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8 Bad Habits Successful Students Don’t Have… And How to Avoid Them|
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.
Top tips on how to be less like you and more like the brain-boxes whose grades we all envy.
We last-minute people are badly misunderstood. Over the course of my million-year-long career as a student, I’ve seen hundreds of teacherly, tutorly and fellow-studently eyebrows raised so high they disappear as I accidentally let slip that yes, I did finish writing that essay twenty minutes before the deadline and hope it’d be OK without a proof-read; yes, I did go to bed with 500 words written and plan to write another 2000 between 3 and 9 am; yes, I did think the bus into town would be a great place to write a bibliography. To those who don’t understand it, last-minuteness looks like laziness, disorganisation and often carelessness. It isn’t, really, of course – it’s more like a completely different habit of mind, whereby you need the pressure of a limited amount of time, and plan to use all the available time up until a deadline for work. You end up working just as hard as everyone else, but later, and often more frantically.
The problem is, even though being last-minute does not translate to being lazy or disorganised, it can and does get you into trouble. I’ve got examples too numerous to mention of times when I’ve ended up doing badly on something I should have nailed, because I planned to do far too much, too late. Like the time I decided to radically re-structure a 10,000 word essay the day before it was due and with 2,000 words still to write – and didn’t end up having time to finish the references. Or the time I was going to finish writing a piece of coursework on the morning it was due, and then woke up with a migraine and couldn’t do anything. Or the hundreds of times I’ve handed things in full of spelling mistakes that I was too tired to see after staying up all night.
If you’re a last-minute person reading this and cringing inwardly over all the terrible things you’ve handed in because it’s all gone to pot at the very last moment – this trick can help. Set yourself a deadline of 9am on the day before your work is due, to have something that you could hand in. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be complete – written all the way to the end, conclusion and all, referenced and formatted. If that means staying up late, or getting up super early – so be it. Make changes on the day before if you need to, but to a completed product that’s ready to go.
One cup of coffee, or even Red Bull in truly desperate times, can work wonders at sharpening your thinking and helping you power through great swathes of work. But any more won’t make much of a difference, and instead will turn you into a jittery, shakey, unfocused, ill mess. Too much caffeine is also bad for your heart, and disrupts your sleep patterns.
If you find it hard to focus, or sometimes feel like you’re operating from behind a brick wall of tiredness, try getting more exercise – it’s been scientifically proven again and again that getting your heart rate up for half an hour a few times a week does wonders for mood, sleep and concentration.
The evil sister of working until the last minute and overdosing on coffee is the all-nighter, my least favourite of all study crutches. We’ve all done them; I’ve done probably hundreds in my time. Once there was a time I watched the sun come up, go down, come up, and go down again during a single session in the library (admittedly, this was in winter, when the sun was only up for about seven hours a day – but it was still a very depressing experience).
All-nighters always seem like a brilliant idea at about six p.m. on the day before you do them: you’ll gain an extra twelve hours you wouldn’t normally have, without distractions, and you’ll probably have to eat loads of junk food and drink gallons of fizzy drinks to stay awake. And in fact, if you’re going to stay up all night you can probably sneak off for a bit of a break now… At about 9pm, once you’ve eaten all your snacks and had a good long break, and started realise quite how much you’ve got to do, and how much you’d rather be doing almost anything else, the sense of smug resolution starts to disappear. By 12, after the third coffee, you might feel OK again – but by 2, your head positively throbs and your eyes are so itchy and bloodshot they’re basically half-closed. And by 4, you’re so light-headed with tiredness and hunger that you can barely read the words you’ve already written, let alone think of new ones. When you read your work back the next day, when it’s already too late, you’re horrified at the amount of typos, spelling mistakes and 6am sentences that just don’t make sense criss-crossing your page. That’s if you can work the next day, that is – staying up all night turns me into a zombie for two days at the very least.
Of course, they’re sometimes inevitable – when a piece of work takes longer than it should, or something goes wrong at the last minute. But unless you’re one of those mad nocturnal bat-people who sleep all day and do their best work at 3am, don’t plan or rely on all-nighters. They’re thoroughly horrible and definitely don’t produce good work.
Hey, we all do it – when we’ve got a big piece of work to do, that we know will require more than a couple of hours’ concentration and effort, we want to make the process as fun as possible. And there are lots of different ways of doing this: whether it’s planning to meet people for coffees or lunches to break the day up; sitting and reading through notes in the sunshine rather than the library; going to the library with a friend and stopping work every few minutes to have a chat; or sitting with Facebook or Twitter open while we work, and simultaneously conducting our social and academic life from the same desk.
The last two ways of getting round work are, in my experience, always a mistake. To garble some pop-science, our brains function on two different levels. The first level, the way we normally think, is fast, instinctive and emotional – always prompting us to act in response to our surroundings, this is the brain that helps us get through the day without being knocked over by a car or eaten by a lion. But the human mind can also function in a slower, more deliberative and logical way – taking its time over decisions in order to reach stronger answers and, crucially, allowing for creative thought. This is the system of thinking we should aim to employ when working, whether it’s on a piece of writing or a set of maths problems: the slow, logical, creative brain. And in order to make the switch to this system, it’s crucial to shut out the distractions, the little things that trigger our instinctive reactions.
Sitting with friends or on Facebook might seem like way to make working less stressful and more fun, but it’ll make it harder to focus and really think through a problem. It will mean that those problems take longer to solve, and the solutions end up being of a worse quality. Try working alone, without distractions, for three- or four-hour bursts and you’ll be astonished how much you get done, how much better your work is and how much more time you have left for the things you really want to do.
Working in your room always seems like a great idea at first: it’s nice and cosy, there’s easy access to tea and snacks and you don’t even have to get dressed. But I find that it’s a recipe for distraction: whether it’s the clarion call of the delicious treats in the fridge prompting a break every five minutes, the lure of the television or the realisation that I really do desperately need to do laundry this very instant, I always find reasons to distract myself at home. And what’s more, a day cooped up in a single room without achieving much or seeing anyone can leave you feeling lonely and stressed and mean that it’s difficult to switch off and relax in the same room at the end of the day. No – the library is the way to go.
When you don’t understand or you can’t get the hang of something, and you haven’t got a clue even how to begin, it can feel like you’re the only person in the world who just doesn’t get it. I used to sit in Science and Maths lessons for weeks on end without having a clue what was going on, copying the occasional thing down just to look like I was listening, lost in daydreams of bashing the girl next to me (who used to put her hand up to answer every single question) very hard over the head with my graphical calculator, and sniggering unpleasantly if she ever got a question wrong.
The thing I didn’t understand in those dark Sciencey days was that no matter how bright or hard-working, everyone struggles with topics or concepts from time to time. Absolutely no one understands absolutely everything the first time they hear it; what makes a really successful student is how they deal with things they find difficult. Rather than ignoring tough topics, focusing on what they like and declaring sadly that they ‘just don’t have a mathsy brain’, top students identify problems and deal with them early. If they don’t get something in class, they go home that day and read through their notes, a text book or their syllabus; they ask the teacher or a friend to explain it to them again so that the problem doesn’t fester, becoming bigger and more stressful, and meaning that they don’t understand more things later on.
When you were younger, listening in class and doing your homework, as well as the odd bit of revision for a test here and there, were probably enough to guarantee that you always did brilliantly. But as you get older and start to specialise, everything suddenly seems to become more and more complex, and teachers and tutors use classes to throw huge amounts of information at you, aiming to cover everything in a short space of time and expecting that you’ll go away and work on things independently.
From your final years at school onwards, it makes a huge difference to your success if you consolidate what you’re learning as you go: shifting from a paradigm of relying on your teacher and classes, to being more independent, and putting in the hours outside of lessons to make sure you understand everything. This sounds scary but actually isn’t too tough if you do it regularly. Spend an hour a day or a few hours at the end of a week reading through the notes you’ve made and relevant sections in your textbooks, jotting down any questions you want to ask, checking anything you don’t understand with your teacher or against the book, and practising anything you find tough. This will not only stop gaps developing in your knowledge as you progress, but will mean that by the time you come to revise, you’ll have great, full notes, and will effectively have revised everything once already!
Even the best students mess up sometimes, getting things wrong, making mistakes in tests or handing in pieces of work that totally bomb. But because these students tend to do well, they’re often confident enough to accept occasional failures, taking them in their stride and realising that having written one bad essay, or even a string of them, doesn’t make them incapable of doing well the next time.
If you mess up once, a few times, or even for a whole year, the worst thing you can possibly do is let it knock your confidence and make you stop trying. Instead, tell yourself that you’re just as capable of doing well as anyone else, and ask your teacher for feedback on what the exact problem was and work on rectifying that thing the next time. It might be that you then mess something else up but don’t let this stress you out. Making a mistake and learning a lesson often gives you a better understanding of how to succeed than flukily hitting the jackpot the first time round.
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