Studying is an essential part of your education. And hopefully, studying is not some brand new concept that you’re just learning about now, on the brink of your college education. But now that you’re actually in college, studying is a little different. Whether you’re a recent high school graduate striking out on your own for the first time, or you’re a working adult balancing your study sessions with a job and family, this is a great time to give your study skills a fresh polish.
Since you’re on your way to college, or you’re already in it, you’ve probably already developed some valuable study skills. No doubt they helped you get where you are today. But it’s also possible that you’ve developed some less-than-effective study habits over the years, habits that could stand in the way of your success at this next level.
Now is the time to reflect on your approach to studying, to make sure you’re bringing the most effective methods to your higher education, and to ensure that you’re adjusting to the heightened demands of a college degree program. If you’d like to jump right to our comprehensive resource on the subject, check out our Guide to College Study Skills.
Otherwise, let’s confront and bust some of the most popular myths about studying. Read on for a look at the Top Ten Study Skill Myths Debunked…
Myth: I spend an enormous amount of time studying, which means I’m great at it.
Fact: Spending an enormous amount of time studying may seem like a recipe for success, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, how you study is far more important than how much you study. Not that you shouldn’t dedicate sufficient time to reviewing your material. Just be sure that this time is put to good use. Explore and determine methods that work for you. Try “visual learning” by reviewing graphical representations of material; “auditory learning” by reading your material out loud; “reading/writing learning” by taking effective notes. Everybody has a unique learning style, or combination of learning styles. Instead of studying during your every waking moment, cultivate your best learning style(s), and make the most of every moment spent studying.
Myth: I’m so graceful under pressure that it makes sense to wait until the last minute to study.
Fact: You may think you do your best work in the shadow of a looming exam, but this is rarely if ever true. Just because procrastination has worked for you in the past doesn’t mean it’s the best way to learn. Instead of cramming a bunch of information into your head in the twilight hours before an exam, try reviewing your notes at the end of every week, or conducting bi-weekly study sessions with your classmates. You might be surprised by how well you absorb information when you don’t have an exam breathing down your neck. And when the exam is actually approaching, start your preparation at least five days out. The night before the exam should be for review and rest.
Myth: Taking notes in class is pointless. Honestly, I can’t even really read my own handwriting.
Fact: Even if you never revisit your notes after you walk out of a lecture, the mere exercise of writing down pertinent information is a good strategy for retention. Just to be clear, you most definitely should revisit your notes after leaving class. I’m just saying, writing stuff down is a great start. Practice effective (and legible) note-taking strategies: distilling the most important facts, organizing information as you receive it, putting together useful bullet points to summarize a day’s lecture, etc. Then refer back to Myth #2 immediately above: Review your notes regularly. Become familiar with everything you’ve already written down.
Myth: I can only study in a quiet and controlled environment. It’s everybody else’s fault that I can’t concentrate.
Fact: A quiet, designated study area sounds lovely. But during this year of the pandemic, with so many families working and learning from home, a quiet, designated study area is a luxury we don’t always have. Whether you’re a college sophomore studying in your bedroom while your mother conducts important (and loud) Zoom business conferences in the kitchen, or you’re an adult learner pursuing an online master’s degree while your remote-learning children harass you for off-schedule snacks, you must learn to focus in the midst of chaos. Find the quiet space within you. This skill will not only make you a more adaptable student, but it’s a great life-skill for a future job where you work in a common space with teleconferencing co-workers, gurgling coffee-makers, and clacking keyboards.
Myth: I must be laser-focused on a single subject until I’ve mastered it.
Fact: It’s actually good to keep your mind limber by moving between subject areas and study strategies. By poring over a single text or concept for hours on end, you run the risk of numbing yourself to its meaning. It’s actually better to designate a set amount of time to work on a given subject area before moving on to another portion of material. You should plan to revisit the more challenging material as many times as you need to, but give your mind a break from this content every once in a while. You might be surprised at the clarity you can achieve when your mind has a chance to reflect.
Myth: I work better when I’m surrounded by distractions.
Fact: No, you don’t. Nobody does. You may like to study with the television on in the background, occasionally stopping to scroll your Twitter feed, while filing your nails and contemplating an order on GrubHub. But the reason you like it is precisely because it takes your attention away from the material. According to Psychology Today, attempting to take on multiple tasks at once can actually decrease your productivity by 40%. Experts advise that instead of multitasking, you should try task-shifting. Read a chapter, review your notes, then flip on the television for 10 minutes of guilty pleasure watching. Then, jump back into your work for another chapter, or a few practice problems, before closing the book and posting clever memes on social media…while filing your nails. Do one thing at a time. Do it well. Then move on.
Myth: Cramming is effective because the information is fresh in my head.
Fact: Research suggests that attempting to stuff a whole lot of data into your brain right before a test is inconsistent with the way memory generally works. A BBC article points out that cramming generally promotes a feeling of recognition—the sense of familiarity with the material based on how recently and repeatedly we’ve just seen it. But this recognition (likely combined with caffeine and/or sugar intoxication) is only the illusion of retention. Recognition occurs in the visual cortex of your brain, whereas recall occurs in the frontal cortex and temporal lobe. These functions are deeply interconnected, but research indicates that the ability of your visual cortex to process information does not equal the ability of your brain to reconstruct this information as needed. Cramming may give you a false sense of comfort. In fact, studies show that our ability to retain, and more importantly, to recall information, is far greater when studying is spaced out over a longer period of time.
Myth: There’s no such thing as too much studying.
Fact: Burnout is real. You can reach a point of exhaustion, which can produce diminishing returns. While your dedication to your studies is admirable, it is possible to overdo it. A 2013 study in the Journal of Experimental Education found that the 4000+ students from 10 high-performing high schools spent an average of 3 hours on homework every night. The consequences of this dedication were widespread stress, physical health issues, and loss of balance in their lives. Know when to study, and when to stop. Take breaks, stretch your legs, go for a walk, or just watch tv, and turn your brain off for a while. You’ll have more battery life when you switch it back on.
Myth: A bad grade is proof that studying is a waste of time.
Fact: Studying really hard and still getting bad grades may be proof of a lot of things. It may be an indication that your study methods are flawed. It may mean that you need a little outside help with a specific subject area. Or it may mean that you struggle with test-taking even when you understand the material. If you’ve done your due diligence, you’ve studied the material, and your grades are still falling short of expectations, it may be time to seek some support. Whether you need to join a study group, get a tutor, or take better advantage of your professor’s office hours, there is likely a reason at the root of your disappointing grade. Once you find that root, you’ll may gain a much better sense of the study strategies that work for you.
Myth: You only use 10% of your brain.
Fact: Ok, this is not a study myth, per se. It’s kind of a mainstream myth. But it may also feel like a great excuse for why studying can sometimes be so frustrating. If only you could tap all unused brain power! Well, you can, because this one is purely fabricated. It is likely attributable to the choice of phrasing by two Harvard psychologists who, in conducting a study on a child prodigy in the late 1890s, told lecture audiences that most humans only realize a fraction of their mental potential. Over time, this scientifically-defensible claim became the province of self-help books and advertisements, who whittled the statement into the more readily marketable 10% claim. The reality, says neurologist Barry Gordon is that “we use virtually every part of the brain, and that (most of) the brain is active all the time.”
This last myth-buster should come as great news to you, because it means that you have immediate access to your untapped mental potential. There isn’t some mysterious neurological wall that you must break down to use your whole brain. Just try breaking away from some of the old myths about studying. You may be surprised at just how much your mind can do!
If you need a little help getting your mind into gear, check out these valuable resources:
Check out our Guide to College Study Skills
Check out our Guide to Surviving College
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