, then you will find that studying isn’t a big deal, and neither is revision.
It’s often the thought of studying, and the implied pain that it brings that is the real problem. Have you ever found that you worried about something for days then when you were doing it or after you finished, you thought, what on earth was I worried about?
Studying is the same. The actual doing it part is nowhere near as bad as the thinking about it part. The problem is that the thinking part can paralyse you mentally, and you end up inventing 100 reasons why not to start.
Tip: someone gave me a tip that before you go to bed, write down or think of what you are going to do the next day. If you have lots of things to do, then pick only one or two of them and no more. Write them down. This goes back to prioritising and breaking things down. It should enable you to do something instead of nothing. It’s just one or two simple tasks.
If you are still struggling, tell yourself that you will start the task at say 10 am, and you will work at it for 5 minutes, then stop. No more than 5 minutes. That’s easy, isn’t it?
The beauty of this is that once you begin, you tend to keep on going. It will get you started, and the more you start things, the easier it becomes the next time.
Assuming that you have started studying or revising, another big problem is boredom. I used to hate revising, so I know what it feels like. It might be sunny outside, and you don’t want to be indoors, you might not even like the subject very much, or you might have other things you’d rather be doing. This leads to a mental conflict between what you want to do and what you know you should be doing, so you become very restless and agitated.
Boredom will affect the QUALITY of study that you do. It’s not just about studying for hour upon hour but how you can use this time effectively: quantity and quality.
Even the most motivated people get bored, and their revision suffers. But they will often fight through the boredom through sheer will power, still putting in the hours, but the quality of their studying won’t be as good as it could be.
The best way to tackle this is not to fight it but to prevent it as much as possible. This means adding VARIETY to your study. There has to be variety in everything that you do, from what you study, where you study and how you study.
The boredom problem is strongly associated with “plateaus”. A plateau just means that your mind becomes used to what you are doing, and the technique you are using stops being as effective. You could be doing amazing things for a week or two, feel like you are learning a lot, but at some point if you keep doing the same things over and over, you will hit a plateau.
In this situation, you need to change something. And this is achieved by keeping your study varied. This scenario often applies to people who are trying very hard and are still not getting the grades they want. They just keep doing the same thing over and over for 7 hours a day! They could probably get by with doing 3 hours instead or give themselves a break.
A plateau can also be looked at as a comfort zone, and once you are in it, it is difficult to get out of. So, be aware of what you are doing and how long you have been doing it for. Do you have more than one study method that you constantly use? Do you mix it up? If not, then you have to change something and give your brain something new to process…you need to challenge yourself and test yourself…it’s a constantly EVOLVING process.
Tip: if it feels difficult or hard work at first when you change something, then that is actually a good sign as your brain is telling you that it is not used to it. It is likely to be helping! So stick with it and don’t give up just because it feels uncomfortable.
Along with variety, you also need to be constantly challenging and testing yourself. It should be an obvious thing to do, but not many people do it. You MUST know if what you are doing is working and if you are learning as much as you think you are.
Students often overestimate how much they know. They think that they know something well as they have been immersed in a book for an hour or so. However, if someone asks them a really simple question, they often can’t answer it.
So you need to do this for yourself. You need to be asking yourself lots and lots of simple questions…..constantly. Not at the end of a section or topic. But all the time.
Another way to look at challenges is to make things difficult on purpose. If it feels hard work or painful or difficult, then it is stretching you, and your knowledge is growing in some way.
If you feel comfortable, then it is probably not working
Some students, unfortunately, shy away from testing themselves as they feel that it is going to harm their confidence. Don’t do this. You need to know where you are. And you need to know as soon as possible. If you can’t answer a simple question, then go over the notes again until you can do it.
One of the key things when studying is to look for the important concepts and to understand them. This is what exams primarily test you on. The core or basic concepts are the most important things that there is. There are of course, lots of little details too but you need to nail the main concepts as they will count for a high percentage of the exam.
The aim is to take a concept, learn how it works inside out and then apply it to as many different examples as you can. The amount you have to “remember” is therefore minimal. Some people do it the other way round where they try to find every example ever written. The problem is that the questions change every year, and even if it is only a bit, students then can’t do it as they don’t know how the main concepts “work”.
So aim to understand first and foremost. It might seem like it takes a while to learn one little part, but in the long run, it will save you lots of time and marks.
Being able to spot patterns will enable you to cut down on memory work too. There are patterns everywhere. You need to study with this in mind. Always be on the lookout for similarities and differences.
Always be asking why did they use that here but not there? Where else can they use it? You are constantly building links, and these links are how you make exam questions a lot easier. But you need to be looking for them. When you then start past papers, the links and what they are asking you will be more obvious and automatic than for someone who hasn’t studied with this in mind.
If there is a lot of information on a topic, it is likely that there are general themes in there somewhere. If you can identify these, kind of like finding a general formula, then you can apply it to them all and not have to worry about remembering so much.
Adopt a scientific, logical approach to this. For example, English essays, all you need to do is see an example of a good essay and analyse it, tear it to pieces, what have they done, what sections, what words/phrases, and you have a ready-made template. Then use the same structure for yours.
Even use past papers with the aim to identify what core concepts they are asking you on. There will be patterns there too, and it should become very repetitive.
Study Sills – The End Result
The point of this is for you to pass the exam or to get whatever grade you desire.
Everything you do has to be with this in mind. Everything I tell you is with this in mind. It may sound ruthless, and it is. I am not here to waste your time. I am giving you the essentials and providing you with a structure to perform to your potential. Everything is geared towards the exam.
This can result in you seemingly being over-prepared, which is the way it has to be. You will approach the exam with conviction and a quiet confidence. You will be able to use these study skills over and over in life, from job interviews to sports to driving tests to everyday office life. Unfortunately, these exam/study skills are not taught in schools, they have to be learned, and many people never get the full picture.
About the Author
Kevin Boyle is a full-time A-level Chemistry Tutor with 15 years experience and a proven track record with students of all abilities. As an online chemistry tutor, he works with students across the UK, equipping them with the skills they need to excel in their exams.