Talk with your students about study skills

Finals are upon us!

Many students have pretty lousy study skills, particularly newer students. I think we need to talk with our classes about how to study. Not all studying is equally effective.

Here’s what I often see:

Student sitting in a comfy chair, legs propped up, laptop open. Earbuds are in the ears, iPhone next to the laptop. Huge coffee next to that. Every couple of minutes, the student picks up the phone, types in a response. No doubt a text message just came in, or the song needed changing. Then, student takes a sip of the coffee, shifts position and looks back at the laptop. Concentration effectively broken for about a minute every couple of minutes.

Multi-tasking. Split-attention.

All proven with lots of good neuroscience research to hamper deep learning and memory.

What works?

1. Make a list of study tasks/goals. Divide the list into work units that are about an hour or so long. Make the work units specific (for example: Identify two sources for term paper in XXcourse. Jot down notes from first paper in first hour; from second paper in second hour.) Find a study location away from noise and distraction and treat it like your workplace.

2. Focus on ONE thing. The task at hand: studying. No cell phone. No music.

2. Take short breaks every 20 minutes or so. In order to be most effective, break up your studying into specific tasks that can be worked on for twenty minute blocks. Make the break short: get up, stretch, move away from your study site and allow your attention to shift to something else. Keep the break to just a minute or two.

3. When you return to your study site, briefly re-cap what you did the previous twenty minutes. A great strategy is to write a short summary sentence that encapsulates the concept(s) or ideas you focused on.

4. After two or three 20 minutes sessions on one subject (complete with mini-breaks), take a larger break of about 30 minutes or so. Eat a snack, do a little exercise, listen to some music, give your mind a rest. Then, shift to a different subject.

5. Consider taking short naps to help you consolidate your studying. Take the nap after a subject session is done. Keep the nap to 20-30 minutes. (Yes! There’s good research that touts the learning/memory benefits of periods of sleep.)

6. Do NOT stay up all night. It’s better to stop, go to sleep and wake up early (say, 5am) then it is to stay up until 5am and then sleep.

I recommend you mention study tactics and strategies that you have found effective to your students before they head off to study for your final work. Give them (unsolicited) advice on how best to work/learn in your own discipline. In large part, success on final work has more to do with work tactics than intelligence.