What Every First-year Student Should Know - Study
Obviously. The big question here is: How much should you study? Well, I’ve heard two rules of thumb. One rule says you should spend two hours studying outside of class for every hour you spend in class. If you have 15 hours of classes a week, you should plan on 30 hours of studying a week. If you study five nights a week — leaving yourself two nights a week for, uh, relaxation — that’s six hours of studying a night.
The other rule was my father’s. (He gave me a lot of advice before I went to college, some good, some bad. This one proved to be rock solid.) College is your job for four years. A job takes 40 hours a week. If you spend 15 hours a week in class, that leaves 25 hours a week that you should be studying — because it’s your job. (My father also used to say that if I didn’t like the job of going to college, I could always quit and find another job.) Five nights a week, five hours of studying a night.
(I talk about studying at night in all this discussion, because it seems to me that that’s when most serious studying is likely to take place. On the other hand, a colleague pointed out to me that a lot of studying can be done during the day — before, between, or immediately after classes, while material is still fresh in your mind. I agree, provided that the block of time is large enough — at least one full class period. A half hour isn’t enough. You can reduce, perhaps significantly, the number of night hours you need to study, if you can effectively manage some daytime hours. Non-traditional students do it all the time.)
Five hours. Six hours. That’s a lot. But is it really? Compared to the amount of studying you probably did in high school, it is. But — repeat after me — this isn’t high school. As I said earlier, it’s easy to sleep-walk through college, doing as little work as possible. But the payoff is a poor education and a mediocre GPA. If you think about it for a moment, five or six hours of studying a night is only an hour or so per day per subject. At the end of each week you will have studied each subject for five or six hours. That’s not excessive. Just keeping up with your reading, your studying, and all your other work — and keeping up is essential — should take you about five to six hours a night. (OK, maybe three to four on some nights.) If it’s taking you only one or two hours every night, you aren’t doing it right.
And I’m talking about serious studying here, not just sitting with your book open on your lap staring at it. Studying, not homework. Homework screams, “High school!” Homework is a task you do to keep your teacher happy. Studying is something you do for yourself. Studying means thinking about what you’re reading, thinking about your lecture notes. My dictionary defines studying as “applying one’s mind purposefully to the acquisition of knowledge.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
I don’t have a lot of tips about study techniques, because I think that different things work for different people and different courses call for different techniques. But I do have a couple of ideas that you might find useful. First, I think it’s a bad move to take notes on your readings then study only these notes. What if you’ve missed an important point? What if you’ve misinterpreted a point? What if you’ve missed the point of the reading altogether? If all you read are your notes, you’ll never know. You’ll never have a chance to get it right. You’ll be studying something filled with holes and errors. So, stick with the original sources.
(Bear in mind that I’m referring to notes you take on your readings, not your class notes. Do study your class notes. Class notes orient you to your professor’s “take” on the course material. Does your professor accept what the assigned reading says? Does he or she disagree with it? Have new ideas that enlarge on it? Your class notes can answer these questions. Successfully completing a course means more than just mastering the readings; it means understanding the professor’s point of view. You get this in class; you learn it from your class notes. Class notes allow you to compare your understanding with your professor’s. It will become quickly apparent if you’re off on the wrong track. Also, class notes are where you can write down other students’ questions and the professor’s answers — valuable stuff to have when you’re trying to study for a test at 11 p.m.)
Second, here’s how I focus my attention when I’m studying — when I need to read material that, let’s admit it, isn’t always fascinating. Select a section to read, say a chapter in a book. Read through it once — straight through — trying to understand the author’s main idea or ideas. Get a sense of the whole. Ask yourself, “What is the author trying to get me to know here?” If you come across a word you don’t understand, look it up in the dictionary — buy a dictionary if you don’t already own one — but otherwise, read the section straight through. Now, right after reading it this first time, read it again, this time with a pencil in hand. Underline what you think are the important points. It may be that you underline a sentence or two in each paragraph, or you may go for several pages without having to underline anything. Your goal is to underline enough to help you make sense out of the material at a later date, just by reading what you underlined. You should underline whatever you think will help you remember the author’s ideas later, without having to reread everything. After you’ve read the material this second time, go on to something else. A few days later, go back and reread just the material that you underlined. If this doesn’t recall the author’s ideas, read beyond your underlining and underline other things. Now ask yourself, if my professor asked me what the one or two most important ideas are in what I read, what would I say? Take a highlighter and mark those ideas. Then ask yourself why you think those are the most important ideas.
What have you accomplished with all this? Well, you’ve studied the material — not just read it — at least three times. Each time you’ve studied it, you’ve looked at it in a more focused way. You’ve thought about the material. You’ve examined it in the context of some of your other work. And, when it comes time to study for the test, you don’t have to read everything all over again — or desperately cram to get it all in. All you have to do is review your underlining and your highlighting. Try this method. It may work for you.
(After a colleague read the section above, she wrote: “Your advice about how to study makes a great deal of sense. It might be useful, however, to consider what this study regimen means for the slow or poor reader. Something has to happen or this student is in big trouble. In courses that demand a lot of reading, such a student may have difficulty reading all the material once, let alone doing what you recommend. If a slow or poor reader is going to study as you say it should be done, he or she is going to have to devote many more hours to studying than the average you suggest and probably will need to make greater effort all around to succeed. That person will have to (1) allot more time to studying; (2) take a study skills/critical reading course; or even (3) take fewer courses per semester until he or she builds up his or her reading skills.”)