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Study skills are strategies and methods that aid learning. As learning is generally considered a personal experience it is possible for some people to spend a whole lifetime learning without actually learning much about how they learn and how they might improve it. Students usually become aware of study skills when their learning habits are limiting their potential, don't suit their personality, or are causing significant levels of anxiety before exams.
Adam Robinson, founder of The Princeton Review, wrote in his 1993 book "What Smart Students Know"ISBN 0-517-88085-7:
- "No one bothered to teach you the most important academic skill: how to learn. Your teachers (and perhaps you) assumed that the ability to learn in a school setting was a natural gift -- either you were born with the knack or you weren't. This belief is entirely wrong. Learning is a natural ability, but learning in school is another matter. If school were structured in a way that better conformed to how you learn naturally, you wouldn't need me or anyone else telling you how to learn." [Page 2]
Topics dealt with by Study skills include:
- Maintaining a work and leisure balance
- Reducing stress
- Effective reading
- Strategies for writing essays
- Effective note taking
- Improving concentration
- Improving memory
- Preparing for exams
- Reducing test anxiety
- Speed reading
Maintaining a balance between work and other activities
Many students find it hard to start working or work for too long when they do. If you find yourself avoiding starting work or seemingly finding ways out of studying then try to start studying for short periods of 10-15 minutes on a regular basis. This if done properly can help ease you into interrupting your normal daily routine enough to actually get some work done. When you find that you can sit and concentrate (which are skills that need to be warmed up by this process as well) for longer periods then change to a full study routine.
If you find that you study for too long then it can seem much more of a chore than it really has to be. Even students who really enjoy their subject can end up resenting the amount of work they have to do if they fall into ineffective study patterns. If you study for too long at a time you may begin to fall into the avoiding starting to study pattern.
A realistic study pattern (although it is better to find your own personal pattern) is that of a designated 2 hour session with a 5 minute break every half hour. During the 5 minutes be mindful to get away from the studying and do something that is both relaxing and different e.g. get a breath of fresh air. Make sure that you end the 2 hour session whether you have completed what you have been studying or not and commit to return to that point in the next 2 hour session.
In between sessions try to do something you enjoy or something new and refreshing. It is sometimes easy to view times of study as mundane but they can also be times where you try new experiences and be creative. At first it may seem a little hard to think of things that you don't normally do and might enjoy and it is different for everyone. Some examples may include going to the park, watching a DVD, painting a picture, going to a museum, meeting friends (but preferably not talking about study), learning a musical instrument, watching a sporting event that you do not normally attend, reading a novel, playing a new sport, etc... It is important to attempt to change a revision period to a time where you are choosing to experience new things as well as choosing to learn new things, which is a much more positive way to approach studying
How to prepare for an exam:
Preparing for an exam requires a good understanding of what is expected of you, a rigid work-life balance than maximises your energy and strengths, a certain amount of self discipline, and a set of study skills that are effective, varied, and interesting.
It is a basic premise that the more that you use information (read it, speak about it, draw it, write it, etc...) the more you remember and the longer you will remember it.
The PQRST Method
Preview: Look at the topic you have to learn glancing over the major headings or the points in the syllabus.
Question: Formulate questions that you would like to be able to answer once you have finished the topic. It is important that you match as much as possible what you would like to know to your syllabus or course direction. This allows a certain flexibility to take in other topics that may aid your learning of the main point or if you are just interested. Make sure that your questions are neither more specific or more open-ended than they might be in an exam.
Read: Read through your reference material that relates to the topic you want to learn for your exam being mindful to pick out the information that best relates to the questions you wish to answer.
Summary: This is the most flexible part of the method and allows individual students to bring any ways that they used to summarise information into the process. This can include making written notes, spider diagrams, flow diagrams, labelled diagrams, mnemonics, making a voice recording of you summarising the topic, or any method that feels most appropriate for what has to be learnt. You can combine several methods as long as this doesn't extend the process too long as you may lose sight that you are merely seeking to use the information in the most appropriate way.
Test: Use this step to assess whether you have focused on the important information and stayed on topic. Answer the questions that you set for yourself in the Question section as fully as you can as this using of the information is another way of using the information and remembering more of it. This section also reminds you to continually manipulate the information so that is focused on whatever form of assessment that it is needed for. It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the point of learning and see it as a task to be completed mundanely. Try to avoid adding questions that you didn't formulate in the Q section.
The method that many students who like to add an overt structure to their learning to keep them on track is the PQRST method. It helps the student focus on studying and prioritising the information in a way that relates directly to how they will be asked to use that information in an exam. The method can also be modified to suit any particular form of learning in most subjects. It can also allow more accurate timing of work so instead of having to decide how much time to attribute to one whole topic you can decide how long it might take to preview the material and then each step after that.
Every student will have summary methods that are individual to them as the subjects they are using them for. It is imporant to vary your summary skills set and not get stuck on one method that you have always done and have had success with. Some methods are better suited to different subjects and tasks e.g. mnemonics may fair better for learning lists or facts while spider diagrams better for linking concepts.
Mnemonics: This is a very old method of memorizing lists and organising them. As they are often funny, rude, or explicit, they are sometimes not seen as the creative and effective memory devices that actually aids the process of categorising information that occurs in the brain when trying to remember new facts by linking them to an event, word, or location.
Example 1: A simple childhood mnemonic is used for learning the points of the compass. Naughty Elephants Squirt Water reminds us not only of the points of the compass but in the order they occur when encountered clockwise.
Example 2: Unlike elephants and compasses the best menomics actually relate directly to what it is that has to be learnt. A medical example of this is related to the four muscles surrounding the shoulder (the menomic taken from the first letter of each muscle givens SITS) and it is said that anyone hurting these muscles SITS out from sports or other activities. Given context the mnemonic itself is more useful as a memory tool despite also reminding you of the names of the muscles, the order in which they are located and so on.
The best menomics are generally personal ones that you generate at the point of learning and if possible are arranged to be in context. You can also use the imagery created e.g. an elephant with a compass in the first example, to remember the information more as images and storys in a method often praised by people who teach people to improve their memory.
Spider diagrams: Using spider diagrams or mind maps can be an effective way of linking concepts together. They are incredibly useful for planning essays and essays in exams. They can also be useful for linking loosely related chains of facts and make them form a more solid narrative of connected information. There are many books available that built on spider diagrams or mind maps as an effective summary tool used in all parts of modern life.
Diagrams: Diagrams are often underated tools. They can be used to bring all the information together and give you practice at reorganising what you have learnt in order to produce something practical and useful. They can also remind you of information you have learnt very quickly particularly if you made the diagram yourself at the time that you learnt the information. Try buying a notebook with no lines and make a sketch, diagram, or pictogram of the information you have just learnt. This could form part of the Summary part of the PQRST method or in any other way. These pictures can then be transferred to flash cards that are very effective last minute revision tools rather than rereading any written material.
FlashCards (A5 index cards): These are effective revision tools but students often set out to make them and they become more of a chore. It is much more effective to make cards at the time that you are revising. If these cards are made during the summary part of the PQRST method then are directly associated with what you learnt. The cards are less effective when students set out to make them late in a revision cycle merely as tools to look at during the 20-30 minutes before an exam. The cards are indeed useful for last minute reading as they often nothing new and therefore is more likely to focus on what you know and not alert you to something you dont know so well.
Some students find the topics that they are rivising overwhelming and seemingly endless. Although the PQRST method can help maintain your focus on the whole point of learning the large topic in the first place there are other methods that help faciltate your learning.
If you break a large topic in a series of smaller topics that can be defined as a size of material that takes less than 10 minutes each to complete. Even the largest project or topic can be broken down into these bitesize sections. The important part comes in regarding the series of smaller 10 minutes as adding up to the whole topic and that it is finished.
This system can be drawn as a pyramid with topics requiring incrementally more time on each level. So if you decided that you needed to break it into 20 minute segments then you could place 10 minute and 5 minute topics on lower levels of the pyramid that mount up to the whole topic at the apex of the pyramid. Starting from the bottom when all the smaller blocks are in the place then the pyramid is built and the topic finished.
Topic ABCDEFGHIJK Collectively 1.5 hours
Part 1 ABC 20 Minutes
Part 2 DEF 10 Minutes
Part 3 GHI 5 Minutes
Part 4 JK 5 minutes
Something that may have been put or slowed down by the size or important of the topic may be greatly shortened. Of course you can apply any other study skill such as the PQRST method to each of the individual parts to help their progression.
It is a common pitfall in studying to set out to learn everything that you have been taught in an orderly and precise fashion. If time, bordom, and fatigue were not variables that can impact on your studying and even health then this may always be possible. More normally you will have a set amount of time (that doesn't encroach on leisure time for any reason) to learn a set amount of topics. An easy way to separate what is really important to know (likely to consitute the majority of exam marks) from what you would like to know if you had infinite time and energy is the traffic light system.
Green: Take a green pen and label or place a star next to everything that is essential to know for your exam. These topics should be studied first and allow you to progress to the less number of amber and red topics. These should generally be the first few on a syllabus and be the easiest concepts to learn but also the easiest to underestimate.
Amber: Take an orange or gold pen and label everything that is neither essential to know or is not too time consuming to learn. This should form the mainstay of your learning and range from topics leading from the green range of topics to ones leading to the red range of topics.
Red: Take a red pen and label everything you would want to know if you had all the time and energy in the world but not at the expense of the essential green topics and desired amber topics. This would include overly complicated ideas and subjects that may add one or two marks but may cost you if you focus all your attention just on knowing the more difficult bits and underestimating the importance of accumulating the green and amber topics first and to a greater extend. A greater focus on green and amber topics may also lead to topics that seemed red to become more amber as time goes on.
The colour system should remind you that it is easier to get moving on green topics and to be needlessly stopped and held up by red topics. It is also important to stop amber topics It is also a healthy reminder to keeping your learning as a progressive experience and never allow it to stagnate where all topics become more red in nature as you become more tired and bored.
- Collins, S.C, Kneale P.E. (2000).Study Skills for Psychology Students: A Practical Guide. Hodder Arnold. ISBN: 9780340762189
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