Let me take a guess how you sit down to “study”. First, you put your phone on vibrate and set it on the table next to you. Next you take out your laptop and put it in front of you, with your social media apps running the background, probably even have your text messages streaming to your laptop so you’re getting doubly-texted. Then you take out some of your stuff, plop it on the desk, see who just texted you, shuffle around some papers, text them back, open your book to the homework page, check your email, open your notebook and write your name and date at the top, text your friend to see what they’re doing for dinner, read the first homework question…you get the point.
Tutoring for the past several years, I’ve noticed that students’ attention spans today are a fraction of what they once were. Many students skate by with terrible studying habits, doing as little as possible, and catering their studying to get good exam grades. For some classes this works because the teachers or professors are predictable and you can get a hold of old exams, or their assigned homework problems, study guides, or practice exams are very similar to the actual test. I call this “surface studying”, because you’re just trying to “hack” the exam, and will forget virtually everything you studied shortly after you take the test. For these type of classes you don’t need as much discipline since the teacher’s patterns are easily recognized.
But for many classes, especially college level courses, you need to understand the material at a deeper level because the exams require more than regurgitation of notes, homework problems, study guides, or practice exams. For these classes you must have good study habits or you won’t pull the grades you want. Plus, you should want to understand the material because a college major has a cumulative effect when it comes to knowledge: the more you learn, the easier your future classes are. Math and science build and elaborate on previous concepts, so the better you understand the material in your introductory classes, the easier your upper division classes will be. This is also true for upper division high school classes. An investment of good study habits today will pay huge dividends, and save you hundreds of hours of studying, as you progress through your academic career. For those of you interested in investing in your studying now so you reap those dividends later, below are 5 simple things that you must do when you sit down to study. They must be done in order, and they must be done every time. After you’ve done this about 20 times it will become routine and everyone around will start to notice:
“OMG, look at that guy’s study muscles, they’re so BIG.”
“I know, like, he must work out his brain all the time.”
“I bet he gets all the A’s.”
“That girl’s study skills are wicked hot, I think I’m going to ask her out to our study session on Sunday.”
“Yeah dude, ask her.”
“What if she says no?”
“Dude, just do it! She’s so disciplined. Just ask her!”
Keep in mind, there is NO NEGOTIATION ON ANY OF THESE POINTS if you want to have a successful study session.
1. Decide when your study session will end.
One of the worst things you can do is not decide how long your study session will last. If you don’t set an exact amount of time, your brain will find all kinds of reasons to procrastinate, stop early, and check social media. Your brain needs to know exactly when you’re going to finish. Set a reasonable amount of time, usually 30 minutes – 2 hours. Then your brain will understand that you’ve given it an order, and all those excuses and procrastination behaviors will go away, or at least will be quieted to a level so you can contain them. When you sit down, look at the clock and decide the exact time that you’ll finish studying, i.e. 2:30 p.m., 7:21 p.m., 9:08 p.m. I recommend setting an strange target time, and write it down, because then it will be more clear in your mind. We all think of times like 7:00 as “7:00 plus or minus 10 minutes”, so setting an exact, strange time will have more impact. Plus, you can set more precise times to study, who says that 45 minutes is best, why not 41 minutes?
Then, absent a natural disaster or other emergency, don’t stop studying until it’s that time. A friend seeing you at the library and seeing if you want to grab dinner doesn’t count. If you’re on a roll, and this often happens, feel free to study a bit longer when you’ve reached your target time. But don’t study too much longer because next time your brain will say “Hey, you tricked me last time and made me study an hour longer than you said! Now I don’t believe you and I’m going to play even more games to prevent you from studying this time!”
Smart phones are the number one killer of good study intentions. Text messaging plus Internet access is a lethal combination. They are the ice cream and chips of the well-intentioned person on a diet. One taste and the willpower is gone. But it’s okay, because you’ll do better tomorrow, right?
If you’re on a diet, you have to prevent the ice cream from getting into your freezer in the first place. If it’s already in your freezer, then you have to put it in the sink and let it melt. Melted ice cream isn’t nearly as enticing as frozen…creamy…sugary…delicious ice cream. Hang on a sec, I’ll be right back.
Okay. Since you already have a cell phone, and will undoubtedly bring it to your study session, you have to do the equivalent of melting ice cream in the sink: put your phone in Airplane Mode. Or turn it off. And put it in a place where you can’t see it or reach it right away, like the zipped pocket of your bag. If you need it to check the time, that’s fine, reach in, check the time, and put it back. But don’t you dare take it out of Airplane Mode until you’ve reached your target time. That would be like putting the ice cream in the sink, letting it start to melt, and then putting it back in the freezer after 10 minutes. You’ll sabotage your efforts.
3. If you don’t NEED your laptop, don’t take it out. If you need it, take it out, but turn off all your social media apps and use a separate Internet browser.
The laptop is the second biggest killer of good study intentions. This is because it has Internet access. However, now you can even stream your text messages to your laptop, so in some cases it can be equally lethal to a cell phone.
However, many times you NEED your laptop for writing a paper, doing research, or looking things up. If that is the case, then you MUST shut down all your social media apps – no streaming text messages, no chat going on in the bottom corner, no open Facebook page that you can flip to. If you even have these sites bookmarked, get rid of the bookmarks. Just seeing the bookmarks at the top of the browser staring you in the face, knowing that a single click can allow you access to pics of what your BFF ate for lunch today, is too enticing. Sign out of everything.
Better yet, use a separate browser for your study sessions. For example, if you use Chrome for all your normal Internet browsing, chatting, Facebooking, then have a separate browser (i.e. Firefox or Safari) for your study sessions. Make sure that this browser has no social media bookmarks, and you never access social media accounts from it. Then you only have to be disciplined enough to not open your usual browser during the study session. This is much easier than being disciplined enough to not click a bookmark!
4. Take out everything you need, and arrange it on the table.
I’ve tutored many students, and some are always unprepared for the session: “My book is in the car, I’ll be right back”, “My calculator is up in my room, I’ll go get it.” First, make sure you have everything you need for your study session. If you’re trekking to the library across campus I’m sure you’ll plan this out ahead of time so you don’t have run back to your room to grab your calculator!
After you’ve decided how long you will study for, put your phone in Airplane Mode, and have your laptop out (if needed), take out everything else that you need:
Textbook: Take out your textbook, open it to the pages you will be working on, and prop it up in front of you, leaving space for your working paper in between you and the textbook. I think it’s important to prop up your textbook because it’s easier to read at an angle. You don’t need a textbook stand, just another relatively thick textbook to place underneath.
Notes/Notebook: If you have notes from class that you will be referring to, then take out your notebook, binder, etc. (I hope it’s gray paper!) and place it next to your textbook in front of you.
Working Paper, Pen, Pencil: You should do your work on paper that is separate from the notes you take in class so you don’t have to keep flipping between the pages in the same notebook to copy things or look things up. Place this paper closest to you, between you and the textbook, because you’ll be writing on it.
Calculator: If you’re doing math, science, economics, or the like, have your calculator ready to go.
Now you’re set, and you won’t have to interrupt your work to grab something out of your bag. Just make sure everything is easy to access, not stacked on top of each other, and easy to read. If your working space is tight, you may have to compromise a bit. The point is to have everything readily available so you don’t have to waste time or break your concentration by rifling through your belongings to find what you need.
5. Force yourself through the first 8 minutes of studying.
This is the toughest step. I know there are dozens of things you’d rather be doing, all of which make it extremely difficult to focus on the task at hand. There is an actual biological/physiological reason why it’s difficult to build study inertia, and if you understand it, you should be able to tame the beast.
When you sit down to study, your brain is in a completely different state. If you were just having a conversation with a friend, then your auditory and speech centers were activated, as well as all the frontal lobe machinery involved in maintaining your social relationships, keeping tabs on everyone you know, and storing that information for later use (“OMG, did you hear what Heather did last night?!”). These pathways need to be turned off in order to focus on studying. However, your brain does not function like an on/off switch, it functions like dimmer switch. You have to slowly turn down the juice on the social networking pathways, and turn up the juice on the studying pathways. Your brain can’t fuel both pathways at maximum power, it can only fully power one at a time. So you have to choose. Some people will try to run both simultaneously, but it results in powering the social networking pathway, and whatever is left is diverted to the studying pathway. Your brain requires time and must be forced to divert the power from one pathway to another.
Your brain is like a wild bull that must be ridden. The only problem is that while 8 seconds is good enough to make you a professional bull rider, you have to ride your brain for about 8 MINUTES before you qualify to be a professional brain rider. This is about how long it takes for your brain to turn down the power in the social networking pathways, and to turn up the power in the studying pathways. It’s virtually impossible for your brain to flip from one task to another without any lag time, and your brain will constantly try to buck you off your studying. CHECK YOUR TEXT MESSAGES! CHECK YOUR FACEBOOK! SEND AN EMAIL! LET’S GO EAT ICE CREAM! XBOX! You just have ride it and say “Yeeeeeehaw! Easy brain, I’m gonna ride you until you until 8:54 p.m., so we can do this the hard way, or we can do this the easy way!” Then sharpen your spurs and dig in.
To help, I recommend trying to tackle a really tough problem right out of the gate, because it will require all of your mental faculties to get started. Working on a tough problem will force your brain to activate multiple pathways at once as it searches for an answer. That way, instead of turning on the dimmer switches to different areas of your brain one at a time, you will simultaneously turn on dimmer switches to the multiple areas of your brain you’ll use during your study session. Sometimes this trick will sedate the wild bull quickly, because your brain will be tricked into thinking that the tough problem is actually as interesting as eating ice cream, playing Xbox, or whatever it was telling you to do instead. Even if you can’t solve the problem, you can set it aside after 8 minutes, start working on the easier problems, and then work back up to it.
You’ll see that around the 8-minute mark your brain will be in pure study mode, or at least close to it, and then you’ll make it your target stop time.
So here’s the take-home message
There are 5 things you must do when you sit down to study:
1. Decide what time your study session will end.
2. Put your phone in Airplane Mode.
3. If you need to use your laptop, turn off all social media apps, and use a separate browser for your study sessions.
4. Take everything out and organize your study space before you begin.
5. Force yourself through the first 8 minutes. Tackle the toughest problem first to put your brain in study mode.