Study Actively!

Chances are you’re not studying enough. Or you’re studying too much. Or you’re studying for the right amount of time but the information isn’t sticking. Many schools don’t directly teach study habits, so you’re probably just doing a combination of what comes naturally to you and what your mom or dad has you in the habit of doing.

In this post, we’ll give you some tips to help you study. You don’t need to use all of them every time you have a science test, but they’ll give you a sense of how best to approach your work so that you can pick out the approaches that are most useful to you. We’ll put ten tools in your toolbox. You choose which ones to use.

1. Don’t just read through your notes!

Basic idea: passive studying is a big waste of time.

The problem with reading through your notes is that it feels like you’re memorizing material but there’s no way to know if it’ll stick. When you read notes on Article 1 of the Constitution, you feel like an expert whether or not you can remember why it was important an hour later.

The number one mistake students make is to study by reading over the chapter, or their notes, or their friend’s notes. It feels like time well spent, but it isn’t. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you know the information.

So what should you do instead?

2. Write it down.

Basic idea: most students retain information best when they put pencil to paper. This action helps internalize the processes needed for the math problem they’re trying to review for a quiz and helps when it comes to memorizing the facts about the Constitution for their upcoming history test.

So start by rewriting your notes, information from the textbook, or the words you’ll need to define. And saying what you’re writing aloud as you jot it down will both help you focus and remember the information you’re studying. It’ll feel silly at first, but if you can find a room where you’re alone and actually put sound to the words you’re writing, chances are you’ll remember them better come test time.

Organize Info in a Way Your Brain Can Retain

1. Use bullet points.

Memorizing paragraphs is not only really hard to do, but it’s also counter productive. You want to be focusing on the most important information you’ll need to know. So write succinctly. Use bullet points when you can. And turn those bullet points into charts and lists.

2. Make charts and lists.

It can be hard to memorize a big block of text because there’s too much detail on top of the really important stuff. So find the information that matters and pull it out of a reading. For example, take the paragraphs from your notes about various articles of the Constitution, like this one:

Article one is about the Legislative Branch, which in the US is called Congress. It’s bicameral, so the congress is divided into a legislature consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Article One grants Congress powers and then the ability to pass laws “necessary and proper” to carry out those powers. Article One also establishes how to pass bills.

And separate out the info:

Article Government Branch Who’s in the branch Power Other
1 Legislative Congress: Senate and House of Representatives Make laws 100 Senators (2 per state) + 435 members in the H.O.R.
2 Executive President/Vice President Carry out laws President is also Commander in Chief of military
3 Judicial Courts Interpret laws Judges also have the power to punish, sentence, and direct future action to resolve conflicts

A chart like this helps you break down the information by distilling a lot of sentences into one or two main ideas. If you turn the paragraph into a chart, you are putting the information into your own words, and into fewer words, both of which will help you remember it better!

Or, if charts don’t work:

3. Tell yourself a story, and write it down.

Basic idea: create logical connections between pieces of information so you only have to memorize a single story rather than a thousand disparate facts.

If you’re trying to memorize facts about the digestive system for bio class, it can be hard to focus when there are a billion terms to keep track of. So try to connect the info in a way that makes logical sense. It’s kind of the reverse process of #3. At times it works to separate out items, other times it’s helpful to combine them in a logical way.

Something like this:

Chewing physically–with teeth–breaks the food into pieces that are more easily digested, and saliva begins the process of further breaking it down into a form your body can absorb. Next, the food travels through your throat into the esophagus. With contractions, the esophagus squeezes food down to the stomach. The stomach then mixes and grinds it with acids and enzymes that continue the process of breaking down the food. When it leaves the stomach, food is the consistency of a liquid or paste. From there the food moves to the small intestine…

In this case, writing out the story above will help you remember the whys as well as the hows. Too often, especially in science and history, students try to remember dozens of scattered facts. It’s almost always easier to remember a single story that incorporates these facts.

Brian’s Favorite Class to Teach

I took “World Writers” as an 8th grade student at Grace Church School in 1994-1995, and it was critical in launching me into a career writing and teaching literature.

This is my 14th year teaching World Writers. From the beginning, my goals have been consistent: first, to encourage the students to think and write with more analytical precision; second, to spark in them an enthusiasm for reading and the varieties of human experience; and third, to expand their literary horizons in order to help them better be able to form and articulate their unique vision of the world. World Writers creates a community of readers for whom I can facilitate discussion of some of my favorite books, along the way helping students fall in love with reading, writing, and thinking just as I did when I was their age.

The only consistent text year after year is Night, by Elie Wiesel. Night is a masterpiece that chronicles Wiesel’s own experiences as a teenager during the Holocaust. The memoir sets the tone for the class, as it demands a brutal honesty that students build over the first few weeks and then apply to all the other works we read together. World Writers is a serious class, because regardless of the texts that follow Night, we inevitably confront a series of atrocities. In regular rotation are Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Paul Auster’s City of Glass, and Kazuo Ishiguoro’s Never Let Me Go. Over the years, we’ve also read Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto; Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe; Dreams of My Father, by Barack Obama; and a variety of stories (Franz Kafka, Eudora Welty, John Cheever) and poetry (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wisława Szymborska). These works detail all kinds of suffering and loss, and they demand to be confronted with respect for the writers and their subjects. That said, they also demand to be met with joy. That these books exist is a miracle, and it is as important that we laugh, question, argue, tease, demand, love, and hate, as it is that we empathize. And we give equal weight to authorial decisions as we do to their characters’ lives. We ask how the works are constructed. Which choices result in what effects on the reader. Why an author elected to include this instead of that, in this way instead of that one?

What all the above texts have in common is a perspective the students are unlikely to have encountered outside World Writers. Whether we are delving into the life of a Black girl-then-woman in 1930’s Chicago, a teenager enduring Chinese re-education, or a British clone mined for her internal organs, each text is very different from the next but manages to find the perfect words or phrases for emotions and feeling we’ve all had but have never been able to express. I feel lucky to revisit these works each year with a new set of students ready to think deeply, possibly for the first time, about issues they may have never confronted before.