Become a better processor!
The process of learning involves taking in information, processing it, and storing it effectively for re-use. It is similar in many ways to the use of files and folders on your computer. However, even the most powerful computer will be of no use to you if the information and material is entered in a disorganised and chaotic manner. As the old programmers' motto says, "garbage in = garbage out"!
To help you identify areas for personal improvement, answer the following questions and then go looking for practical solutions.
- Do you often forget material that you have recently read?
- Does your mind wander during reading, causing you to re-read sections?
- Do you have a system for remembering lists of items?
- Are your notes well laid-out and easy to follow?
- Can you quickly find a particular topic in your subject folders?
- Do you find your plans regularly knocked off-schedule?
- Do you find yourself panicking prior to tests?
Reading better and faster
Most students, when faced with a textbook or chapter to study, will 'start at the beginning, read through at the same pace until the end, then stop and put the book away'. This passive approach is a most inefficient way to learn, as it can take longer and leave you bogged down in detail, with no overall grasp of the subject matter. By adopting a more active approach to reading, you can begin to read better and faster within a very short space of time. The PQ2R method has proven to be most successful in this regard. Try it for the remaining weeks of term and see the benefits.
P = Preview
Begin your reading task with a quick skim (2-3 minutes) of the text, trying to get an overview of the chapter or text. Look for section headings, illustrative charts and diagrams, signposts or key words. Don't start highlighting text at this point.
Q = Question
This is the key to active learning. Look for answers to the basic questions of Who? What? Where? Why? When? Identify the main theme or learning point of the particular text.
R = Read
Now read the chapter carefully, with these questions in mind. Your mind will be actively looking for answers as you read. Work with a pen and paper, make brief summary notes, look for 'topic sentences' that summarise the most important point in a paragraph or section and highlight them, if necessary. Vary your reading speed – move quickly over lighter, less important material and slow down when you come to a difficult section.
R = Review
Always check your understanding of the material by reviewing and testing your recall before putting the text away. Look at the notes you have taken and check that they answer your initial questions. Summarise your findings from this study session.
The purpose of making summary notes on a topic or section is to aid your overall understanding of material, to help you distinguish between what is really important information (depth) and what is merely supporting detail. Reference to the main syllabus topics will help the process of discernment within each subject.
In addition, good summary notes make retrieval of information quicker and easier.
Sort out your filing system
If you haven't already done so, get your subject folders and notes organised immediately. Invest in some ring-binders, dividers, plastic pockets, etc. Have a separate folder for each subject (a permanent reference point) and then keep a 'current folder' for managing notes in progress.
'Less is always more'
When writing notes, remember they should be a summary, not an extensive repetition of what is in the textbook. Don't crowd the page. Stick to main headings and sub-headings. Use abbreviations where appropriate. Try to reduce what you need to know on the topic down to one A4 sheet. Once you have an overview, it is easier to fill out the detail.
Make your notes visual
Ensure your notes have a memorable appearance so that you can recall them easily. Use illustrations, diagrams, graphs, colours, and boxes ('a picture is worth a thousand words'). Arrange the material in a logical hierarchy (title, sub-point, explanation, example). Ideally, you should be able to close your eyes in an exam and visualise a particular page of notes.
Beware of transcribing and highlighting!
Merely re-writing the text from the book into your notes does not ensure retention. Try to put things in your own words and devise your own examples – this will make the material more meaningful. Only use the highlighter pen AFTER you have previewed and questioned a text, thus ensuring you identify the most important material and you avoid the creation of a fluorescent textbook!
'Save' your notes carefully
Practice following the logic of your computer files, when storing information. Think - where does this material best fit (subject, section, topic, sub-topic, etc.)? In this way, you will ensure that it is efficiently processed and easily retrieved both physically (during revision) and mentally (when you need it in an exam).
We often blame our memory for poor academic performance ("I'm no good at remembering names/dates/rules/verbs/characteristics") when really we should be addressing our faulty input and storage system. There is a big difference between short term and long term memory. If you study a topic one night and can recall most of it the next morning, don't be fooled into thinking that you will be able to remember it accurately in two months time.
If the goal is to improve your long term memory, then the key to success is based on the efficiency of input (the 'mental filing system' we employ). Reducing the burden on the limited short term memory, and channelling information into long term storage, is based on the creation of patterns and the avoidance of randomness.
'Chunking': as the average person can only hold seven 'items' in short term memory, grouping items together into 'chunks' can increase capacity. This is generally used for remembering numbers (think of how you remember phone numbers by grouping the seven digits into 2 or 3 chunks) but can be applied to other listings in various subjects.
Repetition: Studies indicate that 66% of material is forgotten within seven days if it is not reviewed or recited again by the student, and 88% is gone after six weeks. Don't make life harder for yourself – build in a brief daily and weekly review of material covered. It will save you having to re-learn material from scratch!
Application and association: The best way to channel material to long term memory is to organise it into meaningful associations. Link it to existing information and topics and create vivid personal examples which act as 'mental hooks' or 'cues' for recalling material in the future. Thus, new items are put in context. If you learn a new formula/verb/rule, try to put it into practice immediately with a relevant example.
Use of mnemonics: these are various word games which can act as memory aids and which allow personalisation and creativity. Think of stalagtites (come down from the ceiling) and stalagmites (go up from the ground); the colours of the rainbow ('Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain' to remember red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet); the seven characteristics of living organisms – Mr.Grief (Movement, Reproduction, Growth, Respiration, Irritability, Excretion, Feeding). You can devise many more of these to aid your personalised recall of items in your subjects.
A site containing tips and techniques for improving your memory.