Tom's Primer on Studying and Learning   (DRAFT 2)

This document has two parts.  The justification or philosophy for developing a personal learning strategy, followed by an outline of my personal studying strategy.


Over the years you have discovered that as a student moving further along your academic career, the courses get harder and require more attention and time to master the material.  Early college courses will generally be more developmental and will have more but smaller learning assignments (e.g. more short tests and several short writing assignments).  Upper level courses will generally have fewer but larger assignments.  These are typically more comprehensive in the knowledge and skills they require of the you and rely more heavily on your own time management ability rather than intervening deadlines. 

At some point in our academic career, we find ourselves having to rely more and more on individually structured learning time -- i.e. studying -- in order to understand and retain the material that we are expected to learn in a course.  Like many professors, I have a "spiel" that I often give to students about how to study more effectively (and hopefully more efficiently).  This document is my attempt to put those ideas on paper to make it readily available to my students.  I would appreciate receiving feedback if you find this helpful or if you want to take issue with any of my assertions.  These ideas apply most directly to lecture and discussion courses, but are also applicable to practice courses. 

The examples that I give below are from my personal experience.  Your personal best mix of learning strategies may be different based on what approaches and styles work best for you.  But I want to give you a sense of how I learned to study through my education process beginning as an elementary school student, moving through high school, then college and ultimately graduate school. The point of this is two-fold.  First, it is important to understand that learning is a process, and so is learning to learn.  Second, the story hints at the people who taught me various study techniques. Although I am writing this document, the ideas are not original to me.  Maybe in the future I will add a list of some of those people with what I learned from them. 

Point #1 -- Learning is a process that involves time and work.  For most of us, learning is an active process in which we must proactively engage our minds.  This is particularly true when studying concepts, information, and processes that we do not have an internal (and intense) natural interest in.  Some people can read a book or hear a lecture and immediately understand what is being "taught" as well as remember the concepts and vocabulary.  Have you ever known someone like that?  Me too.  Unfortunately, I'm not one of those people.  Most of us are not.  Most of us are pretty average.  Me too.  That means that we have to be willing to set aside time and develop strategies for learning.  This is essential in being a good college student.

I still recall struggling to memorize my multiplication facts in elementary school (Quick!  What is 11X12?).  I learned fast that this is WORK!  On the other hand, having memorized those tables, I was able to concentrate on more and more sophisticated math principles as I moved up the grades without having to constantly shift my attention to doing a multiplication or division problem.  Math never got easy for me (I thought Algebra 1 might cause me to drop out of high school, move to Montana and be a full-time cowboy), but it did get easier.  And I knew that if I worked at not just memorizing facts and formulas, but also took the extra time to comprehend the principles, that I would succeed. 

In practical terms this means that for you to be a good student, you must be willing to set aside a lot of time to study outside of class. 

Point #2 -- Learning works differently for each person.  You need to assess how you learn best and devise strategies that work to those strengths.  Learning is a process that builds physical changes in your brain.  We learn best when we have some "old knowledge" that we can attach "new knowledge" to.  In other words, we tend to understand new concepts and experiences in terms of old concepts and experience that are already in our long term memory.  When we are learning material in an area that we are not familiar with, then it takes more time and effort to learn it compared to someone who already has some familiarity with that area of knowledge or practice.  In those circumstances, it is more likely that we will have to do some independent reading and research to better understand the assigned material.  One of the simplest examples of this would be to go to the library or search online for explanations of a concept written by people other than your textbook author or your professor so you can read it in a different voice with different examples and explanations.

It is also important that you develop an understanding of how best to study for you to learn the material.  When I ask students who have done poorly on an exam "how did you study?" 90% of the time, the answer comes back "I read the book and the notes."  Realistically, that strategy is not the best strategy for most of us for two reasons.  First, after reading material a time or two, we are familiar with the verbiage and we become confident that we know it, rather than comprehending that we merely know how to read.  That leads us to study less than we should.  Second, most of us will retain information better based on encountering and manipulating that information in different modalities than just in writing, and we will learn better if we spend time actively manipulating the information mentally.  An example may help demonstrate what I mean.  In Army boot camp, we were required to learn quiet a few specifications for various weapons.  Rather than just reading these from a manual, I could draw diagrams of weapons ranges then add information pertaining to those weapons to my "picture".  Because I had actually been training on these ranges, I knew what they looked like in my mind so I could think of the information in terms of a real place rather than just a list of numbers.  Remember also that what has worked for you in the past might not work for you as you advance to higher levels, different courses, new disciplines, different professors, etc. 

Some people learn best by reading, others by hearing, yet others by writing, and others learn through geometric or spatial patterns.  Many of us have a primary learning style while others of us learn best by integrating a variety of strategies.  I'm a pretty good reader.  I did well in high school where reading was my primary studying/learning strategy.  But I was in for a rude awakening when I got to college.  I went to a small, commuter state university (LSU-S) similar to Texas A&M University-Texarkana.  Compared to high school, the amount of material was greater, it's depth was deeper, and the expectations were higher for application and integration of the material.  In short, it was a significant challenge.  Reading alone did not cut it any more.  Happily, we had professors who over time gave plenty of ideas about study strategies (hint number one always included the word "more").  Some of those strategies included tape recording lectures, taking notes in a more structured fashion, setting up a study schedule, using groups as a study aid through mutual listening, coaching, and quizzing, diagramming conceptual relationships, and even a few more bizarre tips such as using the "magic pencil" to symbolically hold your memories while you study then using that same pencil on the test.   (That whole magic pencil thing was just too weird for me, but I've noticed that I absolutely hate to lose a pen .... hmmmm).  I suggest you try these strategies to see if they help you. 


Here is a general outline of my personal study strategy.  I adjusted it as needed based on the course that I was in at the time.

Central to my strategy is a set of course NOTES.  My thinking is this: it is easier and more efficient to study 40 pages of notes than 140 pages of a textbook.  So, when you get down to that last week before an exam and you are really focusing on learning (or cramming as the case may be), you should not have to open the textbook unless it is to do some fact checking.  Instead, you want a set of notes that cover the major concepts and connections that are included in the testable material.  Your first step is to read assigned material before it is covered in class.  As you read, you should circle important concepts, underline key propositions, etc. and write notes and questions in the margins.  Colored pens are great for this.   [Don't be afraid to mark up your textbook.  Even if you sell it back, it's not like you're going to get that much for it.  Plan to get your money's worth out of it in learning, not cash.]  When reading, write any questions or clarifications that you need on a piece of paper that you will take to class with you.

Some faculty give study/discussion questions or some other form of "probes" that help point students to particular elements of the reading material.  I do that in several of my classes.  Good probes not only require you to learn terms and definitions, but will also require that you think about the material to better understand what concepts mean theoretically and/or what they would mean in practice.  These are more common for courses that use a "Socratic method" for teaching/learning.  Commonly, these  kinds of probes help to narrow the material that is most central to the module (and thus most likely to show up on an exam).  It is always a good idea to read all of the probes prior to reading the chapter.  As you read the chapter, you can respond to the probes in writing as well as identify any thing that is not clear.

When you go to class, take a sound recorder if the instructor allows it.  There are at least two ways to use the recording.  First, it allows you to fill in gaps in your notes later.  Second, it allows you to replay the lecture when driving, jogging, etc. to help enhance memory and understanding.  With a recorder running, you are free in class to actively listen and interact for comprehension rather than trying to copy everything down at the moment it is said.

Take good class notes.  They should be reasonably comprehensive in that they include critical elements mentioned in class.  Structure the paper on which you are taking notes.  Draw a line down it so two/thirds of the sheet is on the left and one/third is on the right; or half and half.  Take your notes only on the left side of the paper.  When you need to listen carefully and can't write simultaneously, leave some white space so you can come back and fill in what is needed.  The right side remains for you to add additional notes later.  After class, you should return to your textbook and integrate the notes that you have there into the notes taken in class.  Lecture notes almost always give you an outline of the material and the most important elements from the instructor's perspective.  So, it is often best for test purposes to organize your notes in a similar scheme. 

What about typing your notes?  This is a personal preference that I don't happen to share.  Rarely did I find it helpful as a student; but it was useful in a couple of circumstances.  In a few classes where the number of resources and amount of material that we were expected to read and learn independently outside of class was so large that it couldn't be effectively integrated into my lecture notes, I would type them up to better allow me to reorganize the material as I progressed through the term.  Second, when I worked collaboratively with other students to summarize research material or to share insights, we would typically type the material to make it more easily read, reproduced, and passed on.  Another reason that I don't tend to encourage typing notes is that it is usually only the good (fast) typists that bother to do it.  Since a good typist can type by sight without having to think about the meaning of the material, it does not seem like a particularly productive learning strategy beyond its organizational benefits.

What about reading material that is not covered or mentioned in class?  The number one tip I have is to ask your professor.  In my undergraduate courses, if it is assigned, it is testable.  However, over 90% of the material that shows up on an exam will have been discussed in class, or related to a probe, or pointed out as something to look up.  I expect graduate students, on the other hand, to be more energetic in learning as widely as possible, so they may find a higher proportion of material on the exam was not discussed directly in class.  More importantly, they are able to write in richer detail using material beyond the "required" reading.

PowerPoint slides are not the same as class notes.  I guess most faculty use PowerPoint now.  Every instructor uses PowerPoint differently, so only experience will show how best to use a particular instructor's presentation material.  As a general rule, I don't pass out copies of PowerPoint files.  Although I have used this practice in the past, the expected benefits did not materialize while unexpected drawbacks did. So I quit. PowerPoint has its strengths.  But slides should not be mistaken for notes.  They are visual aids. 

PowerPoint provides outlines of material without the instructor having to constantly write on the board.  It easily allows for graphics interspersed in lecture.  It is an efficient way to show data and statistics.  And it allows sharing of a specific quote or definition that students may want or need to copy (particularly something that is different from what is in their reading or textbook).  Unfortunately, it has led many students into poor note taking practices when they simply copy what is on every PowerPoint slide without thinking about it and without any further elaboration.  For example, if a PowerPoint slide gives a list of concepts, they copy the list, but don't add any detail that defines, compares, or contrasts those concepts.  Since copying can be a mindless activity, it is quite easy to copy the words from the screen without ever really thinking about them.  With no thinking comes no learning.  I admit that I was infatuated with PowerPoint when I first started using it.  After all of these years, I'm not nearly so enthusiastic.

The Nitty-Gritty of Studying

Okay, you've got a good set of notes.  What do you do with them?  First let me point out the difference between familiarization, memorization, and learning.  By the time you have your set of notes completed, you are probably already familiar with the material.  Familiar in the sense that you recognize the various concepts and terms when you see them.  If you read your notes a few times, you will probably just become more familiar, but not really learn it.  Let me give you an analogy.  Did you ever have to drive somewhere that you have only visited one time before; or the times before you were a passenger as someone else drove?  Then you tried to go back and got lost?  You could see landmarks and you would say "that looks familiar."  There is a big difference between that kind of familiarization and really knowing the route. 

Quizzing yourself about concepts, definitions, and relationships (or quizzing each other in a group) can help you figure out what you really know, versus what you are just familiar with.   Memorization is a process of stuffing exact words and phrases into short term memory, and hopefully into long term memory.  Really learning material is a depth of understanding of concepts and relationships in both abstract/theoretical terms and concrete application.  A person who really possesses knowledge in a particular area can not only recite definitions and lists, but they are able to explain concepts and relationships, apply them, compare and contrast them, and ultimately combine them or extend them, generalizing to new situations.

For years I told students "I don't want you to memorize this, I want you to learn it."  I have to apologize for that.  Unfortunately, I was being too simplistic and I did not appreciate two important insights:  (a) we have difficulty comprehending or using many things if we don't first memorize some basics; (b) many students are not terribly interested in learning the material for any long term use, or their lives are so busy that they don't have time to learn the material in any depth.  They simply want to memorize it long enough to pass an exam, get the ticket punch, and move on to the next hurdle.  Sooooo, maybe memorization is all that you have time for.  I understand.  Even that is going to take more work than familiarization.  However, if at all possible, you need to push beyond memorization to develop a better grasp of the information.  How can you do that?

First, start with memorization.  Think of each page of your notes as a "chunk."  Concentrate on the first page.  Read it, repeat it, then see if you can recite it out loud without looking.  This is a basic memorization strategy.  Once you think you have the information memorized, set it aside and go to page 2.  Do the same thing.  When you think you've got that, set it aside.  Now, how much of the material can you recall from page 1?  You continue to build your memorization one page at a time and when you finish a new page, you always go back to page 1 and all of the intervening pages to see what you recall.  Quiz yourself (e.g. make flash cards and use them to see how much information you can recite about each term).  With sufficient time and practice, you will have it memorized.  But that is not the best way to learn.

To get beyond memorization, you need to actively think about the material, its meaning, and its use.  For example, use those flash cards, recite as much information as you can recall about a term, then if what you have memorized is not your own words, try to explain that information in your own words.  That is a good test of whether you really understand the concept versus having just memorized it.  Think of your own examples of concepts.  Take your examples and make sure that they don't fit some other concept.  If they do, then try to figure out what would have to be different in your example/scenario to differentiate between the two concepts.  If the information is appropriate for application versus purely theoretical, work out different ways that it would be put into practice or would be observed in the real world.  Develop questions or problems or scenarios that require you to apply the principles.  Work with other students to critique each others' ideas.  This process of mentally manipulating the information is hard and time consuming, but it will lead to greater and greater understanding.

Recall that earlier I pointed out that we have different learning styles.  We should not assume that what we like to do best is always our best learning style.  I like to read.  But, in college I realized that I tend to learn better through listening and through the use of geometric patterns.  You may learn best by sight reading, or by hearing, or by writing, or through some tactile manipulations (touching).  By the time I finished my bachelors degree I had established a memorization-learning process that started with the memorization procedure set out above.  When I read my notes, I would read them out loud.  I would usually use an empty room (e.g. the kitchen after the family was in bed).  I would pace and recite information.  I would outline and diagram ideas on paper or a chalkboard.  I liked using an empty classroom because I could use the chalkboards to diagram stuff while I walked and talked to myself.  Another thing I would do is imagine that I had to teach the concept to someone else.  Then I would teach the concept or practice to thin air.  (This was a strategy that I picked up in the Army when I was tasked with training other soldiers.)  I would meet with other students and each of us would take turns explaining concepts, making up examples, creating scenarios, and quizzing each other.  We would critique each other's explanations and debate which was better.

I like the idea of study groups, but they have one danger.  Because we tend to study with people we like, we don't want to hurt their feelings.  When they say something that is only half right, we tend to give them credit for being right.  This makes us more confident than we should be because "half right" is the same as 50%, and 50% is an "F".  Instead, we need to be willing to say "stop, I don't think that's right.  Shouldn't it be ...."  Developing a friendly, professional attitude toward the work and each other goes a long way toward creating the best study groups.

If you have read this far, then you know by now that the absolutely critical element here is TIME.  You may be saying "He's crazy!" [probably true].  And you may be saying "I don't have time to do this!  I have ______, ______, and _____."  [fill in the blanks: kids, job, vacation, other classes, softball, church, etc. etc]  I wish I had an answer for you, but I don't.  I've known a few people that were probably geniuses.  They seemed to be able to understand something just by reading it, seeing it, or hearing it one time.  I'm not one of those people.  Like most average people, I have to work hard at learning new information. 

Beginning in graduate school I've read quite a bit about teaching and learning strategies.  The two elements that are consistently implicit or explicit in various authors' explanations of good teaching and learning are "active learning" and "time".  How does that translate to you?  It means that you must set aside and protect realistic blocks of time for studying, and you must develop strategies to actively engage mentally with the material rather than being a passive recipient.


Copyright W. T. Jordan
Last Changes 08/06/08