If you are a student attending classes, you have probably experienced many times when it was difficult to settle down and study, even when an important exam was coming up.
If you’re like most students, you put off studying until the last minute. The night before the exam, you will stay up all night studying and getting little or no sleep. In the morning, you’ll roll out of bed, psych yourself up with lots of coffee and a few cigarettes, and arrive at the exam feeling exhausted, drained, and nervous all at the same time. You will find it difficult to concentrate or think, and you will be cursing yourself for not having started studying sooner.
And it’s not surprising that unless you’re blessed with natural brilliance, or know your subject very well, you’ll probably do awfully well on the exam.
If this is your typical study method, you know it doesn’t work. Every time you go through this ritual, you tell yourself that you will improve the next time you face a big test. Next time you’ll start studying weeks in advance, you say. But instead, you keep repeating this crazy pattern. Why does this keep happening? And what should you be doing instead if you want to get better grades?
A big problem for most people, especially young students, is that life gets in the way. If you’re a student, you probably have a part-time job and, like most young people, you also want to have a social life.
Studying can seem very boring compared to all the exciting temptations outside your door. Or the games on your computer. Even watching old Sesame Street reruns can seem more interesting than the biology text your teacher expects you to master!
One of the reasons we often don’t start studying until the last possible minute is that we’ve miscalculated how long it will take us to absorb and understand the material. If the midterm is still six weeks away, it can feel like you have a long time before you need to start studying. However, you may find that the subject is much more difficult to understand than you thought, and suddenly there is no time left to ask someone to explain it to you.
Another reason we often put off starting studies is that we are too overwhelmed with how big the project seems to be. Somehow we convince ourselves that putting off a difficult study project may be the best way to avoid being overwhelmed by it.
When faced with a study project that seems exceptionally difficult and overwhelming, it can be about maintaining a high level of interest and motivation throughout the learning process.
If you’ve been guilty of all these bad study habits, it’s not too late to learn some other habits that will work better for you.
First, remind yourself why you want to do better in your studies. Maybe you need a good grade to get into a good university. Maybe you want an opportunity in a career that pays you well. Always keep your end goal in mind.
You can place small cards around your room with inspiring messages and attractive photos that will remind you why you want to do well in school.
If you feel very overwhelmed, you can improve your motivation and performance by breaking the project into smaller sections or “chunks.” Every time you successfully accomplish a bit, give yourself a meaningful reward.
If you have a deadline looming, decide how much of the project you need to tackle at once.
Let’s say you have six weeks to master the content of a difficult biology text. Looking at the book you realize that if you study a chapter every night, you can finish the book in 28 days, leaving two weeks in which you can review the material again.
With this knowledge, you can control your own pace. You already know what your task is. You know how much you need to read each night. Focus on the immediate task at hand. You don’t need to feel overwhelmed by the whole book at once. Next, work out a reward system for yourself. Give yourself a series of small rewards each time you master a chapter and a larger reward for completing the entire book.
For rewards to work, they must be immediate and personally meaningful to you. There is no point in rewarding yourself with a new fishing rod if you hate fishing.
The rewards don’t need to be material things if there is something else that really motivates and inspires you. How about attending a special concert or taking a special trip? It’s up to you. Get creative and think of something that will prompt you to take action.
It is very important that the reward takes place soon after the work has been done. This creates a feeling of positive reinforcement. Give yourself a small reward each time you complete a small piece of work, and a larger reward when you complete the project. If there is too long a gap between the activity and the reward, it will not have the effect of reinforcing the desired activity.
In addition to motivating yourself with a series of external rewards, learn to motivate yourself internally. Tell yourself that you are a good student. Tell yourself that you enjoy learning. Tell yourself that you like to give your brain a good workout. Congratulate yourself for your efforts. Tell yourself that you love learning new things and allow yourself to feel the joy of learning. Be proud of yourself for the work you do to gain more knowledge.
For information to penetrate your brain and be accessible to you, you need to review it multiple times, and your brain needs adequate sleep so that memories are encoded into your neurons. You need to reduce your mental stress. Your brain needs good nutrition and needs to be in a state of peace and trust. Drugs and alcohol do not help in the learning process.
Write what you are learning in your own words and find a learning partner. Practice explaining to another person what you have learned. This will increase the probability that your brain will remember it.
If you start stuffing the night before, you’re putting your brain at a huge disadvantage.
You’re increasing your physical and mental stress, and you’re not giving yourself time to go over the material multiple times. By reducing your sleep, you’re not giving your brain a chance to store the information you’ve been studying on your brain’s hard drive.
By starting your studies early and reviewing what you’ve learned, you have a much better chance of remembering and understanding what you need to know when facing a big test.