How Do I Study?

As a teacher, one of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “How do you study for [fill in the blank]?” This is a frustrating question primarily because I’ve told the students numerous times the best strategies for studying. If they haven’t heard me by now, what are the chances they’ll hear me if I say it one more time? Yet I know, sometimes “one more time” is just what it takes!

There are many things I could say, but here is a Top Ten List I put together during my first year of teaching:

#1 Have a Study Place & Time

Do not study lying on your bed or in the hallway or in another class.  Find a place where you can sit upright (a desk, table, etc.), where there is plenty of light and where it is quiet.  No matter how much you insist you cannot study without music in the background, you are wrong.  Have a “study time” set aside and do not study for too long at a time.  Take a 5 or 10 minute break every once and a while to help clear your head.  Doing all this will get you into a “study mode” where you will be able to concentrate and learn.

#2 Read for Comprehension

Do not just scan the reading 10 minutes before class begins.  Read it at least the night before, if not earlier.  When you read, try to understand what the author is arguing, (i.e. do not read it simply to say you have read it).  When you are finished with your study, know what the thesis is on the piece you are reading (what is the point of the selection?) and several ways how the author defends the thesis.  Knowing the piece well before you come to class will greatly increase your comprehension of the material.  If you do not understand something, make a list of questions and ask for help.

#3 Read Assignments More Than Once

To read for “comprehension” you will rarely, if ever, be able to read something just once.  Read the selection at least twice.  On the first read, just try to get an overall feel for what the author is doing and what they are arguing.  On subsequent readings, take your time and reread smaller sections as many times as necessary (i.e. if something is mind-bogglingly difficult, slow down and reread the sections that are difficult).  These readings are not easy and even the most brilliant minds have to read them more than once to understand them.  You are in good company if you do not understand the first time around.

 #4 Keep a Notebook

Keep a notebook that is dedicated to this class only; preferably a 3-ring binder with loose paper so that they can easily be moved around if necessary.  In your notebook keep your notes from your readings, notes you take in class, and any quizzes, handouts or study guides.  At the top of every page should be the subject matter and the date.  Keeping yourself organized like this will keep the information organized in your head.  When you notes are scattered and chaotic so is your ability to reproduce the information on a test or in a paper.

#5 Review Your Notebook Weekly

We cover a lot of information in this course and it is unreasonable to expect to be able to study all the material in one night before a test.  At least once per week you should review your notes and study the past week’s material.  Read your notes out loud and make sure you are thoroughly familiar with everything that has been covered so far.  Doing this will keep the information fresh in your mind and reduce the work needed when it comes to preparing for the exam.

#6 Make Flash Cards

When studying, particularly for an exam, make flash cards.  On one side, write questions (like from a study sheet) and on the back, write the answer.  Go over your flash cards, again and again, until you can answer all of your flash cards without looking at the answers.  Forcing yourself to reproduce the answer will ensure that you actually know the material.

#7 Find a Study Partner

It is often very helpful to find a partner to help you study.  Quiz each other and help each other understand the material.  It is often the case that studying in large groups can be distracting rather than helpful, so keep it small.  Make sure you find someone who is as motivated to do as well as you are, there is nothing worse than trying to study without some who doesn’t get a rip about the class.

#8 Write Papers Early

DO NOT write your papers the night or even the morning before they are due.  On shorter essays, complete them at least two or three days before they are due and at least one week before they are due for longer papers.  After one or two days, reread your paper and proof-read it for clarity and grammar.  Putting space between your writing and your proof-reading will greatly increase the quality of your papers (I cannot count the times I’ve reread my papers and thought, “what in the world was I thinking when I wrote that?”).  The only thing worse than writing a paper hastily the night before without any proof-reading is having to read a paper that was written hastily the night before without any proof-reading; note that whatever you can do to make it easier for someone to read your paper it will greatly increase your score.

#9 Have Someone Proof-Read Your Papers

Often times we “read between the lines” of our own papers, inserting thoughts and ideas that are not there.  Have someone proof-read ALL of your work.  Another person will not “fill in the gaps” as they read and will be able to point out areas that need clarification and grammatical correction.  Make sure the person you have proof-read your work is competent and knows what they are doing; having someone who is getting a “D” in the class is probably not a “go-to” person for proof-reading.

#10 Develop a Mentality for Learning

No matter how boring or irrelevant a class seems, develop a mentality for learning the information.  No information/knowledge is irrelevant and the sooner you learn this, the sooner you will enjoy even the most difficult and/or boring subjects.  Humanity has a lot to teach us about creation, even the most pagan and irreverent writers get some things right and looking at the world through the eyes of those with whom we disagree will greatly increase our understanding of the world.  It is the case that no matter what you do in life, either at school or at your job, there will be things you do not like, the sooner you get over your self and your preferences, the sooner you will realize that all things are what you make of them.  If you hate something and refuse to engage in it, you will be miserable and perform poorly.  You do not know everything nor do you know what you need to learn, be humble and admit that you need instruction.  For every subject at hand ask yourself, “what can I learn from this;” “what can this person teach me about humanity and/or creation;” “what does God want me to learn from this;” etc.  YOU determine what you will get out of the course and how much you will grow and improve because of it.

On Grades and Grading

Good Grade on TestI often tell my students, “I’d rather take exams than grade exams.”  Their response is usually the typical groan and eye-roll only teenagers can effect.  Anyone who has done both knows I am right.

Yesterday in my Rhetoric class we read the essay “Grades” by James V. Schall in his excellent book, Another Sort of Learning.  The main thrust of Schall’s musings on grades is that they are a terrible nuisance and really don’t matter:

Grades are things not to worry about. Says who?  Well, I do, in a way.  No one is in a university to “get good grades”, even though your grades may be the main concern of the good tuition payers back home. … If to get a good grade a student reads St. Augustine—well, terrific.  But I am also impressed by someone who reads St. Augustine and gets a D-, but who five or twenty-five years later is still reading him. It takes all one’s life to read St. Augustine, so the first dozen times through probably deserve a D- anyhow.

What is most important, of course, is that the student learns, not that they get a particular grade.  After all, how many of you can remember what grade you got in Junior English in High School? Says Schall,

When students get as ancient as certain unnamed professors, of course, as they inevitably will, something Cicero taught in his marvelous essay “On Old Age”, just what grade they got back in Government 117 will tend to be obscured by their inability to recall whether they actually ever took Government 117 in the first place. The only thing we need to recall is what we read, what we spoke about, and if we are lucky, what we wrote about.

Now, over at the Imaginative Conservative, John Wilson, professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale College, claims that grades are “the chief cruelty of our profession: assigning our student to paradise, purgatory, or the inferno with the stroke of a pen.”

Quite rightly, Wilson reminds us that “grades” are a modern invention (one that I would argue can be traced back to Descartes and his desire to measure everything with regards to Mathematics):

Grades as we know them are a relatively recent educational innovation. Although Yale president Ezra Stiles tried as early as the 1780s to rank his seniors (Optimi, 2nd Optimi, Inferiones, Pejores) it didn’t take. Mt. Holyoke College was the first institution to adopt a grading system—in 1897, about the time my grandfather graduated from Syracuse. . . .

Grades were invented by my grandfather’s generation, a product of an age of democracy and equality, science and technology and measurement; an age of organization and bureaucracy: The Progressive Era. Grades are no more “natural” to teaching, or to education in general, than is the SAT, which is also a reflection of similar cultural assumptions.

But none of this consoles me.  I still have a stack of essays, exams, quizzes, and exercises to grade.  More Port please.