Studying with style

Since the next semester is fast-approaching, the editors of “Science with Style” and Landau’s EcotoxBlog are collaborating on developing a guide to help students find their own style of studying.

study-with-styleAs Ned Stark (or maybe it was actually your professor) once wisely said: autumn is coming. Do you find yourself still in relaxation mode after a leisurely summer, or can you already feel the calm before the storm? We’re already well into September, now with the next semester ahead of us in UK, Germany, and many other parts of the world. Regardless of what mindset you’re in, you’ll soon find that the rigors of the first (or next) busy semester of exams and assignments are soon to come.

Everyone has a different way of engaging in coursework: some of us take a lot of notes, others listen, others, well, don’t really do that whole going-to-class thing. But at some point at the end of the course, we all have to take an exam, write a term paper, or in some other way show the professor that we learned something.

Your professors will spend a lot of time teaching new concepts, explaining complicated subjects, and trying to inspire some additional interest in their favorite topic. But one thing a professor can’t do is to teach you how to study in a way that you can retain and repeat knowledge as needed while being examined. Therefore, we here at the EcotoxBlog and Science with Style have collated a few tips that will make the use of your valuable time more effective:

Some very basic tips on getting stuff into your head:

Check out this video from Vox, who provide the following tips on their YouTube channel:

Don’t just re-read your notes and class readings

Reading doesn’t actually help you learn retain information. Another downside to only reading and re-reading is that the process can make you feel like you’re learning when in reality you’re just learning for that one moment in time. Reading in itself is a passive activity. But when you’re taking an exam and recalling information you’ll be doing something much more active.

Quiz yourself

Flash cards are an easy way to do this, and depending on your own style there are lots of ways to go about making and using flashcards. You can make old school notecards of your own, but if you prefer a more tech-savvy approach, you can make your own cards to read from your computer or smartphone! Flash cards provide that active component of studying that your brain needs in order to be able to recall information and facts on demand – just like you’ll have to do during an exam. An important suggestion in the video is to put cards that you get wrong back in the deck, which forces you to review the concept again and again until you get it right.

Visualize concepts

Create an analogy that can help explain a complex biological reaction or metabolic process. This method also forces your brain to retain information in a more active way, as you’ll need to thoroughly understand the concept in order to explain it in a new way. You can also come up with personal connections to help you remember how things connect, such as aligning concepts or processes to characters or a plot from your favorite TV show, game, or movie.

No cramming!

Cramming usually doesn’t work well, and if it does the information will only last for that single exam. Especially if the course is covering concepts that you’ll use throughout your time in university, it’s worth it to invest the extra study time. With better study approaches, you’ll be able to better and more thoroughly remember a concept for a longer duration of time, not just to spit it out during one afternoon.

Some more tips that helped us and our fellows during our student times:

Explain an idea back in your own words

Test to make sure you’ve got a concept down by trying to explain or teach it to someone else. You can work with classmates and by organizing “explaining sessions” with each other to see if yours and their understanding is on-par with how the system actually works. This practice will also help you prepare for exams where you’ll have essay portions, as it forces you to practice how to explain something before you’re given the task on paper.

If you’re not good at staying on-task or studying independently, find an accountability buddy

Some of us find it easy to stay on task with independent assignments like studying or writing, and others might feel the need for an external and firmer deadline. The problem with exams is that there’s no deadline until you get to the exam – which is not when you want to start studying. If you find yourself struggling with procrastination, find a study partner in your class and schedule regular sessions to study together and hold each other accountable for keeping up with your study materials.

Use a study group if you need one, but be sure to stay on target

If working with groups helps you study and keep on track, then forming a study group can be a good solution. But be sure that for each group meeting you have a plan of what you want to achieve and a deadline for how long you’ll work on something. Unstructured group work can quickly fall off track or get sidelined, but having a game plan before you start and a clear objective of what the group wants to achieve will make your get-togethers more productive.

Have dedicated breaks

It’s exhausting to think of having to study “all day” and can also lead to unproductive minutes and hours if you drag things out for too long. Have a set start and stop time for when you’ll focus on studying or writing a paper. It can also help to have a dedicated study space, whether it be a desk or your favorite spot in the library, and then when you’re done or need a break you can physically leave the space. If you’re worried of getting too off task during a break, set a timer and allow yourself to do whatever you’d like in that set amount of time before getting back to work.

Find your incentive

Speaking of breaks, we all know that learning or writing the whole day can be very frustrating and that doing something which makes you happy during a break can help you get through a hard day’s work. But be sure to make your breaks more rewarding by making sure they stay limited in size and don’t become as long as a study session. Play one campaign of your favorite online game, watch one episode of your favorite TV show, or do a particular hobby you have for a preset period of time. We promise that this will cheer you up and you will survive until the next break!

If you’re frustrated or feel like you’re not getting something, ask for help

Even if you study independently, you don’t have to go through the learning process alone. If something isn’t sticking or you’re not sure you’re understanding a concept correctly, talk to your professor or a class tutor and get yourself on track sooner rather than later. If you miss out on understanding the basics at the beginning of the semester, you’ll be much more likely to miss out on understanding the important concepts that will build off of the basics. Don’t feel like you’re a failure if you don’t figure things out the first or second time around – that’s why TAs and professors are there to help you (and don’t tell anybody, but they are even paid for this: they are here just to help!).

So what now?

Truth be told, studying for an exam or writing an exam paper will never be anyone’s favorite activities. But if you invest your time wisely and give some of these tips a try, you can work on finding your own style of studying and become a much more effective student, with more successes per your amount of time invested. And that’s the best part about life as a student and what any student aims for: getting good grades while still having enough time for the nice things in life 🙂

You’re now all set to study with style and have a successful start into the new semester!

Erica & Jochen

PS: We are interested in what works best for you! Any secret tips on mastering exams or term papers? Let us know (contact either Science with Style or the EcotoxBlog) and we’ll spread the word. Also advice from those who already successfully completed their studies is highly appreciated.

PPS: Not yet enough style in your scientific life? Check out the Science with Style blog and get stylish.