How to Study – Pitfalls and Success Secrets: Part 1

By Lance King

The key things that teachers rarely teach and students often get wrong that can make a huge difference to the effectiveness and efficiency of your study

The first questions are what, when, where and how to study?

But first there is always a Why? (Why Why? If you’re interested see Simon Sinek Start with Why)

For most people study is something that is done when it is needed in order to achieve specific academic goals. Study is not a term we tend to use for things that we are researching, investigating reading about or doing simply because we gain great enjoyment from doing so. Those things we ‘study’ without ever counting the cost of the effort required because they are intrinsically motivating. As Dan Pink points out the three keys to intrinsic motivation are:

  1. Autonomy – when we have full choice as to what to be interested in and we are choosing to ‘study’ something entirely for our own reasons.
  2. Mastery – we believe mastery of this will be beneficial to ourselves and we can notice our own incremental progress towards mastery.
  3. Purpose – we can see an overarching reason for doing this that aligns well with our own key values.

If you have autonomy, mastery and purpose then you have your Why?
This is the kind of learning you do in your favourite sport or your favourite game, and hopefully in your favourite subject and with your favourite teacher. But most learning at school is not of that nature is it? Most of the study you will do for school and university is done when it is needed in order to achieve specific academic goals. So without the benefit of intrinsic motivators to make it easy for us we need to rely on our own skills and effort and we need to use external motivators where they are useful.

Interestingly enough Pink shows that external motivators (like gold stars, grades, scores, marks, money, prestige, praise for achievement) work well for improving productivity in solving simple tasks but with difficult tasks requiring independent thought and conceptual understanding, external motivators directly decrease productivity.

The most effective study producing the highest levels of understanding and retention of the most challenging and difficult material is always goal oriented, well planned and regular but it is clear from students’ responses that most study schedules are driven largely by crises, such as an upcoming midterm exam, rather than by systematic decision making. When students were asked how they decided what to study next, 59% chose “Whatever’s due soonest/overdue” and only 11% chose “I plan my study schedule ahead of time”.

But those reasons are still perfectly good Why’s and you can use them to help you generate energy and drive. The important thing is to be very clear about exactly why you are doing this study. What is your most desirable outcome? Can you imagine it, see it in your mind, get very clear about it? That’s Step 1.

So if that is your reality, you are studying something because you need to learn – understand and retain this thing in order to pass some assessment, assignment, test or exam, then the key question is what are your controllable factors? What are the levers that you can pull to improve the efficiency of your information processing and the understanding and retention of key concepts and applications even in a last-minute, crisis situation?
There are only two:

  1. how much effort you put in, and
  2. what strategies you use.

Step 2:
To generate the effort needed to achieve what you want in life you need to have goals and those goals need to be unified towards achieving a higher purpose. There are all sorts of ways of writing goals but it is not writing goals that is important here it is achieving goals. Achieving all your goals is possible as long as you use a well thought out and designed planning system that uses the best strategies available today.
This needs to be your next step. Use the structure available in LALATAT Organization Skills – Achieve Long Term Goals to plan out the achievement of all your academic goals – as well as any other life goals you have.

Step 3:
if you are studying for a specific test or examination, your next task will be to create an exam study timetable. Follow through all the steps in LALATAT Study Skills – Exam Study Timetabling.

Step 4:
Once you have all the parameters of your goal clear in your own mind then you can start planning your time. The trick with time management is putting in well planned time to help avoid panics, crises and ‘all-nighters’. You may think that you produce your best work at 3am when it is due in the next day but most human beings produce more well thought out, better quality work (that earns better grades) when they can take their time over it and do it thoroughly.
This is your next step – learn how to plan out your time for completing tasks, assignments, subject deadlines and ‘To-Do’ lists by working through the exercises in LALATAT Organization Skills – Time and Task Management.