The “doing” of the learning process is studying. This is an active process where your mind is engaged with what you are learning. We introduced the importance of note-taking and study, and here we take a deeper dive into science-based strategies that will help you study effectively.

Observe how the knowledge you gain gives you pleasure, excitement, and even a greater level of self-confidence and personal agency. Success is more than just earning good grades! It also means growing intellectually and experiencing the thrill that can come from making intellectual connections among the many topics you are studying.

“Distributed Practice”: A Study Schedule that Works!

Research has shown that studying is more effective when it is distributed over time, in shorter segments that are repeated regularly. In Section 2-A, we urged you to find “fixed” and “flex” hours in your schedule that you could dedicate to your studies. Here, we offer a strategy for using those hours productively:

  • Schedule at least two hours of weekly study time for each class session
    • If you are enrolled in 5 courses that meet twice a week, that’s 10 class sessions per week
    • That means you can expect to study 20 hours per week.
  • Divide those weekly study hours into daily blocks of time
    • Break up each day’s block of study time into segments
    • Choose 25-minute segments to start, with 5-minute breaks
  • Choose which subjects you will work on during each day’s block of time
    • Each subject should get at least two segments of attention each week
  • Move to another subject after the end of each study segment. For example:
    • For 30 minutes, work on math problems
    • For 30 minutes, review and rework your notes from your World Music course
    • For 30 minutes, read your textbook on circuits; ask yourself questions. Can you answer your questions?
    • For 30 minutes, brainstorm ideas for your essay on African Literature
    • For 30 minutes, work on the design of your circuit board
  • Repeat as needed until you’ve used all of your weekly study hours
    • Over time, you may find that you are able to lengthen your study segments, perhaps to 45 minutes per subject

The strategy of cramming – a long session before an exam, frantically going through the course material at the last minute? It’s not effective for the actual learning that serves as a foundation for that exam…and for the next course. As suggested in the example above, distributing your attention to each topic on a regular basis, over the course of many shorter sessions, will be more effective in consolidating what you learn.

Beyond Re-Reading: Active Study Strategies

Many students use passive study strategies that don’t work well, such as repeatedly re-reading textbook pages or lecture notes without really doing anything that encourages them to think about the material.

To study in a more active, effective way, regularly take a moment to pause, look up, and recall what you just worked on. What was on the page(s) that you can see in your mind’s eye? How does this connect with what you already know? Now look again at the course material. What did you miss? Go back and examine anything that you didn’t fully recall, and then pause to check yourself again. This study strategy is called “retrieval practice,” and it helps you learn by making your brain repeatedly retrieve information, especially what you can visualize.

During some study sessions, you’ll find that you have a great deal of material to remember – a long vocabulary list for your biology class, for instance. A cognitive strategy called chunking can help you approach this task. Chunking involves breaking down information into smaller units (chunks) that can be recalled more easily. For a simple illustration of the principle, think about phone numbers: 17185559802 is a hard sequence of numbers to remember, but divide it into smaller units and it becomes a bit easier: 1-718-555-9802 (that’s why we write phone numbers this way!). Now, if one of the smaller units fits into a category you already know, such as a familiar area code like 718, that taps into prior knowledge and makes remembering the number easier still.

So, how do you take advantage of chunking while studying? Don’t begin by trying to memorize that whole vocabulary list in alphabetical order. Instead, look for similarities among the terms, and divide the list into smaller categories based on the similarities you’ve observed. For instance, you might notice that words that start with the prefix “myo” all refer to muscles in some way: This is true of “myoglobin,” “myosin,” “myocardial,” and “myology,” for example. Grouping these words together and remembering them as a chunk can make your task easier.

When you are studying similar topics, try alternating between them in the same study segment. For example, if you’re learning to compute the volume of geometric shapes in your math class, include problems about each of the shapes in the same study session. This means that rather than studying only spheres in one session and then only wedges another day, you include problems about spheres, wedges, and cubes in a single session. This strategy is called interleaving, and while it may seem more challenging at first, studies have shown that it will strengthen your knowledge of each topic over time.

Ask yourself questions as you read. Elaborative interrogation means that you write questions about the material and then answer the questions – out loud if possible. Focus on explaining concepts to yourself or to study partners. Ask questions that begin with “how” or “why” such as “how does this process work?” or “why is X true but Y is not?” In your responses to the questions, think about what you know already about the topic. Can you suggest a concrete example to illustrate the concept?

Test yourself to see what you have learned and what is not clear to you yet. Use practice tests provided by your professor or included in your textbook, create flash cards, or simply cover up your notes or lecture slides and see what you can recall. You are measuring yourself and your progress, so you know you are not guessing, or floundering. That is powerful! You will gain confidence in your ability to master knowledge.

Final Thoughts on Studying

Think about this. If you know something, it is a building block for the next level of learning about that subject. If you know how to build a circuit board and can explain the patterns to someone, then you are ready for the next step in hardware development. If you know how to solve quadratic equations in mathematics, you can solve chemical formulas! That’s the transfer of knowledge, and that’s how new knowledge builds on what you already know.

In studying, it is not simply recall of facts that is important. Think of the meaning of those facts in the context of the course. For example, a painting may be viewed in terms of its context as part of history, or the process the painter used (tiny dots or vertical strokes?), as a sample of a “school” of art (who else used that style?), or as a chemical process (how was that color made in that shade?).

If you write down these thoughts, you have produced a record of your learning that you can return to in the future. Why not date what you write so that you can observe the progress of your studies over time?



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The Companion for the First Year at City Tech Copyright © by Office of First Year Programs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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