Good Studying

Ten Rules of Good Studying

  1. Quiz yourself.  On everything.  All the time.  Quiz yourself on definitions.  Quiz yourself on the steps you took to solve a problem.  Quiz yourself on the notes you’ve just copied on the board.  It’s not enough to see someone else’s solution and it’s not enough to re-read the same notes over and over again.
  2. Group what you learn into “chunks” to make it easier to remember.  This is the single most important skill you can learn in math and science.  Here’s a real world example of chunking: let’s say you are asked to remember someone’s phone number, like 2127660190.  Memorizing these 10 random numbers seems difficult at first.  But even without realizing it, you might naturally group these numbers into three different “chunks”: (212) 766-0190.  So now instead of memorizing 10 random numbers, you only need to memorize three groups of numbers.  What also helps is that you might know 212 is the area code for Manhattan, the second chunk contains two 6’s, and the zero in the third chunk appears at the beginning and end.  By practicing these chunks, you’ll soon be able to recall the phone number in a flash.
  3. Spread out your learning a little every day.  Just like an athlete.  Research shows that students who study a little bit every day outperform students who cram before their tests.
  4. Practice different types problems during a study session.  Never practice too long on any one type of problem.  Mix it up and work on different types of problems.  This teaches you both how to use a technique but more importantly when to use that technique.  Every time you finish a problem, ask yourself, “How would I know how to do the problem this way if I saw it on a test mixed together with other problems and I didn’t know it was from this section of the text?”
  5. Practice problems that are just above your regular abilities.  The key to getting better at problem solving is to work on problems that are slightly harder than what you can do normally.  If it’s too easy, you won’t grow and you’ll think you’re better than you are.  If it’s too hard, you won’t grow and you’ll get frustrated, increasing the likelihood that you’ll quit.
  6. Come up with your own examples.  Examples are the key to understanding.  To see if you really understand a concept, create an example that the teacher did not already create.  This could cause you to come up with a bunch of questions you didn’t think of before (which you should write down and get answers to from your classmates or teacher!)  In addition, create an example that does not satisfy the concept.  Knowing when something doesn’t work is as much a sign of understanding as knowing when something does work.
  7. Take a break.  It is common to be unable to solve problems or figure out concepts the first time.  This is why a little study every day is much better than a lot of studying at once.  When you get frustrated, take a break so that your mind can work in the background while you’re doing something else (like studying another subject or exercising).
  8. Use visuals and metaphors.  Research shows that we best remember what we’ve learned when we use visuals and metaphors.  When you learn a new concept or skill, try to create a diagram or picture that conveys the main ideas.  It helps significantly if you can also relate what you’ve learned to something you already know.  This is called a metaphor.  One of my favorite quotes from a movie involves a main character who didn’t have time to study for his exam the next day because of a series of misadventures:
    1. Rubin: “What class is that again?”
    2. Josh: “Ancient philosophy.”
    3. Rubin: “Well I can teach you ancient philosophy in 46 hours.”
    4. Josh: “Really?”
    5. Rubin: “Yeah, I can teach Japanese to a monkey in 46 hours. The key is just finishing a way to relate it to the material.”
  9. Focus.  Turn off all your interruptions on your phone and computer and then turn on a timer for 20 minutes.  Focus intently for those 20 minutes and work as diligently as you can.  After the timer goes off, take a small (few minute) break and then do it again.  A few of these sessions a day can really move your studies forward.
  10. Sleep.  Sleep washes toxins in your brain and keeps your brain healthy. When you get too little sleep, the buildup of these toxic products is believed to explain why you can’t think very clearly when you’re tired.  Research shows that reading for one hour with a well-rested brain is better than reading for three hours with a tired brain.

Five Rules of Bad Studying

  1. Merely glancing at a problem’s solution and thinking you know how to do it.  It’s not enough to see someone work through a problem, even if you think you understood everything you saw.  If you just look at the solution and then tell yourself, “Oh yeah, I see why they did that,” then the solution is not really yours.  You’ve done almost nothing to create the right connections in your brain for real learning to occur.  You need to be able to solve a problem step-by-step, without looking at the solution.
  2. Waiting until the last minute to study.  Would you cram at the last minute if you were practicing for a track meet?  Your brain is like a muscle–it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time.
  3. Letting study sessions with friends turn into chat sessions.  Checking your problem solving with friends and quizzing one another can expose flaws in your thinking and deepen your learning.  But if your joint study sessions turn to fun before the work is done, you’re wasting your time and should find another study group.
  4. Thinking you can learn deeply when you’re being constantly distracted.  Every tiny pull toward an instant message or conversation means you have less brain power to devote to learning.  Constantly shifting your attention means that new ideas and concepts have no chance to actually take root and flourish.  Research shows that students who allow themselves to multitask while studying or sitting in class have been found to receive consistently lower grades.
  5. Procrastinating.  You’ve heard this word many times before.  Procrastinating does not make you a bad person and it does not make you lazy.  Research has shown that people who don’t like math avoid it because even thinking about it causes pain.  But here’s something important: it was the anticipation of doing math that was painful.  When these same people actually did the math, their pain disappeared.  The dread of doing a task used up more time and energy than doing the task itself.  So instead of focusing on the work itself, focus on the time and quality you spend doing the work.  Do not think to yourself, “There are 10 more problems to go, I’ll never finish this!”  Instead, think “I’ll spend 30 minutes today working diligently and 30 minutes tomorrow doing the same, and it’s okay if everything is not quite perfect as long as I was strict on myself and strived for perfection during that time.”
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