Study Skills

Study Skills

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How To Study

"Most studying is done with your book closed."
"Never read anything unless you're looking for the answer to a specific question."
"Take as few lecture notes as possible."
"When taking an exam, try to think as little as possible."
"Failure is your friend. Seek out, and embrace failure."

Do these statements strike you as being absurd? If so, your study habits may need improving! There is a sense in which each of these statements is correct. If you don't know why, read on.

Study by Asking Questions

All effective studying involves asking and answering questions about whatever you are trying to learn. Whether you are learning about Freud's concept of the Id, about the cells of the brain, about how to tune the engine in your car, or about how to attract the person of your dreams, the questions are always the same:

The Questions:

What is it?
What does it do?
Why is it important?
How does it work?
Where is it?
When does it happen?

Studying by asking questions directs your attention to what is really important.


A large part of your job in many courses, including this one, is to master the meaning and use of a large number of new words. Learning new vocabulary is usually not the most important purpose of a course, but it is essential if you are to understand and use the course's concepts and information. Therefore, an essential part of studying a course is learning the vocabulary of that course. Much of your study should be devoted to this aim. You may want to make vocabulary lists or flash cards.

Asking and answering The Questions about new words in your text or in lectures is an effective way to learn new vocabulary. Resist the temptation to copy definitions from the glossary of the text. Vocabulary is only useful if you can use it, and this means that the definitions must be your own. Write them using your own words. Also, understanding a word's meaning involves more than just defining it. What is the word's significance? Where does it fit into the ideas of the course? Just defining a word will not tell you this.

In some courses, the words are difficult to pronounce (consider tachistoscope, schizophrenogenic, testosterone, pseudohermaphrodite). You must learn to pronounce these words. If you can't say them, you can't easily think them. Practice pronouncing these words as though they were in a foreign language.

Reading Textbooks

Never read a chapter of a textbook to "learn everything in it." Use questions to direct your reading to the most important material. Follow these steps to study effectively from a textbook:

Survey the chapter you are going to read. What is it about? Look at the title, at the summary, at the subheadings, and at the pictures and their captions.

Ask yourself questions about the chapter. What do you need to know about the topic? One good way to ask questions is to make a list or outline of the chapter subheadings and the bold-face or italicized terms. Then ask The Questions about each term in the outline. Write them down.

Read each section of the chapter. But, don't read to learn "everything." Read selectively only to answer the questions you have asked. Write the answers down, using your own words.

Close your notes, and recite the questions and answers from memory. See if you can explain what you have learned to a friend. If you can't explain something in your own words, you don't understand it.

Learning From Lectures

How can you divide your attention so that you listen to everything a lecturer says and take notes on it all? You can't! However, it is possible to learn effectively from lectures. Here's how:

*Prepare for the lecture. Study the assigned material first, and you'll be surprised to find out how much in a typical lecture you already know. Studying ahead of time leaves you free to listen for material which was not in the text, or which you did not understand.

*During the lecture take as few notes as possible. Focus most of your attention on listening and trying to understand what the lecturer is saying. Try to jot down terms written on the board, diagrams, and a few words about what seem to be key ideas. Don't let your writing interfere with listening.

*After the lecture, rewrite and elaborate upon your lecture notes. Ask The Questions about each of the ideas you jotted down during the lecture, in order to help you remember what the lecturer said. Now write out the answers to the questions, from what you remember. Use your own words, and make your answers so complete that they will still make sense to you at the time you review them for an exam. Rewrite your lecture notes as soon as possible, definitely the same day as the lecture. If you wait too long, you will forget that what the lecturer said.

Studying for Exams

Consider an exam to be like an athletic contest or musical performance. Practice, training or rehearsal is essential to do well. Anticipate which questions may be asked, and figure out answers. For quizzes, make a list of possible quiz questions and figure out (and, if necessary, write down) answers. For exams, try to guess the likely essay questions, and decide how to answer them. Learn from your mistakes, and correct them.

Review Regularly

Review course material regularly, every two to three weeks. Go over your lecture notes and the notes you have taken on the text. This will allow you to avoid cramming for exams and the final, which is an unpleasant and inefficient learning technique.

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