I’ve been getting quite a few questions about how I organise my university work and keep stress levels at bay. I think study habits are something very personal and what works for me might not work for you. How you study most efficiently depends on how you memorise and internalize things and, perhaps most importantly, what factors motivate you. For example, I hate leaving things until just before the deadline, but many other people I know are motivated by the extra time constraint. Everyone needs to figure out their own system. Don’t just follow the common approach to studying (taking endless notes during lectures, rereading text books, cramming like mad for days before exams), because you think that’s what should work best.
Here are four techniques to try if you are on the market for a better study system.
Get into a routine
Identify tasks that you have to do every week and assign a time slot for tackling each one. For example, decide that you will do the reading for your art history class every Friday after lunch in the library and your calculus homework every Wednesday before class. Try to spread out your work, don’t aim to do too much in one day. Once you have followed your routine for a couple of weeks all of your regular work will get done without you having to think about it too much, you will always be on top of readings or homework and you can concentrate on bigger assignments, such as your thesis.
Write papers in small batches
Instead of pulling an all-nighter to write your term essay, try to start working on it as you as you receive the assignment. Then work on it for no more than one or two hours at a time throughout the term, each time writing a few more paragraphs and slowly building up your argument. One of the advantages of this method is that it makes the writing process seem a lot less daunting. It also allows you to think more carefully about the topic, which will ultimately lead to better marks. And, of course, you can spend the night before the deadline doing something more fun, like celebrating or sleeping.
Stop taking notes
Okay, don’t stop taking notes completely, but stop scribbling down everything you hear or read that sounds vaguely important. Instead, make your note taking more goal-directed. The aim of every lecture and every book is to answer a specific question; try to define this question as soon as possible. For scientific papers or books the question can usually be found in the abstract or the first few paragraphs and every (good) professor will usually outline his intentions in the beginning of the class. Note down the question, and then listen or read on until you find evidence that could answer the question and write it down in your own words. In the end write a short one-sentence conclusion. If you do this for every reading or lecture you will have a pretty comprehensive stack of truly helpful summaries, meaning you won’t have to go through pages of notes and decipher what is important and what isn’t when revising for an exam.
It is difficult to motivate yourself to study if you don’t know why you should be doing it in the first place. At the beginning of each term, spend a bit of time thinking about what you want to accomplish and psych yourself up about your goals by visualizing how you will feel once you have achieved them. This technique also works for overcoming short-term dips in motivation. If you cannot bring yourself to do something, imagine how great you will feel in a few hours when you have finished it. Don’t forget to reward yourself even for little things; for example, make a deal with yourself that you will work on your assignment for just another hour and then get to watch the new episode of your favourite show.
If you have a tendency to procrastinate, check out this post: Advice for Hardcore Procrastinators.
How do you combat school stress? Do you use any special studying techniques?