Seven Core Tips for Effective Studying

Age 16 to 18
Article by Doug Seymour

Published 2011

At the time of writing this article Doug had just finished the first year of his engineering degree course, and was working with NRICH over the summer. Here he gives some sound advice on attitudes towards learning to those about to begin their degrees. Forewarned is forearmed!

Understand the course you are doing

When studying for A-levels, I was surprised how many people did not know what module they were studying, or how many modules there were, or how many marks were allocated to each module, exam, and piece of coursework. Understanding these things is the first step to breaking down the problem into manageable chunks, especially during a degree where things are more complicated and where information arrives more rapidly. Once you start categorising the information in a structured way, learning begins to fall into place, as a job that you just do. The difference in inate ability between people is highly overrated, and attitude is the real determining factor.

Above all, learning is not about being able to recite the textbook that goes with the course. I don't know if it ever was, but it certainly isn't now. There are certain things to learn, and then next year there will be more. Identifying what the things are that you need to learn is the first step in learning them.

You get better at learning as you learn

You should expect that as you learn, your memory and abilities to learn will improve. Your abilities are not fixed. That is a surprise to most people.

What is flux? (or understanding what you don't need to know)

We deal with a lot of abstract concepts in science, and sometimes they are a stumbling block for people. The concept of "magnetic flux", for example, is introduced in A-level in a very hand-wavy way. You are told it is something that can be cut, and it is even given the unit "Weber". And then at degree level you learn that there is a flux for an electric field too. And still most 1st years don't know what flux is.

But the point here is not flux, I am simply saying how much stuff there is that we meet "in passing". The point is that to progress well, you sometimes need to identify what you _don't_ need to know. Sometimes teachers aren't great at pointing these things out, and often feel obligated to teach these unexamined things. If you can develop an awareness that some of the material you are presented with is background; that is, it needs to be there, and you might need to know of its existence, but you don't necessarily need to have your mind wrapped around it. But make sure you understand those things you are supposed to understand! If you don't know which is which, ask someone.

Ask questions

People who ask questions do better than people who don't. The reason people don't ask questions is because they think that maybe everyone already knows the answer and that maybe they are the only one who doesn't get it. 99% of the time this is not the case: at least 4/5 of the people in the room probably feel as you do. And in the 1% of the time that is not the case, it doesn't matter, so ask the question.

Keep a constant work level

Often you might start a course of study, and have a zeal of good intentions; your handwriting is super-neat, and you probably even sit up a little straighter. Unfortunately for many people, they cannot maintain this, and their attitude degrades. By the end of the year (when it is most important) they are skipping homework and missing lectures. Try and find some kind of middle ground that you can maintain throughout the study year. Study years are generally October to June, so you always have a long break to look forward to in which you can do whatever you want. Put this juicy treat on the end of a stick and hold it in front of yourself, safe in the knowledge that you will get to have it!

Make doubly sure, though, that exams don't sneak up on you. Exams are a little odd, in that a year's work is tested in a few hours. I tend to have a heightened exam awareness from the January, as 20 weeks quickly becomes 10, quickly becomes 4...

When is this work going to be easiest?

Do work in a way that helps you. If you write up lecture notes, and do any associated work, the day of the lecture, it is going to be fresh in your mind, and save you time in the long run.

Past exams

I couldn't write a study skills article without mentioning Past Exam Papers. The point is though, use whatever resources are best. Ebay, beg, or borrow as many as you can, especially for A-levels. And then make sure that by the end you can _do_, without notes, as many of the past examples as possible.

There are a lot of resources available which people might guide you to, but remember that it is you who benefits from learning; it is your business to find and use the best resources. Once you take responsibility for your own learning, and think of teachers and lecturers as simply good resources for you to draw apon, then things will really take off for you.