5 Top Tips for Everyday Study Success
About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.
In the first year of my IB, I used to think I was the very worst student in the world.
I was scatty and disorganised, terrible at Maths and Science, and had a concentration span of about thirty seconds on even my favourite subjects. I’d do my homework, but never anything extra. My ‘notes’ were a pile of undifferentiated papers shoved into a drawer in my room. Regularly, in the time I was supposed to be writing essays, doing homework or revising, I’d find myself on Facebook or YouTube for hours – without even knowing how I’d got there. And about once a week I’d decide to change things – I’d sit down at my desk at 8 in the morning on a Saturday, full of good intentions, convinced that today would be the day that I’d do all my homework, organise my notes, and make a start on revising – or at least get ahead for next week. And then… nothing would happen. I’d stare at my blank computer screen, unsure where to start. There was always so much to do! An English essay to write, Spanish grammar to learn but how to even contemplate those tasks when I was so woefully behind in Maths – and the very thought of Chemistry was enough to make me feel slightly sick.
The result was always exactly the same. Every single Saturday for months and months. I’d open my Chemistry or Maths textbook at Chapter One, copy out the first half-page, and then proceed to ignore it all day while I, feeling steadily guiltier with every hour that passed, fiddled about on the internet or did my best to distract anyone else who came into the library.
If all this sounds familiar to you, don’t worry. Disorganisation, low motivation and chronic procrastination are all perfectly curable diseases. Though of course some people find it harder to concentrate than others, often being unfocused is a product of not knowing where to begin – when everything seems too big, too much, too hard, make a cup of tea. What’s more, I personally think that sometimes, not being able to concentrate or direct your energies towards a single goal might be a product of the fact that you’re doing just-about OK: when school work is truly urgent, most people are much too stressed to while away the hours Instagramming pictures of cups of coffee. That said, there really is something to be said for getting on top of your school work early – not just doing homework, but starting to organise your knowledge, improve on important skills and think about how to do your best, without the pressure of exams or coursework. When studying subjects to a high level, you need more than a few weeks of cramming to truly get the hang of a lot of material and skills. So this article is about two things: first, knowing what you do need to start doing all the time, every day, in order to make slow but sure improvement on your grades (and as a result, not worrying about all the other stuff); and second, knowing how to make the time you spend working pay off.
As I’m sure your teachers never tire of telling you, a great thing about high school is that you get to focus on the subjects you love in depth. When you’re younger, rote-learning the information teachers give you is enough to get you even the highest grades. But at your level, you’re expected to research your subjects widely outside the classroom – reading relevant newspaper articles, looking things up online – perhaps even having a go at the odd academic article. Now, this obviously makes school-work more fun: it gives you a chance to learn about the aspects of a topic that are relevant to your life, or that particularly interest you. It makes your work better, adding breadth, depth and originality. But remember to focus the majority of your attention on what you really need to know: the details of which you can find in your syllabus. Because if you can’t show you know and understand the basics, any extra effort in sophistication will go to waste.
Whatever programme you’re doing, you’ll have a syllabus for each subject you study. On it will be literally everything you need to know for your coursework and final exams in that subject. If you haven’t got hold of them yet, ask each of your teachers for a syllabus (some programmes put them online, but they change frequently so make sure you get the right one!) and start using it every day. After a class, you might look through the syllabus and see what points the lesson has corresponded to. When you’re revising for a test, read through it and make sure you’ve covered all the necessary areas. When something doesn’t make sense, find out what you need to know from your syllabus. It will be your most valuable tool in doing well at school – and additionally, give you an idea of how the different parts of your subject fit together.
2. Work out what you need to work on
Whatever you do after school, be it university, a training programme or a job, someone will eventually look at all of your grades, together, to get a picture of your abilities, how well you’ve done and how hard you’ve worked. They’ll take into account the best marks and the worst, and you won’t be there to tell them that your French grade isn’t the best because your mum made you take it, you missed a bit of school and you wanted to do Drama anyway. Or that you really should have gotten an ‘A’ in Physics, but your exam nerves let you down.
What all this means is that you need, now, to start thinking about the areas on which you need to focus your attention to improve. This might mean trying to work out what’s holding you back in your very hardest subject – do you not understand some basic principles in a science? Do you need to just get your head down and rote-learn lots of grammar in order to be more fluent in a language like Latin or Spanish? Or, it might mean thinking about how to get a top grade in your best subject: I loved English at school, but I had to really work on my essay technique to do well enough to study it at university. So, make a list of all the subjects you study. For each one, write three things you think you need to improve – either skills, or material. This list will hopefully help you get an overall picture of where you are, and be your starting-point when thinking about how to make gradual improvements.
Something every day
The notes you make in class are a crucial tool, both in helping you to stay on top of things as you progress through school and for the purpose of revision when the time comes for exams. If you work on them properly, your notes will ultimately be far more valuable than any textbook or revision guide, however fancy: they’ll contain your own personal insights and ways of understanding topics. They’ll be tailor-made for you, by you.
Ending up with great notes requires that you start working on them (every day, or week, though not for very long) outside lessons as well as in them. First, you need a good system of storage and organisation. If your school doesn’t provide you with notebooks, get hold of a folder for each subject, and put dividers in according to topic. Keep them somewhere safe, and put your notes straight in after you’ve perfected them. I wasted a whole two days of revision time sorting out what I came to think of as the Nightmare Box – a drawer full of jumbled bits of paper, torn, scrappy and disorganised. And I wasted a huge amount more time and energy copying out of the textbook notes I’d lost, accidentally thrown away or not bothered to write in the first place.
The notes you make in class are usually things your teacher has said, or written down on the board. Quite often, they’re undigested – you’ve copied them down in a hurry, without much time to process or elaborate before moving swiftly on to the next thing. So perhaps my most important everyday tip is, at the end of each day, or once a week if you prefer, get out your notes from class. Read through them and make sure you understand everything there. If they’re scruffy or unclear, rewrite them. Look at the syllabus and write down how your class material fits into it. If there’s anything you don’t understand, check it against a textbook or the syllabus – or make a note to ask your teacher. Practice drawing any important diagrams, and highlight any definitions you need to know. If you do all these things, you’re making sure that first, you’re not missing anything important or getting behind anywhere. And second, you’re making things much easier for yourself later in the year.
4. Use empty time to get ahead
We all have long, flat, grey moments in our day – be it on the bus to school, in a free period, or the lull between getting home and going out to see friends – when there is absolutely no fun to be had. My natural reaction during those moments is always to get out my phone and start texting someone, or scroll mindlessly through my Facebook. But even those things aren’t fun – they’re at best easy, and mildly diverting. Now, it follows that if you can use dull, dead time to study, you’ll save yourself some time elsewhere to do something you actually do want to do. However, there is of course a problem – you haven’t always got all your books or laptop on you, and no one wants to sit awkwardly on the bus or train, poking the old lady next to them with the corner of their folder, pencils rolling all over the floor, far too flustered and uncomfortable to focus on titrations. So to help, I’ve thought of some things you can do, with very little equipment or fuss, and in even tiny, ten-minute windows:
– If you study a language, download a language learning app on your phone. I use Duolingo, which is free, for Spanish, French and Latin. It helps you learn grammar and vocabulary, and I can’t put my finger on why, but it is actually fun.
– Or just rote-learn vocabulary or grammar out of your text book.
– If you do a literature subject, read the book or poems you’re working on and make notes on the text in pencil.
– Read through class notes in your hardest subject
– Get out and read through any syllabus
A final one, which takes slightly more effort, but I think pays off really well, is to record yourself reading out notes, definitions or essay plans you want to learn- and then listen to your recording when you go for a walk or are sitting on the bus. I used to do this in History with dates and ideas – and though listening to your own voice is possibly the most torturous thing ever, it’s oddly compelling, and certainly helps fix information in your brain.
My final tip is for people after my own heart, who spend hours in that deeply unsatisfying no-man’s-land between working and having fun: sat at desks, books wide open, feeling guilty and frustrated – but chatting, or messing about on their phones or the internet. Making the time you dedicate to work pay off can seem impossible (“I’m just not good at concentrating!”), but it’s a great feeling if you do manage to crack it. Of course, the factors that improve focus vary from person to person, and getting it right is a process of trial and error – but below are some things to think about changing if you’re not productive.
5. Create a good working environment
If you’re easily distracted – by cups of tea, the television, or your mum – in your room, try decamping to a library or café. Some people work well surrounded by bustle and buzz. I, on the other hand, have found possibly the most depressing library in the world – it’s freezing cold, underground, lit by strobe lights, and full of Science books – and I go there every day. I don’t have any phone signal down there, no one else will go with me so there’s nobody to chat to, and generally I forget that I’m missing out on outdoor fun – or that fun ever existed. It’s brilliant.
It goes without saying, but so many people unnecessarily beat themselves up about not being able to work every single hour of the day. A good general rule is to divide the day into three parts: morning, afternoon, and evening – and aim to work for the whole of two of them, five days a week- and one part on the other two days. Don’t try and work all day, and don’t despair if there’s a part of the day that doesn’t suit you – use this time to relax, and work another time. Everyone I know at university works all night before a deadline, but I simply can’t – sitting in front of a computer at 2am is just not something I’m capable of. I get up nice and early, start work at 8 each morning and usually clock off by 4 every day. You might be entirely the opposite, but the trick is working out what’s best for you and sticking to it.
SelfControl, and other apps
SelfControl is one example of an app that can block your computer from accessing websites for a fixed amount of hours, which you decide on. If you’re a serial procrastinator, this will change your life: it stops the mindless flick on to your favourite site that results in twenty minutes of messing about and ruptures your concentration for a lot longer.