The How Not to Study Guide

Why you shouldn't multitask your studying or start with the no-brainer homework questions.

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For many students, the biggest difference between college and high school is studying: In college, you're really supposed to be doing it. But many beginning college students have habits and strategies that not only don't help their studying but actually thwart it. For them, we offer our best ideas for what not to do if you're going to ace your college studying.

  • Don't look for the perfect environment. Many students think if only they found the perfect place to study, studying would be easy. So they spend inordinate amounts of time scouting and trying out various locales—first their dorm room, then the coffee shop, then the library, then the grass, etc. Such elaborate "setup" time can be a major time waster, and even worse, can make you feel that you can't study unless you are in your ideal study spot. Better idea? Find a reasonably quiet place and just get started. You'll get more comfortable as you get going.
    • Don't multitask. Believe it or not, some students study for all five of their courses at one session. Fifteen minutes on this subject, 15 minutes on another, 15 minutes on a third—you get the picture. But it's a far better idea to devote your entire session to a single subject. That way you build up speed, and the more engaged you get, the easier the studying will become. Worst of all is to intersperse one subject with another. That's a recipe for guaranteed confusion.
      • Don't discard the clues. Many professors give study questions or at least say in class what will be most important in the reading. Be sure to consider these all-important (and time-saving) suggestions before you start your reading. If yours is a class with math problems or proofs, be sure to consult the problems done in lecture or section before taking off on the new ones. Often the homework problems are variants of, or extensions of, the work already done.
        • Don't overestimate the pain. Students often think that the initial pain of resistance to studying will continue throughout the studying. But, surprisingly enough to many students, you'll find that the pain decreases and the enjoyment increases as you get into the material and find you can at least sort of do it. If you plan for an hour of pain, you'll never free your mind enough to get through the studying.
          • Don't start with the no-brainers. Some students think that starting with the easiest tasks—or the ones they're best at—will "ease them into" the material. Trouble is, when you get to the harder tasks, you still have the leap to make—and you're more tired, too. Suggestion? Start with the hardest or most challenging task.
            • Don't just memorize. It's useless to just shovel stuff into your mind that you don't understand. If you really are understanding what you're studying, you ought to able to explain the main ideas, in your own words, to someone who hadn't done the studying. Take the time to think about what you're studying—don't just prepare to parrot it on some upcoming exam.
              • Don't microfocus. Some students think the best studying is slow studying. Reading every word, one by one, writing every sentence of the paper, one by one, preparing one's presentation, one word at a time. But like any cognitive activity, studying is a process that takes place over time and gains strength by building up speed. If you focus too narrowly on the individual elements of what you're doing, you suck the life out of the learning and disrupt the intellectual growth that's possible, even in studying.
                • Don't do a "trial run." Many students think they'll do a task—say, reading—once over lightly, then go back and do it again with more focus, and then swing back a third time just to polish it off. Instead of doing the same thing three times, plan to do it once. Save yourself the two half-assed attempts, and just do it right the first time.
                  • Don't count busywork as studying. Some students do a lot of preparing to study or getting organized for studying. But they never get down to doing the studying. Don't give yourself credit for studying when you're actually just cleaning your desk or reorganizing your files on your laptop.
                    • Don't break yourself to death. Many students think, wrongly, that if they take breaks from time to time (like about every eight minutes) they'll get through the studying easier. But the truth is, each time you stop, you also have to start. And each time you start, you have to overcome the resistance from scratch. Take a break no more frequently than every 20 minutes. Half an hour is better. And limit each break to five minutes. That way you'll actually be able to remember what you were just thinking about.
                      • Don't count "study time" as study time. Some students keep three windows open as they read their E-textbook: one for the book, another for Facebook, and the third for Twitter. And then they flit back and forth from screen to screen, counting all the time as study time. When you're counting up your study time, count only the time you actually engaged with the material (not just the time you sat at your study place). If you can't do this honestly in your head, write it down. The pencil never lies.
                        • Don't count a "study group" as a study group. Many classes have required or optional study groups in which you get together with a group of students from the same course to study the material. If you're participating in one of these, make sure you and your cohorts are actually studying the material, not just each other. If, for whatever reason, you're not studying the material, have a nice time—just don't count the time as study time.
                          • Don't misidentify yourself as an owl. Many students think they can study really well late at night. Very few can.
                            • Don't cram it. Many students think they can study really well the night before the exam ("I'll remember it best if it's freshly studied"). Few can.
                              • Don't be overpunitive. Many students set elaborate study schedules—nothing wrong with that—and then beat themselves up when things don't go according to plan. Maybe some task took longer than anticipated, maybe some additional materials are needed to complete the task, or maybe you were just tired or distracted that day. Don't be too hard on yourself when you haven't kept 100 percent to your plan. Keep in mind that you'll have many study sessions and that remaining in a positive mood about your schoolwork is more important than how any one study session—or indeed series of sessions—goes.
                                • Don't go it alone. If, in spite of your very best efforts, you find yourself hopelessly behind on your studying, always go see the prof or TA. They've had loads of experience with students just like you and can make pragmatic suggestions about how you can get on the right track. Really.
                                  • Don't blow off two days in a row. Though nobody quite tells you this, you're supposed to be studying every day of the week at college. That's because the lecture portion of the course is the smallest part of the work to be done. If you're supposed to be preparing, on average, two hours for each lecture hour, and you're taking 15 hours of courses, then you're supposed to be preparing 30 hours a week. Hard to fit 30 hours of studying in only three days a week. Especially if you have lectures on those days.
                                  • Finally, and most important,

                                    • Don't cheat yourself. To get your money's worth out of college, you'll have to do a lot of work on your own. If you don't study—or if you don't study well—you're only cheating yourself. Why do that?
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