Study Techniques 2 – All The Things, All The Time

I wish my University had provided a good introduction to study techniques.

When I used to ask my professors how to study for their class, they would often answer, “Study all the things, all the time.” In some sense, this is good for your education. The professor would be cheating you of your full experience of the material if he said “just study this subset of the material.” If that was what he wanted you to learn, then he would have taught a smaller amount of material. Still, it was not very helpful.

The problem is that studying “all the things, all the time” is not a very effective strategy. It is too overwhelming. There has to be some triage in order to get a handle on the material. Plus, what I really wanted from them was for them to suggest study techniques that they felt would be effective for their class. No professor ever really gave me that directly.

My strategy for most classes evolved over my years in college and grad school. My best results came from taking notes in class, and then copying and expanding them after class. When I would notice that I had been unable to copy a graph or a full paragraph into my in-class notes, I would go to the textbook and use that as a reference for constructing my copy. What I was constructing was a new “textbook” based primarily on the lectures. Creating this “textbook” was much more useful than reading. I really never read it after I made it. It was just an exercise. This is not something one can do in a cram session. It’s best to do it right after the lecture. If you do this every session after the lecture, it helps solidify the material.

It is really important to understand how we get to be familiar with material. Familiarity is good because it helps break down stress. The problem is this: if you study for too long at a stretch, you begin to feel familiar with material you do not really understand. Becoming familiar a few hours at a time (one hour in class followed by one hour copying notes) works much better.

My favorite introduction to good study habits is a video by Ze Frank. He really outlines well and he’s always funny.

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