If you’re a student attending classes, you have probably experienced many moments when it was hard to make yourself settle down and study, even when an important exam was coming up.
If you’re like most students, you put off studying until the very last minute. The night before the exam, you’ll stay up all night cramming, getting little or no sleep. In the morning, you’ll drag yourself out of bed, psych yourself up with lots of coffee and some cigarettes, and go into the exam feeling exhausted, drained and jittery all at the same time. You’ll find it hard to focus or think, and you’ll be cursing yourself for not starting to study sooner.
And not surprisingly, unless you’re blessed with natural brilliance, or you happen to know the subject matter extremely well, you’ll probably do terribly on the test.
If this is your typical method of studying, you already know it doesn’t work. Every time you go through this ritual, you tell yourself that you’re going to smarten up the next time you face a big exam. Next time you’ll start to study weeks in advance, you say. But instead, you keep repeating this crazy pattern. Why does this keep happening? And what should you be doing instead if you want to get better marks?
A big problem for most people, especially those who are young students, is that life gets in the way. If you’re a student, you probably have a part time job, and like most young people, you also want to have a social life.
Studying can seem very boring compared to all the exciting temptations just outside your door. Or the games on your computer. Even watching old reruns of Sesame Street can seem more interesting than the biology text your teacher is expecting you to master!
One reason we often don’t start studying until the last possible minute is that we have misjudged how long it will actually take us to absorb and understand the material. If your mid-term is still six weeks away, that might seem like plenty of time left before you need to get around to studying. You might find however, that the subject matter is a lot harder to understand than you thought it would be, and all of a sudden there’s no time left to ask someone to explain it to you.
Another reason we often put off starting to study is that we are too overwhelmed with how big the project actually seems to be. Somehow we convince ourselves that putting off a tough study project can be the best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed by it.
When we are faced with a study project that seems exceptionally difficult and overwhelming, it can be to maintain a high level of interest and motivation for the duration of the learning process.
If you have been guilty of all these bad study habits, it’s not too late to learn some other habits that will work better for you.
First, remind yourself why you want to do better in your studies. Maybe you need a good mark to get into a good college. Maybe you want a chance at a career that will pay you well. Always keep your end goal in mind.
You can put little cards up around your room with inspirational messages, and attractive photographs that will remind you why you want to do well in school.
If you feel very overwhelmed, you can improve your motivation and your performance by breaking up the project into smaller sections, or “chunks”. Each time you accomplish one little bit successfully, give yourself a meaningful reward.
If you have a deadline looming, decide how much of the project you need to tackle at one time.
Let’s say you have six weeks to master the content of a difficult biology text. Looking through the book you realize that if you study one chapter each night, you can get through the book in 28 days, leaving two weeks in which you can again review the material.
With this knowledge you can pace yourself. You know what your assignment is. You know how much you need to read every night. Concentrate on the immediate task at hand. You don’t need to feel overwhelmed by the entire book at one time. Next, work out a system of rewards for yourself. Give yourself a series of small rewards each time you master one chapter, and a larger reward for completing the entire book.
For rewards to work they must be immediate, and personally meaningful to you. There is no point in rewarding yourself with a new fishing rod if you hate fishing.
Rewards don’t need to be material objects if there is something else that would really motivate and inspire you. How about attending a special concert, or taking a special trip? You decide. Get creative and think of something that will spur you to take action.
It’s very important that the reward take place soon after the work has been accomplished. This creates a sense of positive reinforcement. Give yourself a small reward every time you finish a small part of the job, and a bigger reward when the project is completed. If there is too long a gap between the activity and the reward, it will not have the effect of reinforcing the desired activity.
Besides motivating yourself with a series of external rewards, learn to motivate yourself internally. Tell yourself you’re a good learner. Tell yourself you enjoy learning. Tell yourself you enjoy giving your brain a good work out. Congratulate yourself for your efforts. Tell yourself you love acquiring new knowledge, and let yourself feel a joy in learning. Be proud of yourself for the work you do to gain more knowledge.
For information to sink into your brain and be accessible to you, you need to review it several times, and your brain needs to sleep properly for the memories to be encoded in your neurons. You need to reduce your mental stress. Your brain needs good nutrition and it needs to be in a peaceful, confident state. Drugs and alcohol don’t help the process of learning.
Write out what you are learning in your own words, and find a learning buddy. Practice explaining to someone else what you have learned. This will increase the likelihood that your brain will remember it.
If you start to cram the night before, you are putting your brain at a big disadvantage.
You’re increasing your physical and mental stress, and you’re not giving yourself time to review the material several times. By cutting back on your sleep, you’re not giving your brain a chance to put the information you’ve been studying into the hard drive storage of your brain.
By starting your studies early, and reviewing what you’ve learned, you have a much better chance of remembering and understanding what you need to know when you face a big exam.