How to Study (In Five Easy Tips)

by JoHarrington

Knowledge is just a process of information going in, being understood and coming out again. So how do you study?

The picture below is me graduating with a Master's Degree.

You could look equally embarrassing on your parents' living room wall, if you just gained the key to studying.

It doesn't matter what the subject is, the underlying principles remain the same. You learn, you understand, you demonstrate what you know.

In short, no pic, no proof.

Though, in this case, we'll accept a graduation certificate too.

Jo Harrington MA BA(Hons)
Jo Harrington MA BA(Hons)

How Do You Study?

If you think that revising and writing papers is excruciatingly boring to the point of torture, then you're doing it wrong.

Studying can be fun. No, really, it can! It's all a matter of approaching your learning in the right way.

Don't separate out school or college work from what you do in the rest of your life. We are always studying, always learning, always taking on knowledge. When we watch television or read the paper, or load up a new game, the information is there.

Snippets of it fall like confetti into our consciousness. It might be useful things, like how to make a cake, or pub quiz stuff, like who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. There's entertainment and gossip, knowing who is smooching with whom; or vital information, such as how to save a life. Whether high-brow or not, it's all studying.

All that happens with your paper is that there's a focus, and someone is going to mark it. The stakes are just that bit higher than usual.

These tips aren't covering the basics. No-one needs their intelligence insulted by being told to pay attention in class, select the right reading materials and be prepared with any other resources you need. That's fundamental. If you're not studying the right things, then you're going to fail anyway.

This will pick up from the moment that you have to sit, without distractions, and cram all of that knowledge into your head. It can be fun, I'm telling you.

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Tip One: Like What You're Studying

Either mould your subject to your real interests; or your own mind to the topic. It will turn 'work' into leisure.

There is nothing more torturous than being forced to plough through something of which you have no interest.

If you were being asked to research, memorize and repeat your facts about your favorite celebrity, or have an opinion about last night's game, then all would be good. You would work without distraction for hours, barely noticing that time had even passed. The information would be stuck in your head forever.

The trick then is to try and incorporate your passions into your study. First and foremost, if there is an option about which courses to undertake, then go for the one which already gains your attention. Then drill down into the detail.

I was recently talking with a teenager with a fascination in all things anime and manga. She had to write an essay about the anti-hero in fiction. While the rest of the class were wearily looking up Heathcliff or Falstaff, she approached her teacher about focusing on Mello from Death Note. It took a little negotiation, as the teacher was unfamiliar with the story, but she argued her case.

She achieved top marks and reported back that it wasn't even like doing work. She enjoyed her study, because she was writing about Mello. The fact that she was also learning all about anti-heroes and their use as a narrative characterization was viewed almost as a happy coincidence!

Take a long, hard look at your subject field. If your real passions can be happily inserted, then that is the best way for study to stop feeling like a chore.

If that isn't possible, then you will need to approach it from the opposite direction. Get interested in whatever you're learning. This is a little more difficult, but if there was nothing in there to recommend it, people would have chucked it off the curriculum years ago.

For some, there is an automatic assumption that anything college related has to be tedious. That mindset ought to be put into the category of self-harm. It's setting yourself up for hours of misery. Tell yourself that this will be absolutely fascinating, until proven otherwise. Hopefully, by then, you will have just completed the conclusion.

Study motivators from Zazzle

Buy into a bit of humour to remind yourself that study can be fun.

Tip Two: Pace Yourself for Better Results

Frequent breaks for the win? They are actually better than being constantly distracted throughout.

When I was at University, each class was allotted a three hour period.

The majority of professors gave a lecture which lasted about an hour and a half. Then there was a short break, before we gathered again for a seminar.

Others just talked at us for the whole three hours.

Then we encountered Dr Bruce Young. One did not simply attend his lectures; they were experienced. He was a real show-man, who did things like suddenly leaping onto a table and dropping his watch to the floor. It demonstrated gravity well enough for a load of Philosophy students. I think I learned more in his sessions, than in the entire six years' worth of everyone else's classes put together.

So imagine our stunned reaction when, after forty minutes, Dr Young announced that it was time for a break. We had ten minutes to run wild, then we had to come back. It felt like we'd hardly even begun, but here we were rushing for a quick drink in the Union, or diving into the toilet block. It's quite amazing what you can fit into ten short minutes.

Another forty minutes of sheer educational entertainment ensued, followed by ten minutes off. The final session led to the end of the lecture. Never once did we flag nor our attention wander. There was method in Dr Young's madness.

The human brain, we were informed, wasn't formed to concentrate intensely for long periods. It takes information in, assimilates it, then files it away. If you try to fill it too quickly, bits get lost at the edges.

Dr Young had studied the phenomenon and concluded that forty minutes was the optimum period of time for absolute focus. Beyond that, discomfort and distractions intrude. Those ten minutes act like wringing out a water-logged sponge, ready for it to soak up more. It gives your mind a breather, ready to take on more knowledge.

It evidently worked. We all passed. I've used that forty minutes on, ten minutes off routine for study ever since. You can survive any project, essay or revision, if you can see an end to it. Those ten minutes are for Facebook, grabbing a cuppa or texting your friends. The forty minutes are for working as hard as you can without distraction.

As long as they rigidly cycle within their allotted times, then everything will get done very quickly. It won't even feel too much like work.

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Tip Three: A Game for all the Family to Play

If the people sending you to your room to study think you're doing this alone, they have another think coming.

It had been a hard day's work for my father. All he wanted to do was retire to the bathroom with his newspaper, then chill out for the rest of the night.

Unfortunately, being my Dad and all, he also wanted me to pass my exams. He was about to play his part making that real.

Pinned to the wall by the toilet was an A4 sheet filled with quotations from Shakespeare plays and history text-books. It was right at eye-level, when he sat down.

When I eventually walked into the examination room, I needed to have those memorized. They could then be quoted in timed essays. I needed chapter and verse. I needed the book page.

Following my father's constitutional, he appeared in my bedroom doorway. He had remembered just one of them and he had me repeat it back to him. Satisfied that it was memorized, he moved onto the serious business of watching television. Job done.

The scene was repeated with everyone who went into the bathroom. Parents and siblings all tested me on a single item on that page. When every item was lodged in my head, the A4 sheet was replaced with another one.

I was revising for English Literature, Sociology and History at the time. This works just as well for those learning periodic tables, mathematical formulas or the workings of the human body. If a mnemonic is required, then it can be done in this way. Those spot tests really do help jam them into your mind.

Tip Four: Tell People What You Know

The best way to learn is to teach. It's time for your friends and family to embrace passive research.

My friends and I have this thing which we call 'passive research'. It's all about gaining a free education off whatever the other person is studying.

But more to the point, it helps sort and fix all of this knowledge into our heads. It's informal. There doesn't need to be perfect grammar. In fact, it's best spoken in your normal slang and your own language. You can pause to check a fact halfway through. The circumstances are relaxed and no-one's testing you at the end.

Naturally, this works best when you're explaining it to someone who knows nothing about the subject. Ban them from sitting with an open book, double-checking every word you say. It's not a test!

Once you start chatting about a subject, you'll be amazed to learn how much you actually know about it. There's the confidence boost right there, coupled with the satisfaction that everyone feels about being the person who sounds clever.

Of course, this won't work if the person listening is treating it as a chore. So only choose those who really do want you to pass. They will get their turn to be interesting next.

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Tip Five: Make it Real

Nothing lives while it's confined to your books and notes. Go and let the world put it into context.

When you were learning how to walk, you didn't read a book about it first. When you were learning to talk, you didn't pause to write an essay, you just did it!  Now let your toddler self remind you how to truly study.

Everything that you're learning must surely have some practical, scientific or cultural application in the real world. You can make your studies have that vitality, if you just went out to find it.

Instead of reading about the experiment, go and recreate it. Mathematics will just look like so many squiggly lines and numbers, until you use it to measure something tangible. Reading Shakespeare is just wrong. Watching one of his plays makes it all slot into place.

In many ways, I'm so lucky. I studied History in a country that's full of it. Across the road, there's a 13th century moat. Within half an hour's drive from my home, there are three Roman ruins, four Iron Age forts, three Medieval castles, more tumuli than you could shake a stick at and plenty of museums besides.

So it was a pity that I chose to write a dissertation on the Porajmos, which mostly happened in mainland Europe.

But I did once dismiss a teenager's claim that the Romans were boring by driving him into St Albans. Amidst the ruins, exhibits and period dressed tour guides, he changed his mind and aced the class.

The point here is that if you can possibly supplement your study with a fun activity or trip, then you are far more likely to enjoy what you're learning.

Like I said at the start, study can be fun.


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Updated: 10/01/2012, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/25/2012

Thank you very much. I will certainly check out your article. <3

EducationInfo4U on 04/25/2012

These are great tips :) Everyone learns and studies differently, and should identify what works best for them. Check out my lens on blended learning:

JoHarrington on 04/09/2012

Indeed! And that's really stuck in my head now too. I finally grasped what was happening in Physics from your analogies. Passive learning is an amazing way to become more educated!

Liam D on 04/09/2012

Passive learning, such as equating particle physics to throwing clocks at each other :P

JoHarrington on 02/27/2012

You're very welcome. Formally studying can feel like such a massive undertaking. It's only when you realise that we do it all of the time anyway, that you can work out tips from your own life to make it painless. Just look how we'd approach, say, discovering everything about a favourite celebrity, then apply. <3 Good luck with it all with your child.

katiem2 on 02/27/2012

Jo, This is really good stuff. My kids never had to study until AP classes and its hard to help a child learn to study when they've never had to nor have I needed to teach them. I must say I was amazed as to what a loss I was. Thanks for these practical tips to learn it is easy and much appreciated.

JoHarrington on 02/20/2012

I'm very glad to help out. Good luck with your study. :)

Skitten on 02/20/2012

Nice! I have a shitload to study so these come in handy :D

JoHarrington on 02/17/2012

Congrats again on your degree! I love hearing about everyone's techniques. Ember's arranging furniture and you're drawing doodles. It just shows how study can be fun, if you work out what's the best way to do it.

I'm nearly 7 years down the line and I can still remember stuff from my dissertation!

You're not banned. The Wizz rater is faulty at the moment, but the tech team are working on it. <3

JoHarrington on 02/17/2012

Thank you. I think my parents would have preferred it if I hadn't got dreadlocks, but the rest made them grin. :D

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