Ace Your Exams: Study Tactics of the Successful Gentleman Scholar

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When 160,000 undergraduates in the University of California system were asked to name the obstacles that impeded their academic success, the students listed things like work, stress, and depression. But the number one reason, which was given by 33% of the students, was that they simply didn’t know how to study.

When I first arrived at college, I was one of those 33 percenters who really didn’t know how to study. I was a stellar student in high school, but during during my first semester of college I nearly flunked Business Calculus, got a C– in Intro to Logic, and barely scratched by with a B in Spanish. I ended the semester with a 2.75 GPA.

Knowing that I was headed down the path of academic ruin if I didn’t change something, I threw myself into learning all I could about how to learn and study effectively. I read anything I could get my hands on. The effort paid off. After that initial semester, I earned straight A’s throughout the rest of my college career, even while working 20-30 hours a week. When I went on to law school, I managed to graduate ninth in my class while also working, starting the Art of Manliness, and writing a book during that time.

I share this not to brag, but to show that there’s a ton you can do to turn your academic career around, even if it’s had an auspicious start.

Many of our readers will be heading back to school for the start of a new semester next week. So I thought it would be helpful to offer some friendly study advice for those young men who might find themselves among the 33% of students who don’t know how to study effectively and might be struggling like I did. Even if you have some solid study skills, you’ll hopefully get something out of this article too.

The advice I provide is based on my own experience in college and law school. Maybe it will work for you as well. Of course, if you already have a study system that works for you, then use it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Note: Fair warning. This post is long. Double the length of a normal article long. I thought about breaking it up into multiple posts, but then decided it would be more useful to create a one page, single resource article that would be an easy reference to return to. So take it slow–you don’t have to read the whole thing in one go–although doing so wouldn’t be bad practice for your studies!

Time & Energy Management

In high school, your schedule is pretty well set for you, and your parents are always around, looking over your shoulder.

Then you get to college and each day is an ocean of time that is all yours to decide what to do with.

This is both a wonderful, glorious freedom and a great challenge. But mastering that challenge by learning how to successfully manage your time will reap you great benefits not only in school, but for the rest of your life.

Following the advice below, it’s possible to excel in school, while working part-time, and while still having a social life.

Create a master weekly study schedule before every semester. In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey introduces the idea of “Big Rock” planning. The gist of it is that you should set aside time for your most important things first (your Big Rocks) and then plan everything else in your life around them. Watch this video to see Covey explain it.

When you’re young and in school, your biggest Big Rock is your education. You should (ideally) plan everything else around your schooling. To ensure that you actually make school a priority, block off the time during the week that you’ll devote to class and studying before the semester starts. During the semester, plan around these blocked off times. Here’s what I suggest blocking time off for:

1. Block off your class and lab times. The most important appointments of your week. Schedule everything else around your class time.

2. Block off reading time for each of your classes. If you have a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, you’ll probably want to block off an hour or two on Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday for reading.

3. Block off time for note review/outlining/homework for each class. You’ll want to set aside time so you can synthesize class notes, do some outlining, and complete any homework assignments you might have. I typically blocked off an hour right after each class for this. If a class was lecture heavy, like ancient Greek philosophy, I’d use that hour right after class to review my notes and update my class outline. If the class was heavy on problem sets, like calculus or symbolic logic, I used the hour to do that day’s assignment and any additional practice problems.

The amount of time you need for note review/outlining/homework will vary. I recommend setting aside at least one hour for each hour spent in class. If you need more time, schedule it.

4. Other possible permanent time blocks. If your work schedule is the same throughout the semester, you might as well block it off on your master schedule. I also blocked off time for exercise on my master schedule.

Make these times re-occurring events in your calendar. You should only change or modify them in extreme cases. Treat them like doctor’s appointments. If a friend wants to get together during your reading time, tell them you have a prior engagement and suggest another time.

Plan weekly. Once you have your master weekly schedule set up, every week set aside time for planning out the week’s variables–those activities that change from week to week. Write down in your schedule when you have to work or the times for any extracurricular meetings. Remember, try to plan around your Big Rocks if possible.

Reverse engineer big projects and final exam prep. Throughout the semester, you’ll probably have big projects like term papers to turn in. One thing that helped me complete these tasks on time and with little stress was reverse engineering the task. As soon as I knew the due date for a paper, I marked it in my calendar. Working backwards from that due date, I established mini-deadlines for myself. For example, a week before the actual due date, I might have a deadline to complete the rough draft. Two weeks before the actual due date the mini-deadline might be to write half of the paper. Three weeks before the actual due date, the mini-deadline might be to have the research complete. And so on.

I did this sort of reverse engineering for my law school finals as well. About mid-way through the semester, I sat down and planned out my finals prep for the subsequent six weeks, working backwards from the final exam and creating tasks for myself to complete as I got closer and closer to finals.

This takes some discipline, but this approach is much less stressful than waiting until the last minute to complete a project or study for a final.

Apply the 45/15 rule. People can focus on something for a solid 45 minute block before their brains start getting pooped and antsy, and their mental performance starts to diminish. To keep your brain running on all six cylinders, implement the 45/15 rule, or Pomodoro Technique. Under the 45/15 rule, you work nonstop for 45 minutes, and all your focus is on the task at hand for that block of time. When the 45 minutes is up, take a break for 15. Surf the web or get up and go for a quick stroll outside. As soon as the 15 minutes are over, get back to work. Just knowing that you always have a set break coming up can keep you on task. Check out these nine free online timers that help you implement the 45/15 rule easily.

Reading Assignments and Homework

Try to get ahead on reading. If your schedule permits, try to get ahead on your reading by reading the entire week’s assignments on the weekend. I did this in law school and it freed up a bunch of time for me during the week. On Saturdays and Sundays, I’d devote a couple of hours to completing all the reading assignments for the coming week. That allowed me to devote more time to outlining, memorization, and even working on The Art of Manliness and writing our first Art of Manliness book during the week.

Read actively. When you read, read actively. Highlight, underline, and write notes in the margins. This will ready you for any class discussion or questions from the professor. Also, actively reading simply helps you better retain the information.

Learn to speed read. Speed reading is a skill that I suggest all college students learn. It’s a huge help in getting through those 100 page reading assignments. As with any tool, you should use speed reading with discernment. Some class material might require slow, concentrated reading. My philosophy classes in college were like that. Other classes you can speed read right through the text and be in good shape.

Quickly skim your reading notes and highlights before class starts. Before class starts, take a few minutes to quickly scan over any notes and highlights you made in your book. You want to be ready to answer any questions that come your way.

Do all your homework (even if it’s not graded). Your professors assign homework for a reason: to help you learn the material so you can pass the final exam. One big difference between high school and college is that professors will often assign homework problems but won’t pick them up for grading. For many college freshmen, it’s tempting to just skip this homework altogether. Don’t do this.

I succumbed to this temptation my first semester of college. My calc class had homework problems assigned every class. As soon as I learned that the assignments weren’t graded, I pretty much stopped doing them. Result? My first (and, thankfully, only) D grade.

Make the Most of Class Time

Attend all your classes. Another temptation that new college students face is regularly skipping class. Unlike high school, you don’t have parents or truancy laws making sure your butt’s in a classroom desk every day at college. It’s completely up to you whether you go to class or not. My advice is to make it a goal to go to every class during the semester.

Learning requires constant reinforcement. Class time is part of that reinforcement process. More importantly, attending class simply saves you time. Every time I missed a class, I often spent double the amount of time studying to make up what I missed. If you want a life outside of studying, go to class.

Sit near the front. Yeah, it’s clich, but it really works. You’re more likely to stay focused and pay attention to the professor when you’re sitting near the front.

Take notes. I remember seeing so many students come to class without bringing anything to take notes with. They just sat there expecting information to download to their brain like Neo from The Matrix. While you might have been able to do this in high school and still succeed, it’s harder to do so in college and graduate-level classes. Learning is an active process and note-taking is one of the steps in that process. Moreover, taking notes forces you to pay attention in class. Even in the most boring of classes, taking notes will keep you awake and alert.

How should you take notes? I could devote an entire post to note-taking strategies. Maybe we’ll visit that in a future post if there’s any interest. For the purpose of this article, just do what works for you.

Ask questions. As you’re doing your reading or working through problem sets, write down any questions that you have about the material. Bring these questions with you to class, but don’t ask them right away. You’ll pay more attention in class as you listen to see if the professor will answer your question during his prepared lecture. If he doesn’t answer your question, ask it. Don’t feel embarrassed. Chances are somebody else has the same question. If you’re still having trouble understanding a concept, show some respect for the professor’s and your classmates’ time by waiting until after class to ask for more clarification.

Participate in discussions. Many liberal arts classes focus on classroom discussion. Participate! Don’t be the guy who sits in the back with his arms folded and doesn’t say a word. Discussing in class engages you with the content and helps reinforce what you’ve read and heard. Also, more and more college professors are making participation in classroom discussion a part of your overall class grade. Don’t miss out on an easy 10% of your grade. Speak up.

Eliminate all digital distractions. Turn off your cellphone when you’re in class and put it in your backpack. If you’re using a computer to take notes, eliminate the temptation to surf the internet mindlessly while in class by disabling your computer’s wireless router.

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