How to approach a course when you have to…
A few courses require you to memorize specific facts or rules (e.g., language courses). Science courses such as Biology and Anatomy also require a large amount of information to be memorized, alongside understanding concepts.
How should I approach these courses?
Because memorizing is very intensive work for our brains and because brains can’t take in too much at one time, it’s better to spread the learning out.
- Swiss Cheese Method: nibble away to make holes in the material rather than gobbling it up all at once.
- Distributed Learning: Spend a short time (20-30 minutes) learning one thing and then take a break. Come back later and review what you’ve learned in the previous session. Add something new. Remember: short sessions with lots of repetition.
- Chunking & Making Connections: It‘s important to make connections among all the details so that they are easier to remember. For example, in Biology you might make a chart of all the hormones and proteins covered in the course with the main characteristics of each one. In French, you might make a chart of all the kinds of pronouns and their uses.
Many courses, especially in social sciences, require you to understand concepts and are not about memorizing information to regurgitate on tests. Rather, they are about reaching a deep level of understanding of the concepts. To reach this level, you have to see the BIG PICTURE.
How should I approach these courses?
Think of your course as a giant jigsaw puzzle and each lecture, each reading is a new piece of the puzzle. Your job is to fit all the pieces together.
- Integrate material from lectures with information from the text and additional readings.
- Organizing information around major themes and concepts (identified by the instructor and/or in the textbook). Make mind-maps, charts and visual outlines showing how the ideas fit together. The visual needs to show how important details form a concept and how a concept fits with the course.
- Test questions often ask you to evaluate, compare, and apply the concepts. So prepare study questions which reflect these ways of thinking. Use concrete examples to clarify.
Many courses in Science, Engineering, and Commerce require problem-solving. Course material is best learned by doing problems. Spending time just reading your textbook is not the best use of your time. Working through the problem and then reading the theory often helps to clarify it.
How should I approach these courses?
- Read your textbook backwards! Skim the chapter quickly, then start on the problems at the back of the chapter. When you get stuck, go back to read the pertinent parts of the text. By doing so, you get the problem done AND understand the theory.
- Organize problems around concepts. Each problem is not unique but rather part of a family of problems where each procedure is a variation on the concept. To help you understand discreet differences among procedures, use maps or flow charts to show how the various procedures connect to the concept.
Source: Mary O‘Malley, Concordia University
Preparing summary sheets for studying
Why use summaries?
- deepen your understanding of the material
- determine the key ideas (refer to the course outline for learning objectives)
- organize material into themes, or hierarchies
- look for connections among ideas, concepts, or problem sets
- reduce the volume of content for faster reviews
Choose a summary method that reflects the content plus your preferred way of learning. These methods highlight studying the overall concepts. Drilling information on cue cards focuses on isolated details and complements these conceptual summary methods.
Here are some useful formats (see also: Academic Reading module):
- Concept Summary
Memory strategies for exam prep
So how do we remember? Attention → Encoding
Before you can encode the information, you must begin by attending to (i.e., thinking about) it. Then…
Translate incoming information into a mental representation: Picture (visualize it), Sound (say it), and Meaning (put it into your own words).
Think “GULP”: GET it, USE it, LINK it, and PICTURE it.
- Recite: preferably out loud
- Distributed practice: study in small chunks over a period of time
- Mnemonics /Acronyms (e.g., S.A.S.S. = Student Academic Success Services!)
- Rhymes and songs
- Pegging: link new information to something known
See our online module on Memory Strategies for more information.
Predicting test/exam questions
Listen for clues in lectures
- Verbal clues: Professors often give clues to what will be on the exam so observe and listen carefully. Sometimes professors give direct instructions for the test while other clues can be more subtle. For example, if your instructor repeats an idea several times, writes it on the board, or returns to it in a subsequent lecture, you can be sure that it’s important enough to appear on an exam.
- Non-verbal clues: Don’t forget that non-verbal cues such as gestures showing a critical point, pauses, and looking at notes indicate something is important. If a professor reads a section out loud, take note.
- Questions: Pay close attention to questions the prof asks in lecture.
- Outside readings: When your required readings are covered extensively in a lecture, you can bet they are important.
Study smarter, not harder
- Put yourself into the professor’s head. What kind of questions would you ask? Refer to the learning objectives in the course outline or syllabus.
- Save and review all graded materials. Quizzes, lab sheets, essays. Quiz questions often reappear on final exam in an altered form.
- Get organized! Have a separate folder, file, or section in your notes labelled “Test Questions.”
- Add questions on a regular basis. While the material is fresh (i.e., after each lecture and assignment), add possible test questions to your list.
Part of studying smarter is asking the person who knows — the professor! The format to the test can help you predict questions, so ask the professor how long the test will be and what kinds of questions to expect (e.g., multiple choice). Do this early in the term so that you can listen carefully in lectures from the beginning and brainstorm test questions appropriately.
Practice solving problems
For math and science courses, extend practice as needed: using homework questions, practice working them out anew, using different variables.
Adapted from: Ellis, D. (1995). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 168.[/su_box]
Self-testing as a study strategy
The key to self-testing is not to wait until right before your test! To be effective, the attributes of self-testing procedure should be in place over the course of the term. The following set the foundation for self-testing:
◯ Reviewing lecture notes as soon as possible after each class.
◯ Identifying what you know and what hasn’t been clearly understood.
◯ Combining lecture and reading assignment notes into understandable summaries.
◯ Reviewing course material regularly instead of cramming.
Self-testing should be a part of each study session!
As noted above, effective studying involves reviewing course material on a regular basis. That means:
Lecture or tutorial notes need to be reviewed as soon as possible after each class. What does “reviewing” look like?
- Test your knowledge and understanding using the notes containing examples and applications of concepts presented.
- Relate new knowledge to previous topics covered.
- Link old to new information, which will help you
- understand the old information better,
- remember all material covered, and
- make predictions about what may occur next.
BONUS: Any information that was not well understood can be addressed immediately (asking questions in class, in tutorial).
At the end of each reading (e.g., chapter, journal article), set aside a part of your study session just to review your notes. Students often postpone self-testing until just before a scheduled test — it will still help to self-test, but by this time it’s too late for full effectiveness.
Brogue, C. (1993). Studying in the Content Areas: Science. Clearwater, FL: H&H Publishing Co.