For many students these classes are among the most difficult to master. It seems simple read the book and learn the material. However, nothing is as simple as it seems. If you approach our texts as you would a novel you will not be successful as a student. Instead of reading the assignments you need to study them. Studying takes more time and effort but leads to better understanding of the material and higher grades.
There are several techniques that successful students have used to be successful in my classes. I’m going to describe the one that many students have found successful together with a couple of variations. I suggest you experiment to see how to make it work for you. I’m going to concentrate on my face-to-face classes in this post, because online classes pose some special difficulties.
Much of the information for these classes is contained in the text book(s) and other readings. It’s important to read the assigned texts before the class both so you have a better foundation for the class and so you can earn extra credit points during the Kingsfield exercise at the beginning of class.
You might want to begin by quickly skimming the assigned reading. Look at the headings and subheads with an eye toward seeing the overall layout of the material. If there are photos or drawings you might want to check them out. Our philosophy books presents many of the most important concepts in the many line drawings throughout the text. Although the drawing may not make complete sense at this point, you’ll have an idea of what to look for. If you’re in the Comparative Religions class, you’ll find a lot of information and background in the sidebars and other material.
Now it’s time to do some concentrated study. Set a timer from 15 to 45 minutes. If you’re new to this start at the lower range and plan on working yourself up to longer study sessions. Begin to read the assignment, stopping after every 1-3 paragraphs to summarize and paraphrase what you’ve read. Look for natural break points where the book moves from one topic to another. Close the book and write down what you’ve just read. Use your own words, rather than trying to parrot exactly what in the book. Then open the book and compare what you wrote to what you read. Did you “get” it? Did you miss something? If necessary, re-read the passage and review your summary. When you’re happy with what you’ve learned, go on to the next couple of paragraphs. Again when you get to a natural break point, close the book and summarize what you just read. When your timer goes off, finish the section you’re working on, summarize it, and do your comparison. Before you take a break, get a clean sheet of paper and summarize everything you learned during this study session.
Now, give yourself a break. If necessary, set your timer for 5 minutes. Then get up, walk around, get a drink. Do something physical, this isn’t the time to surf the web or check your email. And don’t extend your break for more then five minutes.
Before you start reading again, take a minute to review what you’ve learned so far. This would be a good time to try to answer the study guide questions, using the text to construct your answers, if necessary.
After you’ve reviewed your previous study sessions, re-set your timer and start on the next portion of the readings. Again stopping after every 1-3 paragraphs to summarize and review. Every hour or so take longer breaks. Go for a walk outside, do the dishes, play with your kids or your pets. But don’t stay away from the books for more than 10 or 15 minutes. And before you start up again, always review what you already know.
Some students who are oral learners like to use a tape recorder (on an MP3 equivalent) to record their summaries. If you’re in the car a lot, driving to and from work for example, you can play the tape as a review session.
Maybe you’re a visual learner and a cartoon of the main ideas will help you remember what you’re read. Lots of people find mind maps a helpful tool for learning new ideas. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on Mind Maps you might find useful.
By the day of class, you should have the answers to most of the study questions and as the unit progresses you should be able to start constructing the answers to the essay questions. When we do the Kingsfield exercise at the beginning of class you should be confident that you’re prepared to answer every question. When it comes time to study for the exam, you’ll be ready!
For another take on some of the same techniques, check out The Art of Stealth Studying: How To Earn a 4.0 With Only 1.0 Hours of Work.
Have you discovered any especially effective study tips? Share them with us in the comments.