Studying: Quality over Quantity

Not all studying is equal. Your goal here is information retention. Phillip Reeves argues, the better the environment you complete your homework in, the better prepared you will be for studying later for quizzes and exams.

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Not all studying is equal. Your goal here is information retention. The better the environment you complete your homework in, the better prepared you will be for studying later for quizzes and exams.

Phillip Reeves

Businesses frequently have signs on their storefront saying “No pets allowed” or “No smoking allowed”. Many of them should also have a sign saying “No studying allowed”. A point blank advertisement like this would help the vast majority of students avoid places which prohibit efficient studying. Why? Not all studying is equal. Your goal here is information retention, not amount of time studying. The better the environment you complete your homework in, the better prepared you will be for quiz and exam prep. Sharing what works and what has failed me is the best way I know of helping you to discern what your successful studying plan is. Hopefully, explaining my thought process as to why these various elements work for me will leave an effective template that you can enhance and personalize.
What environments envigorate you? Do you thrive off the background noises and openness of a coffee shop? Is your mind most clear when you’re at home in a comfy t-shirt? Does being on King’s’ campus increase your willingness to study? If you’re unsure what’s your place–it’s also very normal to have multiple productive places–, try to think of where you most successfully read or write for pleasure. That will probably also be where you’re best at homework. An environment you enjoy will always enhance your desire to complete a task.

For me, nothing replaces the energy and focus I get from working in a coffee shop or at one of the New York Public Library branches. There’s just enough going on to make me truly focus on what I’m doing, but I’m also detached to what’s happening since I don’t know the people around me. Even better than working in a coffee shop or library is doing so in the morning. That’s not always possible because of my class schedule, but starting off the day productively sets a great mood for the day and generally improves my outlook. Putting homework off until the end of the day only leads to day-long dread of what’s still on my plate. But, this is partially because I can process new information substantially better in the mornings than at night.

Once I force myself to rise from bed, I absorb all the energy which a sunlit morning brings. My ability to retain information and critically engage with course material is at its highest before noon. As the sun sets, so does my ability and desire to focus on anything besides spending time with friends. During the second semester of my freshmen year, I discovered that my ability to retain information was 100% gone after midnight. It truly is a better use of my time beyond midnight to sleep and be alert in class the next day with unfinished homework than to have “completed” my homework but retain none of it and arrive at class exhausted, unable to focus. Yes, sometimes finishing your homework or getting in another hour of studying can hurt you.

You might notice that so far all of these study elements have been entirely self-focused. What about studying with friends? People are terrific, but studying with them can be a snare to success. When reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, I came across a study about the power of solitary studying. Psychologist Anders Ericsson’s study of top music students in West Berlin revealed that the key difference between the great students and the good students was the amount of time spent practicing alone. The great students spent more than twice as many hours practicing alone than the good students did. All of the top students said practicing alone was the essential time where they learned how to master the music. Much like this, if I’m trying to deeply comprehend and memorize material, I have to do that alone. The only way I can do homework with friends around is if we make a pact not to talk to each other. I break this pact quite easily; so, rarely, do I trust myself to do homework around good friends when I’m grappling with new, dense material. But, group studying is incredibly helpful when I need to put material in my own words so I can explain why things are as they are instead of just the fact that they are. If you think you won’t be able to isolate yourself from friends this completely, see my previous post about “guilt-free homework”.

Lastly, what about personal touches to enhance your study time so you genuinely enjoy it? First, listening to music while studying follows generally the same rules for me as people. If I’m trying to understand the nuance of a Supreme Court decision for Con Law, I can’t listen to music with words. That’s too many thoughts going through my mind at once. If you find yourself coming to the end of a page without really remembering what you just read, then chances are that your music is getting too much of your attention. Second, hungry people don’t focus at their best. When you study, treat yourself with a cup of coffee or favorite snack. When you get hungry, try to push on for another twenty minutes to get to a solid stopping point and use your hunger as a natural break.

Just like you can’t have a meaningful discussion while also carrying on a texting conversation, you can’t study efficiently while distracted. Minimize distractions by placing yourself in an enjoyable environment at your most energetic time of the day. Surround yourself with snacks, sounds, and spaces which heighten your awareness and increase your ability to have a one-track mind. Don’t fret about devoting time to studying and studying alone. This uninterrupted time will most likely increase your efficiency, decrease the total time you need to study, increase your day-to-day retention of material, and increase your time for guilt-free socializing. Ultimately, would you rather spend two hours doing homework or four hours? If you pick two hours (that’s my choice), then the quality of your study time is essential to your success.

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