Study skills for smart students
How do smart students study? What specific skills do they use? What are their optimum learning habits? Do they apply any special strategies? How do they learn faster, study better and score higher at exams? What are their secrets?
Their secrets are really no secrets at all. They have a few predictable study habits and they follow some simple rules of learning. Anyone who observes the same strategies will get the same results.
One of the first things to know and apply is what is called whole-brain learning. It’s really a simple concept after all. There are two hemispheres in our brain – the left and the right – joined by a complex neural switching system called the corpus callosum. Each of these sides performs its own special functions. The left side plays a major part in processing the language, logic and mathematics (academic abilities) and the right side mainly deals with music, imagination and pictures (creative activities).
While learning our courses, we generally neglect the right side. But best learning takes place when you engage both sides of the brain.
One reason we remember songs easily is because they use music (right brain activity) and words (left brain activity) together. Similarly, movies use music, pictures and lots of imagination. No wonder we like them so much.
So it would be a pretty good idea to take the services of your right brain while you study. Make use of music, pictures and imagination whenever and as much as possible. Let the right brain do the visualizing while the left brain is busy analyzing. Two brains working together is always better than one struggling alone!
If you want to engage both sides of your brain in the learning process, then you wouldn’t want to take linear notes starting at the top of the page and ending at the bottom. You’d make a mind map instead and study it.
Mind mapping is a simple tool to brainstorm, organize and store ideas. It’s actually like making a map of what you’re studying (or thinking) using words and pictures. You start from the center with the main idea and put all the related ideas and points on the branches spreading out from that center.
A mind map looks rather like an octopus with main idea as its head and supporting points as its arms. See an example here.
Mind mapping is an effective learning tool because it has food for both the brains - words and pictures. Besides, it gives information to the brain the way it likes it. You see, the brain doesn’t work in neat lines and columns. It processes information on its tree-like dendrites, using special association patterns. You do just that when you make a mind map of what you’re learning.
For more on mind mapping, read Tony Buzan’s excellent book on the subject The Mind Map Book.
There are fantastic memory systems that you can make use of as a student. One of the oldest and most popular is the linking system. “In order to remember any new thing, it must be associated, in some ridiculous way, with something you already know,” says Harry Lorayne, a memory specialist. And that’s really the essential part of this system. You connect new material (what you want to remember) with something common and familiar (that you already know) in some funny way. The crazier and more ridiculous the connection, the better the memory. You can find a good example of this in the book Circle of Excellence which you can freely download.
Then there are other simple and effective methods such as the peg and the number-rhyme system and a whole range of mnemonics. The good news is it doesn’t take long to understand and apply these systems – a week should be good. Read a couple of fine books on the subject such as the ones listed here (25 Power Books for Students) and you’ll be excellent.
The superlearning state
If you want to learn faster, then you’ve got to slow down your brain – down to what is called the alpha level. At this level, the brain is working at a frequency of 8-12 cycles per second. At higher frequencies of beta level (12-16 cycles per second), the brain is surely alert and prompt, but it’s not in the right state for learning. Beta is good for other activities such as talking, driving and playing. Then, at the lower frequencies of theta and delta (0-8 cycles per second) the brain is actually too slow to take in new learning. Alpha is just right – here your brain is slow but alert and open to learning. Researchers believe that when you are in this state of ‘relaxed alertness’, the information you take in goes directly into the subconscious mind. It’s the superlearning state.
How do you put your brain into that state? Through relaxation and music. The best is Baroque music – a 60-beat per minute music from the 17th century. But of course, even your favorite relaxation music will help.
Listen to it (again, Baroque if you can get it!) for about 30 minutes before you sit down to study. Or you can have it playing softly in the background even while you study.
Do it for a few weeks and you’ll begin to see the difference.
Rest and review
Do you know why normal class periods are usually of 40 to 45 minutes? That’s because it’s time to take a quick rest. You can't learn much by pushing your brain too hard for too long at a stretch. After every 30-to-50-minute session of study you need to take a short break – five minutes will do fine. The brain uses this downtime to make sense of what has been learned and to organize and store the stuff in their right places. And as your brain is doing its critical duties behind closed doors, you can just stretch and relax. Or if you wish, you can jump, hum or doodle. Do whatever pleases you. Just don’t study. Then, after five minutes, you’re back to work, ready to learn more.
Now something about revision. You can study like crazy, but if don’t review and revise at regular intervals, you’re wasting a lot of good energy.
Most of what you’ve learned will have gone from your head within the next 24 hours if you do not review it. Within a week or two, you may have nothing to show for it. So a smart thing to do is, after you’ve studied anything, review it immediately in about 5 to 10 minutes. Review it again in 24 hours, then again in a week and then again in a month. Each review may take less than five minutes, but this short-term investment will deposit well in your long-term memory.
You may think that if you read slowly and deliberately, word by word, you will understand better. But no, it works the other way round. The faster you read, the better you understand.
The brain itself is designed to understand things quite fast. Would you understand a movie better if they rolled the film fast or if they showed you one frame at a time (taking a couple of months to finish the complete movie)? Would you understand a joke better if I told you the whole thing in one shot or if I told you one word a day?
So learn to read fast. One simple way to do so is to train your eyes to jump from one group of words to another. Not glide in a straight line, but jump. You’ll find clear instructions on how to do this in the book Circle of Excellence (you can download this book free)in the section titled How to study better, learn faster and score higher.
Individual learning styles
You learn best if you follow your own learning style, of course. For example, if you are an auditory learner, then you will learn better and faster if you listen to things. Why not record all your notes and listen to them on your mp3 player? That’s a cool way to learn! You could even put the stuff into some kind of music and then sing it. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
If you are a visual learner, then you could draw pictures of what you’re learning. Design colorful mind maps rather than take the usual black-n-white notes. Make mental movies of the matter to learn and then play them in your head while you lie on the couch. That’s what you call having fun while you learn!
If you are a kinesthetic learner who has to touch or feel or do something to get a grasp on the subject, then don’t sit still and moan. Get into action. Dribble a ball while you learn. Dance while you study. Act the part. Do something!
As a student, you’re going to have to learn a lot of stuff – some of it important and relevant to life and some of it hopelessly outdated and useless stuff. But learn you must whether it’s for life or for the exams. If you adopt smart and creative ways to learn, you’ll do yourself a world of good. On the one hand, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort. On the other, you will score better, which counts too. On top of it all, you will develop a genuine love of learning because for you it won’t be a chore anymore, but a creative adventure. It will serve you for life.
All the best.