If you are a long-time reader of The Amateur Financier, you probably know that from time to time, I diverge from the personal finance realm and cover other hopefully useful topics. One of my favorites is test taking; as I’ve spent much of my life involved in education, both taking and administrating tests, I’ve learned more than a few things about the fine art of test taking. I’ve shared some general advice on taking your classes, as well as the fine art of last minute studying, but there’s always more to be learned.
Now, with the month of August upon us, it is that sad time of year when nearly all levels of the educational system are planning their return to the school yard (or the university), and thus, now is as good a time as any to re-examine your study habits. Don’t think I’m limiting this just to the school-goers, though: if you are a human being who is still alive and in control of your mental faculties, you will need to be able to study at some point in your future life. Whether it is for work, for a side project, for your own purposes, or yes, for school, you need to be able to take information that is out there and put it into your brain, to access and apply whenever it is required. Now, for some advice on how to do that:
-Know What You Are Studying, and Why: You will, over the course of your lifetime, need to learn a great deal of facts and skills in a number of different fields. One of the first things you should do while trying to learn new information is consider WHY you are learning it. There is a much different approach needed when trying to simply keep information for a required-for-graduation course in your head until the end of the semester than when trying to learn how to perform a procedure that will likely be a major part of your professional life for the next three decades, and both methods differ from trying to add some facts to your brain purely for your own enjoyment. Knowing how long, to what level of depth, and what type of recall you need to have for a particular set of facts will help you figure out how to study from there.
-Take Advantage of All Your Information Sources: You’re living in a wonderful time, when all the information you could need (and nearly all the information you could want) is available at the touch of a few keys on your keyboard. Even if all the information online isn’t enough, if you are supposed to be learning this information for work or school, chances are you have other sources, like text books, professors, and coworkers, from whom you can derive this information. If you use all your information sources, getting different perspectives and different ways of expressing the information, you’ll be able to retain the information better overall.
-Put Study Time in Every Day: I know, I know, it’s boring to study when you’re in school and having tons of things you’d rather be doing. I’ll assure all the high school students (and any younger readers) that things won’t change much as you get older: college has even more things to pull you away from studying, and once you’re out of college…Well, you ain’t seen nothing, distraction-wise, until you have a regular income, a car of your own, and the ability to do things like drinking and going to clubs (legally, anyway). Still, if you hope to learn something, really learn it, you’ll need to put in at least some time to study everyday. The amount of time will vary according to how well you need to learn the material, of course; something you need to be mildly familiar with a month from now will require much less study time each day than the material you need to have memorized in a week. But anything you hope to learn should be reviewed on a daily basis.
-DON’T Try to ‘Cram’: Procrastination happens; I get that, I’ve waited until right before a test to start seriously studying many a time myself. While it’s tempting to try to make up for that lack of earlier studying by cramming as much studying as you can into the last few days (or, heaven forbid, pulling an all-nighter to get more study time in), it’s not going to make up for too little studying earlier. At best, you’re going to retain only a small fraction of the material you tried to cram; at worst, you’ll end up forgetting material you thought you knew, as your brain attempts to remember all this new material and suffers from an inability to recall earlier information. If you didn’t learn all you needed to learn for a test or work situation, try to learn a bit more while you can, focus on recalling what you already know, and do what you can with what you know. (Also, if you are a night owl who stays up late, you’re likely to have trouble retaining information, as well.)
-Vary Your Study Habits and Environment: It’s easy, when we are trying to learn something, to get into a rut. We find a method that works for us, and do the same thing every time we need to learn new information, for years or even decades at a time. While it is good to know how you, personally, learn at your best and try to take advantage of that fact, if you study night after night in the same fashion, you’re going to have more trouble recalling everything. You need to make sure that you vary how you study, changing your environment, study materials, and methods to make sure that your studying doesn’t end up being a monotonous mess in your mind when it comes time to put your studying to work. While we’re on the subject:
-Make Sure to Take Breaks Every So Often: ‘Finally,’ you’re saying, ‘Advice I don’t mind following.’ Now, before you go and pack your bags to take a week off from studying, remember we aren’t talking about days, or even necessarily hours, away from your study material. Rather, it’s good to pull yourself away from your studying for short periods, to get up, stretch, and then get back to studying before too long. There’s a lot of ways to do this: study for half an hour and then take a break for ten minutes; study for an hour and break for fifteen minutes; two hours of studying followed by a half hour break; and so on. The point is less to cut down your study time and more to allow you time away from the books (or likely nowadays, computer), to give your brain a chance to digest what you just read, give your eyes a chance to rest, and give your body the opportunity to move and burn off some of your nervous energy. The goal is to return to your studying (not too much later, particularly when you have a lot of studying to do) with more energy and readiness to learn than when you left.