Study Smart, Not Hard

By previous contributor Nicole
Updated June 10, 2016 by Annie

This textbook is literally bigger than my head. 

In first year, I met up with a learning strategist at the Academic Success Centre who told me that in an ideal situation, a student would spend 2-3 hours of time outside of class to review 1 hour of content covered inside class. Now, when I first heard this, I thought this was ridiculous.

In university, your time is precious. There are only 168 hours in a week, and if you’re already spending 15 – 30 hours in class (for lectures, tutorials, seminars and practicals combined), being told to spend even more time outside of class seems kind of absurd. For many first years, that would be equal to 45 – 90 more hours, and you would effectively have no time for anything else.

But this was the point. You won’t have time to do everything you’ll get to do; you have to decide which things are most important to you and what would be the most efficient use of your time.

University is comprised of more than just the learning that takes place within the classroom, and it’s highly encouraged that everyone takes time to explore different avenues, take risks and stay open to new things. But if you’re constantly worried about trying to catch up on every single reading or trying to do every single thing your prof recommends, then you may feel like you won’t be able to do that.

So here are a few strategies that have worked for me when it comes to maximizing information retention from lecture and staying as efficient as possible:

Before Class:

If you have time, do the assigned reading; otherwise, skim over it. If you know your prof uses a Socratic method of teaching and requires you to participate, choose at least one key idea from the reading and jot down a few points from it, or a few arguments to back it up. That way, while you may not know everything about the reading, you’ll have a really strong foundation on that one point and you’ll still get the participation marks you need. If your class is more memorization heavy, look over your lecture slides and match up the figures on the slides with the figures in the textbook. Usually, the textbook should have a caption that explains whatever process is being illustrated by the figure, and it’ll do so succinctly.

The time you use to prep for class should only take ten minutes, but it’s important that you do take at least a little bit of time so that you won’t go into class entirely confused.

 intimidating lecture slides.png
Case in point?

During Class:

Use the original powerpoint slides provided by your professor. There was a study comparing groups of students who used their professor’s original lecture slides vs. typed out their own notes in a word document. The results showed that those who used the original lecture slides provided and just annotated them during lecture were able to retain more information in tests vs. those students who didn’t.

A lot of this boils down to the fact that powerpoint slides (if well made) spatially separate content, as opposed to word documents, which are just long lines of text. This spatial separation is key because humans are said to have good spatial memory, so anchoring concepts to a specific place will help you remember the concept better in the future.

During class, I take lots of notes on my slides, but my professors speak fast and could probably release a mixtape that rival any and all rappers in the game, so (with my prof’s permission), I record the lectures. Something that I do differently though is that when I come across a particular concept I don’t understand in class, I write down the time that corresponds with my recorder and put a question mark beside the slide, so I can minimize how much flipping back I have to do when I go back and revise later on.

By the end of lecture, the majority of my notes look something like this:

This is an actual page from my OneNote notebook and even as I’m typing this, I still have no idea what’s going on for this slide. Something about running gels? I don’t even know. 

As you can see, they’re not prettiest, but I don’t take notes for aesthetics because the textbook already does this for me. My main focus for taking notes is to consolidate the knowledge that I gain in class and make connections, so I can learn the material.

After Class

I go back and relisten to the recordings, usually at 1.5x the speed, and then I fill in points that I don’t understand or may have missed during lecture. If I don’t understand a concept, I’ll go to the textbook and read up more on it, try and read a few abstracts on the material, post on the discussion board or email my prof for clarification. Once I get clarification, I add this to my notes, and then I use different strategies to try and understand the information.

Afterwards, my notes usually look like this:

 Cast study yay for good notes.png
Hooray for having a complete set of notes!

For revision, I mainly use the Feynmann technique, which is to pretend that you’re explaining the content to someone else but using layman terms, and flashcards, which are great for memorizing little facts on the go, like when you’re waiting in line for a cup of coffee or are commuting to school. Finally, I schedule weekly review sessions to look over content so that by the time the midterm comes around, I’m not frantically trying to cram in half a semester’s worth of information in a single night.

This is the routine that has helped me a lot, but I definitely didn’t come into university with this system perfected; it took a lot of experimentation, a few bad midterms and a lot of reflection to end up with this routine. So tell me, what are some study strategies that have worked for you?

This blogger likes disguising her laziness as efficiency and is enjoying looking at nucleotide structures more than the average person. 


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