Learning to Learn: Shifting Study Habits

By Colin McGinnis, McNair graduate assistant

The reality is that only a handful of us are learners. A majority of students are performers– those who cram content into their brains to excel in testing situations, and forget the information shortly after– or are non-performers– those who are uninterested in learning and don’t perform well on tests.

Learners, however, have a deep passion for understanding the content they are studying. They have mastery-oriented learning goals, which isn’t as complicated as it may sound. Mastery orientation refers to a student’s desire to become competent on a task. Students with high mastery orientation believe hard work matters more than the grade, often fostering a sense of resilience from failing on a task. Failing becomes an opportunity to learn from setbacks and mistakes. As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed try, try again… and learn from each trial.

Becoming a learner requires strong study habits. Many of us never learned how to study effectively. If you’re like me, no one ever taught you how to study. Since kindergarten schools have been teaching you subjects to be tested (such as math and history), but not necessarily strategies on how to effectively prepare for a test. Luckily for us, universities like UNL offer a variety of seminars and courses on effective learning and academic success.

Having taught one of these classes myself, I believe you should enroll in a course or attend a seminar on this topic to fully develop these skills, but below are my top tips to improve your study habits.

Abandon poor study habits. We’ve been taught to use repetitive rehearsal strategies, such as flashcards or recopying notes, to memorize information for class. However, rehearsals work only for recalling information right away, but not for recalling it later. Effective study habits include selecting information through good note taking, organizing notes with representations and graphic organizers, and creating internal and external associations.

Organize, organize, organize. We’ve all had that moment when visiting a friend’s dorm room that is a complete mess. You walk in and think “wow, how do they find anything in here?!” Well, for many of us our notebooks are like a messy dorm room. We take all of these notes during lecture or while reading and now we have a mess of facts scattered across the pages of our notebooks. Students who study effectively organize their notes into representations whenever possible to best understand and see relationships among ideas. Representations can be just about anything to organize information, however my personal favorites are matrices and illustrations. A matrix allows you to neatly place facts about a topic into broader categories. When studying wars in American history, each war can go across the top of the matrix and information such as “who was fighting,” “number of causalities,” and “dates” could be categories. Simply plug in the facts from your notes and you have a clean and organized way to look at your notes. It is easier to make associations and remember a completed puzzle than 100 individual pieces!

Create associations. Associations are a powerful tool when it comes to studying. There are two types of associations, internal and external. Internal associations are made by relating ideas within the material you’re studying to identify some of those “big picture” topics we might miss. For example, if reading about birds in your zoology course you may learn about ducks and geese. Although never said in the text, you could recognize that both ducks and geese are water birds and probably share many features. By associating this fact, you now would be able to answer questions about ducks and geese, as well as discuses features of water birds and make comparisons to other types of birds. External associations are made by relating information to knowledge we already know. For example, when studying the cell structure in biology, you could associate structures to parts of a school. The cell membrane is like the security guard or intercom system determining who can pass in and out of the building. The Mitochondria is like the school’s cafeteria creating the “food” to power the cell. The similarity between a cell’s structure and a school might not be stated in the textbook, but by creating this external association between the two an effortless comparison is able to be made allowing for quicker, more meaningful learning. Instead of using rehearsal strategies that are often forgotten after a short period of time, create associations to form a deeper level of understanding.

Test yourself first. The best thing you can do when studying is test yourself. Never let your teacher or professor be the first to test you on a subject. When studying, develop questions along the way that test not only facts, but concept and (if applicable) skills. Concept questions are questions that test your ability to identify new examples, and are often left out of our study routines but surely to be on a test! The following is an example of a concept question: “Chris wore a blue t-shirt when taking his history exam and scores a 100 percent. He wore the same t-shirt for his next exam. Chris’ superstitious behavior is best explained by ____.” As you can see, this question is very different style of question than one asking “Define positive reinforcement.” although testing the same concept. By testing yourself first, and testing yourself often (not just a few days before the test) you will be prepared for whatever your instructor throws your way on test day.

Avoid distracting environments when studying. For me, the study lounge in my residence hall was more lounge than study, and the Union was just that– a place to join with people. Find somewhere that you can focus and get to work. This will be different for everyone, but it is important to find a place that is just right for you to really dive into your studies.

Benefits beyond the exam. In using active study strategies, you’ll do more than create deeper understanding of course material. Your test anxiety will decrease significantly. More often than not, test anxiety is typically due the subconscious belief that you’re unprepared. By improving your study skills, you’ll fight anxiety with preparation. Your confidence will increase, allowing you to feel more comfortable talking about coursework and reduce the impostor effect. Most importantly, you may actually have fun while learning. When you feel informed and confident in your studies, you’ll inherently have more fun while learning. Develop a sense of mastery orientation, study effectively, and study because you love your discipline.

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