Study Tips

What sort of tips can you give me to optimise my study?

Your path for most effective learning is through knowing:

  • Yourself
  • Your capacity to learn
  • The process you have successfully used in the past
  • Interest in, and knowledge of the subject you wish to learn
  • The following steps will help you understand these aspects of your experience.

If you go through these steps and ask yourselves the following questions, you will find yourself in a position to commence a new program of learning.

Step 1: Begin with the past

  • What does your learning experience tell you about how you learn
  • Did you like to read, solve problems, memorise, revisit
  • Do you know how to summarise
  • Do you ask questions about what you studied
  • Do you review
  • Do you have access to information from a variety of sources
  • Do you like quiet studying, or study groups
  • What are your study habits, how did they evolve, which were your worst
  • How did you communicate what you learned best - in term papers, interviews?

Step 2: Proceed to the present

  • How interested am I in this topic
  • How much time do I want to spend learning this
  • What competes for my attention
  • Are the circumstances right for success
  • What can I control and what is outside my control
  • Can I change these conditions for success
  • What affects my dedication to learning this
  • Do I have a plan?

Step 3: Check your motivation

  • Recognise your sense of discovery
  • Take responsibility for your learning
  • Accept the risks inherent in learning
  • Recognise that failure is success
  • Celebrate your achievements in meeting your goals.

Step 4: Consider the process and/or subject matter of the topic you have chosen

  • What do I know already
  • What kinds of information and resources will help me
  • Do I stop and think, and evaluate as I learn?

Step 5: Review your learning

  • What did I do well
  • What could I do better
  • Did I choose the right conditions?

Step 6: Helpful strategies in a program of learning

  • Write you your goals and expected time commitments
  • Establish a good rapport with your instructors
  • First understand others, and then attempt to be understood
  • Develop an awareness of how you learn or have learned best in the past (help focus your energies in the most productive way). Your learning style drives how you acquire and process information (learn) and has nothing to do with being “smart”

How to Study

A number of general skills go together to make the package we know as studying. This ‘package’ includes:

  • Focused reading
  • Effective listening
  • Ability to manage time
  • Ability to set realistic goals
  • Ability to manage stress
  • Ability to continually activate the learning process
  • Ability to maintain concentration

This is quite a list of skills! In fact, most of us have many of these skills, but perhaps we are not used to putting them together consciously in order to undertake this thing called ‘study’.

To start with, here are three (3) practical tips for studying.

  1. Concentration is one of the most important skills for effective study. Set aside a place for study and study only. Make this place specific to studying. Remember, you are trying to build habit of studying when you are in this place. Make sure this place has good lighting, good ventilation, a comfortable chair (but not too comfortable) and a desk large enough to spread out your materials. Ensure that your study area does not have a distracting view of other activities you want to be involved in, e.g. a telephone, a TV, a stereo, a talkative friend or too much rich food. If your mind wanders, stand up and face away from your books. Don’t sit at your desk staring into a book and mumbling about your poor will power. This is a waste of time. If you do, your book soon becomes associated with daydreaming and guilt. So stand up, face away and refocus your concentration.
  2. Set a particular time to study, and try to always study at this time. As with good concentration, good time management is also a habit you are trying to form. Your ability to devote time to study will improve if you don’t start any unfinished business just before the time to start studying.
  3. Divide your work into small, short-range goals. Don’t set large, vague goals – you will only set yourself up for failure and discouragement. Take the time block you have scheduled for study and set a reachable goal. Set your goals when you sit down to study, but before you begin your work.

Set a goal that you can reach. You may in fact do more than your goal, but set a reasonable goal even if it seems too easy.

Just for something different, you could consider the following “M.U.R.D.E.R.” study system to help organise your efforts.

Mood: select a positive mood to study in – time, environment and attitude all contribute to the right ‘mood’.

Understand: make sure you mark any information you don’t understand. Keep your focus on one unit or manageable group of exercises.

Recall: after studying the unit of work stop and put what you have learned into your own words.

Digest: go back to what you did not understand and reconsider the information.

If I could speak to the author, what questions would I ask, or what criticism would I offer?

How could I apply this material to other things I am interested in?

How could I make this information interesting and understandable to others?

Review: go over the material you have covered – review what strategies helped you understand and/or retain information in the past and apply these to your current studies.

How to undertake research

The definition of research is “a systematic investigation to establish the facts.” Research is about systematically exploring the world of information in search of knowledge.

This definition sounds very high-minded, but research is really just an information problemsolving process. This means that the typical steps of problem solving apply to acquiring, sorting and synthesising information.

The researcher/problem-solver must:

  • Understand the problem
  • Brainstorm options
  • Clarify options
  • Evaluate options
  • Choose a solution.

Like most problem solving techniques, good research technique is an invaluable skill for all kinds of aspects of our home, work and study lives.

The following steps may make the process of research easier to undertake:

  1. Understand your topic - This step is about task definition, which is a good place to start any task. You need to ask yourself ‘what information do I require?’ This will help start you on your research journey and well as limit some of your activities from ‘everything’ to ‘useful things’.
  2. Example: Your family has decided to take an overseas trip. Step 1 in holiday research would be to define and clarify your task: where, for example, would people like to go? When would they like to go? Do they have a shortlist of places they would like to go? What do the family not want to do? These kinds of questions are part of your task definition.

  3. Seek information - Now you have an idea about what your task actually is, you can organise, sort and prioritise what information you might need. Ask yourself the following questions:
    • What is your potential range of sources
    • Which is the most important resource
    • How will you access that resource
    • How many kinds of information do you need
    • How many kinds of information can you find
    • How many kinds of information do you need?

    There are two kinds of sources: primary and secondary. Primary sources give you information ‘straight from the horses’ mouth’, so to speak. They are direct sources of information such as phone interviews, friend’s stories about their own experiences, some web material.

    Secondary sources tend to be more ‘second hand’ and usually some kind of evaluation process has already carried out, so that there is a form of ‘sorting’ or criticism and reflection that is part of these documents. Secondary sources might include travel books, brochures and reviews.

    Example: Now you have an idea about the basic outline of the family holiday you are researching, you are in a position to find information. Where will you get information? You might find information from primary and secondary sources such as travel agents, web information, brochures, stories from friends, travel guides, government departments and so on.

  4. Find information - Now you need to put your hands on your source of information and access the information inside it. Accessing information is a very valuable skill! Some ways that we extract information from our sources include reading, hearing, and viewing, whilst all the time evaluating this source for relevance, reliability and usefulness. Skills such as summarising, note taking, viewing multiple web pages, write down correct bibliographic information are all part of extracting information. Example: Now you may have a whole range of web printouts, brochures, notes based on conversations with friends and phone conversations with travel agents, notes from Lonely Planet documentaries. It is time that you made a shortlist of all the information that relates to your family holiday! This list would form a summary of what you have discovered so far.
  5. Determine relevant information - In order for information to be useful, it must be relevant, unless you have a weakness for “just knowing” things. In order for information to be really useful and not just a pile, you will need to sort, evaluate and synthesise it.
  6. In other words, we can’t always use all the information we find, otherwise we would get a headache! We have to sift and sort our information, evaluating our material for usefulness and significance as we go. This ability to sort for significance is something that emerges with practise. Understanding what is significant and what is not in terms of new information takes extra concentration and persistence. You may need to consult with others in order to determine significance, and you must be prepared to learn from your mistakes.

    Example: Now that you have a summary of your findings, you are in a position to make a decision about what is relevant, and to put aside all the material that is not relevant, or is out of date. Keep what is useful and reliable. Your pile of travel information will probably be halved, if not further reduced. Remember, you have to present a convincing case to the family about which holiday plans seem the most suitable. Remember, irrelevant and lengthy data is usually not helpful.

  7. Complete research questions, report or evaluation - Now you have finished your information problem solving you are ready to represent your findings in the clearest format you can. Often a formal report can be a good way to communicate your research finding. You may choose to state your task, your final list of sources, and the key recommendations based on your findings.

Example: Now may be a good time to write a short description of your findings for your family laid out in a clear and sensible way. Let common sense be your guide! This will let your family make decisions and choices on the basis of the best information available to them. Thankfully, they had a great researcher.

Six Steps to Good Writing

  1. Be clear about your purpose. Why are you writing this? What do you want your reader to know? To do? How do you want your reader to feel?
  2. Plan what you will say. Jot down the key points you want to make. Then put them in a logical sequence. Then gather any facts you will include.
  3. Draft your document. Have a specific reader in mind and write to that person. Why should they read it? Use the WIFM (what’s in it for me) factor to help you. Ask this question from the reader’s point of view. Be yourself: use normal language, not flowery and not overly formal. Aim for a readable, natural flow of ideas.
  4. Edit it. Read through your document to ensure that it is clear and says what you want it to say. Change any obscure words to familiar words, long words to short words, complex sentences into shorter simpler ones. Prune unnecessary words and get rid of any trite phrases.
  5. Type or word process the final draft.
  6. Check it carefully. If time allows, it often helps to leave it for a day or two before the final check. Don’t glance over it but really check it through.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Are words spelled correctly and is your grammar correct?
  • Does the information flow smoothly?
  • Are there logical transitions between major points?
  • How does the layout look?
  • Are the margins the right size?
  • Is there a space between paragraphs?

Erasures, overwriting, and poor-quality print in written documents will cause them to look unprofessional.

Writing traps

Poor organisation, muddled flow of thoughts, too much or too little detail – these are common writing traps. The two most common traps are verbosity and poor writing style. Verbose (wordy or long-winded) writers associate bulk with importance. Verbose writers need to work at cutting out unnecessary words and phrases. Flowery writers tend to be unnaturally formal. These writers need to write slightly more like they speak. You can avoid writing traps if you consider the following “rules of thumb”:

Be clear about what you want to say – organise your thoughts and then group your thoughts into main ideas. Each sentence should contain one idea. Each paragraph should contain a group of related ideas. Like a good story, your written communication should have a beginning, middle and an end. The beginning introduces the subject; the middle contains the information you wish to convey and the end summarises what you have said and points towards what should happen next.

Keep it concise and straightforward – good writing is concise. We shouldn’t use unnecessary words in a sentence any more than we would use unnecessary parts in an engine. Say what you want to say in as few words as possible, then stop. Make every word count.

Write naturally – when you write, use words that come easily to you. There is no need to be unnecessarily formal, unless you are writing for a particular technical forum, and even then the principles of plain English should apply.

Be positive and precise – avoiding negative statements and words will improve your writing style and help people remember your message more accurately. Most of us don’t like being told what is not or what we should not do. We want to know what is and what we should do. Write actively, not passively - ‘The moon was jumped over by a cow’ is a passive sentence. ‘The cow jumped over the moon’ is active and strong. Active writing is generally (but not absolutely always) a better writing style for the workplace. Place the actor (the cow, in this case) in front of the action (jumped) to make the flow of the sentence clear and powerful.

Sometimes we use the passive voice because we are being tactful or cautious. For example, it is more diplomatic to say: ‘We believe that there was an error in your last invoice’ than ‘You invoiced us incorrectly’.

Write for your reader – bear your readers’ needs and interests in mind and use words and terms they will readily understand, interpret and visualise. Avoid technical terms when writing to someone with a non-technical background.

Make your document reader friendly. This means avoiding overly long paragraphs, tiny margins and small print.

Check spelling and grammar – but don’t just rely on a computer function to check this for you. This will not catch all your errors. If your grasp of correct spelling and expression is not strong, get into the habit of having someone check your work who understands correct expression. When you implement their corrections, you will be able to continually improve your writing.

Source: Kris Cole, Supervision: The Theory and Practice of First-line Management, Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Education, 2001, pp. 58-65.

Five steps to effective reading

  1. Skim through the readings. Skimming involves looking at the introduction, the key headings (section or chapter) and any summarised key points. Observe any diagrams, graphs or pictures. Skimming gives you an overview of what you are about to read, puts it in context and may give you some early clues about where the most relevant information is located.
  2. Look at all relevant assessment questions and tasks to which this reading relates.
  3. Now, read your material thoroughly with these questions and tasks in mind. Use a dictionary if necessary. Be prepared to read any difficult passages more than once.
  4. Draw out the key points of the readings in a mind map* or other summary of your own. Alternatively, you can activate and personalise your reading and understanding by using post-it notes, fluorescent pens, underlining and/or note-taking in the margin. This process of active and personal reading is the most important step towards really understanding what you are working on.
  5. When taking notes, summarising and completing your assessment work, make sure you don’t use the author’s exact words. Your own version of what the material means is usually just fine. If you do use the author’s exact words, you have to acknowledge their work by naming them as the author and setting their words in quotation marks.

Summary:

  • Good readers seize the main ideas
  • Good readers think about what the author is saying
  • Good readers are active in their reading
  • Good readers can concentrate
  • Good readers remember as much as possible
  • Good readers apply relevant reading ideas to their world.

How to do a Mind Map

Mind mapping is a tried and tested method for thinking clearly though new material. Mind mapping can help us sort through the significance of what we have read or heard. It is a method that suits some types of learners very well, although most people need to reduce their mind maps to a more ordered list, once the brainstorming process is complete (and not before!)

Mind mapping (or concept mapping) involves writing down a central idea and thinking up new and related ideas which radiate out from this central idea. By focusing the central ideas written down in your own words and then looking for branches out and connections between the ideas, you are mapping knowledge in a manner which will help you understand and remember new information. This will help with sorting information as well as retaining it

Here are some hints on how to construct a mind map:

  • Put main idea in a central bubble
  • Use capital letters within central bubble and connecting bubbles that radiate out from the central idea
  • Draw quickly; no pausing, judging, editing (they disrupt mind-mapping)
  • Use unlined paper (lined paper structures your thoughts too much)
  • Use branches, arrows, colours, groupings to show connections/relationships between ideas (in bubbles)
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