For many students the concept of study brings to mind the mythology of late term cramming efforts and all-nighters . Getting set to study can sometimes be a matter of realizing if you don't get started right away and use whatever time remains you may well end up failing the exam. For the next few days you frantically compile and study your notes until you feel you have a grasp on the information, undertaking intense study sessions only to feel frustrated at your results later on. Sound familiar?
The strategy of cramming at the last minute often fails because you have to assimilate and integrate vast quantities of information in too short a period of time. You are likely to feel overwhelmed and overloaded with details and ideas that do not seem connected. Such feelings will likely contribute to a broader sense of anxiety and dread about the exam. You cannot expect to perform well consistently with this sort of preparation and attitude. When you cram, you do not allow yourself adequate time to integrate ideas, to consolidate information into meaningful patterns, to analyze and criticize the ideas, to reflect on ideas so as to gain a deeper understanding of their connections, to test yourself by recitation and elaborative rehearsal. Instead, you struggle to hold all the terms and concepts in your memory long enough to make it to the exam room. Some information "spills out" on the way: the newly-learned material is not well connected to previously retained information. Under the pressure of the exam, you may find that you forget pertinent details, that you cannot see important connections, and that you cannot adequately analyze and interpret the questions so as to draw on what you do remember.
Less frantic, and usually much more productive, routines can be put in place without great effort for both long term and short term study. The key thing to do is to make reviewing a regular part of your study or homework routine. A sensible approach to reviewing regularly might entail starting a study session with a quick review of material covered the last time you studied the topic under consideration. Focus on key words and phrases. Keep this sort of reviewing brief (about 10-15 minutes duration) -- think of it as a "warm-up." Each week or so, briefly consider recent lecture notes and reading notes from your various courses. Check the course description and list of lecture and reading titles on your course syllabus: themes, concepts, and important details should make sense together. In lectures look for repeated concepts or ideas identified by key transitions such as "more importantly..." or "generally,..." or "In sum...". In texts and articles, use introductions, abstracts, headings, subheadings, bold face type and summaries to identify important topics and material. Check past assignments, tests, and essay topics for relevant topics of study. Attend tutorials and class review sessions and study groups. Ask other students, the TA, the Prof. and so on what is important and compare this with what you thought was important. The idea is to consolidate and integrate your prior learning as you proceed through a course of study. Such consolidation and integration is most effective when it is gradual and regular.
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