By John Nisbet, Professor of Education, University of Aberdeen
At university, you take over responsibility for your own study. In school, assignments of work were short‑term ‑ for a week ahead at most ‑ and in this way teachers paced you through your courses, helping you to distribute your time appropriately. In university, most assignments are long‑term: there is a certain amount of work to be done in a year or in a term, and it is largely up to you to make sure that you cover it.
University terms are shorter than school terms, and you will discover that there is a lot of work to be done in a rather short time. So any inefficiencies in your techniques of studying will soon begin to tell. It is not enough just to put in regular hours of study: you must make sure that these hours are not wasted and that you use your time to the best advantage.
Organising your study
- Do you start promptly? Avoid the trap of wasting time at the start by doing trivial jobs. Examine sceptically any "reasons" you invent for postponing the difficult part of an evening's work. If you follow a fairly regular routine for study, it is usually easier to get through the work (see 12 for example). Routine fits some temperaments more than others. But it is unwise to work only when you feel inclined, and you should set aside some regular times for study. For it is important to learn to be able to work effectively even when you do not feel in the mood for it. Don't neglect aspects which you find tedious or difficult. Making a start is often the step which requires the greatest effort.
- How much of your study time is genuinely productive? Ask yourself whether you are really learning or thinking ‑ or are you merely frittering away your time? You waste time if you merely write out lists to be learned on some later occasion, or if you copy out notes (or, worse, type them) without thinking about what you write. Beware of satisfying your conscience by doing undemanding tasks which save you the effort of thinking.
- Review your work (for a day, week or term) to ensure that you allot an appropriate amount of time to each of your subjects and to each part of each subject. Give important or difficult tasks priority: arrange your study so that the work which needs careful thought or special attention is done while you are fresh. Identify the fixed commitments where there is a time limit. Assess the amount of work and the timing of it. Divide and plan the work ‑ and allow time for recreation.
- Can you recognise the appropriate time to stop for a break? Studying when you are tired may be uneconomical: five minutes' rest may get you through the next hour's work in three‑quarters of the time. Or is your weakness the opposite ‑ you stop too readily? Rests relieve fatigue, not boredom. A tedious task may be even more tedious after a break.
Learning, understanding and remembering
- Understanding is the key to learning and remembering. If you understand a principle, it is easy to remember it. If you do not understand a topic, look it up in a textbook (use the index), or discuss it with another member of the class. Don't be afraid to approach your tutor or lecturer on any points which do not seem clear. Periodic revision of previous work often helps in understanding. Don't assume that, just because you have read a book or have looked over your notes on a piece of work, this aspect is "done" and finished with.
- Be sure you use the correct strategy in your study. Sometimes study is ineffective because students misunderstand what is required. In every subject there are facts or techniques or skills or knowledge which you have to master: other parts of the subject require you to review and interpret evidence or take a point of view and justify it. These two different tasks can be described as 'surface‑level' and 'deep‑level' processing. Surface‑level processing is mastery of detail: in deep‑level processing you try to get through to fundamental principles. Both are necessary, and it is important to know which strategy is the appropriate one.
- Learn principles by thinking out examples and relating the examples to the theory. When a lecturer says he is going to outline three theories, some students interpret this as meaning that they have to guess (or reason out) which is the 'correct' one. This is an immature level of thinking, but it is just as false to think that all interpretations are relative and it is merely a matter of opinion. The mature thinker is able to link the interpretation with the evidence, and to appreciate that it is appropriate to use different interpretations in different contexts.
- Learn details by fitting them into some principle or logical system. Material which is organised in some structure is much easier to recall. In memorising details, do you put the book aside from time to time to test yourself? This helps you to identify the points which are hardest to recall. Give these points special attention: mnemonics may help. Just reading the details over and over again is wasteful of time and effort.
- Leave plenty of space when you take notes, so that afterwards you can add your own annotations and summaries. Use space intelligently, so as to bring out the relative importance of the various items and their logical structure. Notes should not be written like paragraphs in a book. Write lists vertically, not horizontal along the line. Use underlining and capitals (especially to ensure the correct spelling of names and technical terms).
- Do not try to write down everything that is said in a lecture. Distinguish key points from detail. Some of the detail may be readily available in a text‑book, and some detail may be quoted only for illustration. Apply your intelligence to the selection of points to note. Taking notes involves following the lecturer's thought and argument, and summarising points so that you can recall and revise the material. Think about what is being said and identify the overall structure of the lecture, starting a new section in your notes for each new point. Note‑taking is not a substitute for thinking.
- In taking lecture notes on complex aspects of a subject, do you find that you are missing important points while you are busy writing down unimportant details? If so, you are probably trying to write too much. Concentrate on the main points, summarising them as briefly as possible. Leave large spaces. (If you think you have missed a point, leave a gap and fill it in later). Go over your notes as soon as possible afterwards and fill in details or examples (with reference to textbooks) to amplify the general points.
- Do you read over all your lecture notes fairly soon after each lecture, marking important points and making summaries? Even if you spend only a few minutes on this, it will help your memory and improve your understanding. This is a good way to get started promptly in an evening's work. "Writing up your notes" means working over them in this way, thinking about them, checking points, annotating and tidying them ‑ not just copying them out neatly. But do not rely on lecture notes: you must also read for yourself and make notes on your reading.
- Before starting to read a book or a chapter, do you glance quickly through it? This gives you a general idea of the subject matter and will lend direction to your study.
- Make short notes and summaries while you read. This does not mean copying out passages from the text, but rather jotting down the main ideas and principles. In reading, stop periodically and review in your mind the main points in what you have read so far. When you have read the chapter through, look back over the text with reference to your notes for quick revision. Read with a pencil in your hand if you want to remember what you read.
- Can you adjust your speed of reading to suit the level of difficulty? You should be able to read rapidly but you should also recognise the rough, uphill, twisting section when you must change into low gear. When you come to a difficult or important part in a book, tackle it systematically. Do not just read it over several times in the hope that somehow it will come clear. Note the theme of each paragraph: the paragraph is the unit of thought and should have one main theme. Pick out the key sentence or key phrase which sums up the paragraph: it is often the first sentence or the last in the paragraph.
Not all these suggestions are necessarily right for you. Each person must develop the techniques of study which suit him or her best. But it is important that you should consider from time to time whether your study methods are the most efficient. Developing an efficient technique of work and study during your student years provides you with a skill which will be valuable throughout your professional life.