Welcome to the fourth part of Learning to Learn. Now it's time to apply
some theory and come up with a working model of how to study. While
we're at it we'll find it necessary to incorporate some simple time-management
principles and I can't think of a better place to do it.
We'll start with that thing timetabled immediately before examinations
called "Revision". If you are like most students you will
rely on this period to do the work you should have done throughout the
preceding 10 weeks. So this is the time when you open up your file of
lecture notes and spend the first half day wondering what the hell these
scribbles were meant to mean.
Undoubtedly this leads to an outbreak of cold-sweat followed by that
familiar tight feeling in the chest called panic. The situation isn't
eased any when you discover that even notes taken the previous week
are largely indecipherable rubbish. So you dig out the recommended textbook
and, after opening it for the first time, start reading only to discover
that a lot of what you are reading doesn't make sense. Still, you can
always fall back on the old technique of cramming as many facts as possible
into your short term memory in the belief that you'll be able to string
enough of them together into a coherent sentence to fool the examiner.
After all, it worked at school.
After two weeks of this followed by an incredibly stressful period
of exams you are wrecked and no wonder. You promise yourself it is going
to be different in future but, of course, it never is.
It need not be like this, believe me. With a modicum of honest toil
and a decent system you will be able to relax during the revision period
and sail through the exams. First let's take a look at lectures and
then how to best use your time to do that studying thing you're supposed
to be here for.
Lectures and classes
It is difficult to generalise about lectures because different teachers
use them differently. However, it is generally true that your time
in lectures is much better spent listening and taking sensible notes
rather than trying to write down everything the lecturer says. Taking
lecture notes is an art in itself and different people like to do
it in different ways, whatever work best for you. If you have never
read any advice at all about note taking then you might like to
start here. If this doesn't sound like it might suit your particular
style and you want to try something else, the web is full of advice.
this, but remember to be critical of what you read and check
the source of the material.
Lectures are optional. Graduation is also optional.
There are those who say that lectures are a grossly inefficient means
of conveying information and we've all heard the saying that "Lectures
are a means of conveying information from the lecturer's notes to the
student's notes without passing through the minds of either". While
this may be true, it is also true that there are such things as good
lectures, I may even have given some myself, and like it or not, they
are, for the present, a major means of teaching. Unfortunately too many
students look on them as optional so I'll end this brief digression
with another quote, this one from a chap called Bob Bickford who is
reported to have said in response to such an observation "Yes,
the lectures are optional. Graduation is also optional."
In lectures, listen
Anyway, by listening carefully to what the lecturer says instead
of scribbling away like mad, you might actually hear something useful.
It is better that you leave a lecture with a clear idea about the
scope of the topic, in terms of what you will be expected to cover,
than with a record of every word spoken by the lecturer. Often there
will be some form of handout and a list of additional or further
reading. When you leave a lecture you will then be carrying four
1. your notes
2. the handout
3. a list of additional reading
4. your memory of what was said
Of these four things your memory is at once the most precious and the
most ephemeral so you must do some work associated with the lecture
as soon as possible to preserve it.
Adding value to your lecture notes
As soon as possible gather together the additional reading and the
recommended textbook with your lecture notes and handout.
Read the handout
Read the additional reading
Read the relevant part in the recommended textbook
Do any required work (at least make a start)
Then, with the aid of your original notes put together a set of
new notes, really an account of the lecture, incorporating material
from what you have read, It is important that you do not just copy
out your lecture notes. You would be surprised at the number of
students who do this and even more surprised at the proportion who
call that work. What you need to produce is a synthesis of the reading,
your notes and memory.
Once you have done that you have my permission to call it work
because what you have done is add value to your notes. Next, ask
if you could bring yourself to throw away your original notes. If
the answer is "No" then you must be thinking that they
have retained some value. If this is true then you didn't do enough
of a good job so go back and start again!
What you should be left with is a nice, neat, clearly written
and legible account of the lecture which includes the information
from the additional reading. It should represent everything you
need to know from the lecture. File it with the handout, any associated
work required by the lecturer and your original lecture notes.
And do it
When you come to revise you will find this far more useful than
scribble but read on because we're going to do something else with
it. First though a warning. It is important that you do all this
very soon after the lecture, certainly the same day but do not make
a religion out of it, don't produce 15 sides of A4, you'll never
keep it up. You should aim to crystallize the essential points.
Write in note form because notes are easier to work from. Do not
write an essay, you haven't got the time and anyway they are difficult
to revise from. Diagrams are good so long as they are large and
well annotated because pictures are an excellent way of summarising
complex concepts. We've all heard that a picture's worth a thousand
words and some people remember images much more efficiently than
text. Lists are also good especially if you can display them in
a way which improves your ability to remember the content such as
alphabetically or in a way which lends itself to a mnemonic. You
choose. Aim to produce an aide memoir not the definitive
article because what we are going to do next is some of that real
If you do this for every lecture you will have probably done more work
than the average student and once you make it routine you will become
very efficient. Start now and use the study periods associated with
each class to do it. If you get behind, don't worry. But don't get further
behind by trying to catch up, leave a gap and fill it in if you have
Applying the test
You should now have two things.
First you will have a series of lecture accounts comprising a synthesis
of the notes you took in the lecture, your memory of the lecture, the
handout, the additional reading and any associated work.
The second thing you have is a test to discover what it is that you
don't know, the mum-test.
Now what you need to do is start reading you lecture notes, starting
with the first lecture, applying the test as you go along. Apply the
test to words, phrases and concepts. Do not gloss over familiar words
assuming you now their meaning. Maybe you think you can explain osmosis
to your mum but what about osmotic pressure and where does an osmole
fit in and what is the connection with osmotically active particles?
All these have to be subjected to the "Mum-test" and if the
answer is "No" or "Not sure" then add the word to
Next, spend a couple of minutes organising the list. Put them in some
kind of logical order
and then assign each word, phrase or concept a level of difficulty,
say easy or moderate or hard. Do not have too many categories or you
will get tied up deciding in which category to place an item on the
list. Three categories is plenty and your perception of the degree of
difficulty depends not just on whether you are dealing with a concept
rather than a simple word but also on your judgment about whether you
would find it more or less easy to explain it to mum.
Working through the list
After you have read through each day's lecture notes you will have a
list for each and to begin with this may seem formidable. I'll bet you
never dreamed you knew so little! Do not panic, it's the same for everyone.
What you must now do is start working systematically through each list.
To do this you will need notepaper, pens, pencils, a decent scientific
dictionary, a regular dictionary, and some relevant textbooks. Gosh!
You're going to do some work and you know exactly what it is that you're
going to do and when you have finished you will have achieved something
and even have a record of what it is that you have done. Wow! You are
now task oriented.
Some of the words you have on your list will need nothing more than
a quick search in a dictionary. Make a note of their meaning next to
the word on your list, tick it off and move to the next word. The phrases
may take a little longer, say 5-10 minutes and the concepts longer still,
say 15-20 minutes. No task should take longer than 20 minutes at the
very most. If you think it might, then use the salami-slicing technique
to break it down to a number of smaller tasks. Remember that the best
way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
It's not as hard as you think
This may sound like an awful lot of work and I can not deny that it
is, at least to begin with. At first you will be horrified to discover
that you are unsure about the simplest of scientific principles and
as for those regular English words that you thought you understood!
But as you proceed you will certainly discover that very quickly it
all starts to get easier. The reason for this is that you will be getting
used to the system and working more efficiently but also that many scientific
words and principles have broad application. You may find that "hypertonic"
appears on three of your lists. In fact I can almost guarantee that
this will happen with quite a number of words. Suddenly you will be
working through the lists a bit more quickly than you thought might
be the case at first.
You will also be delighted to discover that concepts such as, say,
"Epitactic sites of collagen and mineralisation of dentine"
suddenly do not seem so difficult as you originally thought. This is
almost certainly because the reason for your difficulty in understanding
was due entirely to a lack of understanding of the basic scientific
principles involved. Once you have these to hand they need nothing more
than a simple application and the difficulty you had evaporates.
Application of Information leads to Knowledge
Finding time for the pub
At the beginning of this part I said that I would describe a method
of work but also incorporate some time-management guidance. Well, now's
the time for the time-management but please don't switch off because
you'll find this very relevant and, I hope, extremely useful because
I'm going to tell you how to take some time off without feeling guilty.
Mental power reduces during the day
Before I begin, however, you need to recognise that your capacity for
mental work, concentration if you like, is not the same throughout the
day. Capacity is high in the morning and wanes throughout the day reaching
its lowest point in the late evening. Some people will swear that they
work best at night, so-called "night-people". I don't believe
it, I think they are kidding themselves for whatever reason. It is also
well known, and there is good scientific basis for it, that your powers
of concentration are reduced following a meal. It's connected with you
blood-sugar level. Few reading this will disagree that however active
you feel before Sunday lunch you rarely seem to have the energy to wash
the dishes until after a good loaf on the sofa even if all the work
that's needed is to fill the dishwasher. As for settling down for a
good study session, forget it!
Life before breakfast
Try waking up a couple of hours before having breakfast and using that
time to complete jobs that require the highest powers of mental concentration.
If you have
identified something which seems difficult, or something you have been
struggling with, then your first task of the day might be to get to
grips with it. You might surprise yourself how seemingly intractable
problems are so easily resolved at this time of day.
Now I wouldn't want to give the impression that waking at 6:00am is
an essential prerequisite for success at studying but it doesn't hurt
to give it a try. No, really, it doesn't! Solving a hard problem and
a couple of less difficult tasks before breakfast will give you an almighty
sense of achievement which you can build on for the rest of the day
but be careful not to feel too smug about it, the rest of the course
has probably been doing it as well.
The adverse effect of eating
Note that your powers of concentration generally decrease throughout
the day but drop sharply after a meal. The effect of food on mental
capacity has been recognised for centuries and is the reasoning behind
the many accounts of prophets, philosophers and assorted sages who starve
themselves to improve their powers of reason and thought. Among the
more familiar, at least for Christians, is the story of Jesus wandering
in the desert for 40 days and nights.
And the message is
So the message from this is that you should sort your tasks and match
their degree of difficulty to your mental state. It stands to reason
that you have to use your time properly. Some jobs are easy and require
little high-level thinking, others are harder and demand greater concentration,
yet both are "work" and both need to be done. What you need
to be able to do is divide the work so that each is accomplished at
the most suitable time of the day. The best way of making this point
is to use examples.
An easy task
Let's take a task which requires little in the way of concentration
yet is critical to the whole study method I have been describing.
The task I have in mind is reading your lecture notes and making
your task-list. Without this list you have no tasks, but producing
it does not require much thinking beyond "Can I explain this
to mum?". With a little practice you could read through your
notes and produce an organised list in about 10 minutes for each
lecture. Say a total of 40 minutes a day, but when to do it? Without
a doubt this is the kind of work to do when your mental faculties
are winding down in the evening, after dinner.
If, to begin with, you use this time only to make your lists that's
fine but later you might think you could do a bit of other low-level
work such as looking up words in dictionaries and sorting out some of
the simpler principles. You'll soon get a feel for how much you can
comfortably get through but beware of slipping back into "time-mode"
by saying to yourself that you must spend the next two hours working
on your tasks. Better to say,
"I will accomplish the following tasks before calling it a
Then you can adjust the list of things to do to a number which will
allow you plenty of time to visit the pub with your friends. You are
much more likely to finish the tasks than you are to work for the full
two hours when in "time-mode".
Difficult tasks do not evaporate
One final and important point. Do not postpone difficult tasks. This
will only block your brain, reduce your powers of concentration and
working capacity and sap your will to continue. Tasks rarely, if ever,
get more pleasant by being postponed. If a task seems too big or too
difficult then break it down into smaller tasks which are more easily
Retaining the lists
As you work through your task list, your lecture accounts (the ex-notes
you worked on, remember?) will grow a bit as you add the supplementary
notes which explain all the information you have uncovered by working.
That's OK and that's also the place where you should keep them. Fairly
quickly you will have finished the list, each item ticked off.
Do not throw the list away, it's your record of the work you
This isn't half as daft as it sounds. Some time in the near future,
as you approach the exams, doubt will creep into your mind about the
amount of studying you have done. If this happens, take a look through
the lists for reassurance.
Before we move on, and there is a little more, there is one final tweek
to this study model.
Keep on reviewing
When you first read through your notes asking yourself if you could
explain this to mum you may firmly believe that your knowledge and understanding
of cell biology is sufficient to enable you to explain to her what membranes
are all about. However, as you progress with the course and your learning
you may well discover that things are not quite as simple and straightforward
as you originally thought. This will probably come as no surprise to
many of you who have realised that much of what you have been taught
previously is often a finely crafted story which ignores a lot of uncomfortable
facts. I'm not suggesting that this is wrong, my 12 year-old daughter
knows that membranes exist but it would be unreasonable to expect her
to know about the arrangement of saturated and unsaturated phospholipids
in them or about transmembrane proteins.
But you are now reaching the stage where you might reasonably be expected
to be able to deal with uncomfortable facts and when you are exposed
to some they have a nasty habit of upsetting some of what you "know".
All you can do is readjust and carry on. You may, however, not readily
realise that new facts have upset the apple cart so we must incorporate
into our working model of how to study a means of reviewing what we
think we understand.
This is quite straightforward and simply involves starting afresh
with your notes every couple of weeks. This isn't going to be anything
like as tough as the first time round but it will give you the opportunity
to take a second and third look at material you may, at first, have
assumed you were comfortable with. There is an added advantage of
this reviewing process which I will come back to in the next and
final part when we take a look at the use and value of study groups.
Part 5 Study Groups