How I Study

Are you studying? Here’s how I study.

If you’re studying, you’re probably looking for new ways to make your life easier. Study takes up a lot of time, and it’s actually a skill that you need to develop (believe it or not). You can spend hours reading papers and still end up doing nothing productive. So how do you study smarter? Here is how I study (and I’ve spent more time at university than I’d care to mention).

Textbook Readings

Do you have your required textbook? Heh, “required”. To be fair, I actually did use my textbooks quite a fair bit, but on the other hand I could have likely done without quite a few of them. Whether or not your textbook is required is something you’ll gauge as you go through your course – in many cases, if your lecturer throws up good lecture notes, you will typically get the required information and hints to Google what you don’t have. That said, if you can buy a textbook (even second hand) it’s not a bad thing to have.

I used to make notes from textbooks, but I stopped doing that. Instead, I highlight things. I highlight phrases – if you’re highlighting full paragraphs, you’re doing it wrong. I generally read a section and then highlight what the key points were. I typically don’t write notes from textbooks anymore – the textbook was written for a reason after all, and I’m not about to create more work for myself.

If you can’t highlight (e.g. you’re borrowing the book) you have no choice but to make notes. I recommend you look for the chapter summary first, and note this down – these are often the key points all presented to you. From there, read the chapter section by section – at the end of each section, make a few dot points. Don’t write the text verbatim! This isn’t note taking – you actually need to summarise it. Write enough so that you understand what the chapter summary was talking about.

If you can’t get your hands on the textbook at all… well, there’s always Google I guess.

Online or Digital Materials

Again, I don’t write notes on digital material. If I get a PDF or find a website, I highlight what is useful and occasionally put annotations or something like that on there.

Lectures

I never went to lectures if they were recorded – I found I studied better if I was at home and listening at my own pace. Most lecturers these days will offer a copy of the lecture slides prior to or shortly after the lecture. If this is the case, only note down anything extra that the lecturer said – don’t rewrite what’s on the slides. This isn’t useful – it’s already there, you can read it, don’t write it again. Instead write out extra things that the lecturer says which is important, or write things to help you understand what the lecture notes say. Learn to ignore pointless anecdotes that lecturers throw in – and learn to ignore noise from being sidetracked.

If, for whatever reason, your lecturer does not post lecture notes, your life is a lot more challenging and you’ll need to write or type madly. These lecturers are a nightmare and there’s no real way to get around it.

Finally, I generally recommend handwriting rather than fiddling with annotations in a PDF or something – if you have a stylus and a tablet, that’ll work fine, but trying to type and do things with a trackpad is usually an exercise in futility.

If you do write notes on a book etc…

I try to write as little as possible. I’m lazy, I take the path of least resistance (that still gets me the results I want) and won’t write pages and pages if I can avoid it. If I do have to write notes, I generally start by writing a heading (e.g. a section heading), and then exclusively using dot points or small diagrams. Each dot point is a single concept.

I read the section first, then write my dot points. If you try to do it as you go, you actually end up writing more than necessary. You don’t know what’s important until you finish reading the section. Read it, understand it, then write your points.

Alternatively, you may decide to skim through the entire thing first, then make your notes.

Notes should be short, but intelligible – you should be able to actually understand what you’re talking about. If they’re a mess of acronyms or inadequately explained concepts, your notes are worthless. For example, if a section reads: “The spondylick is a hotenrosuv of the paraperium and thus acts as its bigeum locum” and you write down “sponylick – paraperium bigeum locum” and you haveĀ no idea what any of that is, you’ve written crap notes and need to start again.

How did it work for me?

Annotating printed/PDF lecture notes worked the best for me – sometimes I’d just annotate from the recommended readings and not listen to the lecture, but this was pretty subject specific. Writing out large sections of a book I already owned was generally a waste of time – particularly if I had an eBook version and looking through it was effortless. If I had an open-book exam and I relied on eBooks, or I couldn’t keep the material, I’d have to either copy highlighted sections, or make my own very brief notes. In that case, I found that quickly reading the whole thing, then going back to dig out the key points and putting them in dot form, worked the best.

Remember: Don’t make extra work for yourself. If you understand something very well, you don’t need to take loads of notes – just enough to remind you of the concept. Focus on what you don’t know. Don’t rewrite things – if you take notes, make them as short as you can while still being able to understand what they say.

Finally, there’s no rapid way to study. For some things, it’s just a long, hard slog. I studied nursing, paramedicine, and bits of law. Nursing was the easiest, law was the hardest – law has a lot of reading, a great deal of it is actually tangential or not overly useful, and identifying the key parts wasn’t always easy. Sometimes you just have to sit down, read, and then go back and do it again, this time taking notes.

Good luck with your studies!

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