A Possible Study System

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I am occasionally asked by students in my physics courses "how to study this stuff." Here I describe a system that I used as a student. It actually takes less time, I believe, than trying to study without a system, and it was much more effective, at least for me.

My system evolved during my undergraduate days, and worked for me in physics, math, geology, and psychology courses. It might not work in a "reading" course like history or philosophy or literature - or then again it might, I never tried it in such a course. My system depends on two assumptions: (1) that the instructor will stress in class those things that he/she considers important and (2) that he/she will also test the student's knowledge of the most important points. Thus, there should be a large overlap between things/points emphasized in class and test material. My system therefore relies strongly on class notes. I did read the book (mostly as a reference, to clarify things that weren't clear from class notes), but didn't use it for my primary study.

Here is the system:

1. Go to every class and take notes. Obviously the notes cannot contain everything said in class, but they should be an outline, at least, of what happened there. Often one can tell from the inflection of the professor's voice which points he/she thinks are most important, and you should mark (maybe underline or "star") these points in your class notes.

2. The key step: I would re-write the notes as if I were going to use them to TEACH the material to someone else. I would actually pretend that I was explaining the material to a high-school friend who was not a physics student, writing out what I would say to make the material understandable to someone who knew nothing about it. The resulting "clean" notes (as opposed to my in-class notes which were incredibly messy) should contain all the missing logical steps (that lack of time precludes from the class notes). There would usually be two or three times as many pages of "clean" notes compared to the class notes. The re-writing accounted for much of the time in this study system. In re-writing the notes, I usually found gaps in my understanding. I then went to the book, to the instructor, or to a class-mate for help. When I finished the re-write, I had a pretty complete description of everything covered in class. This included the problems worked in class - with each step explained in writing! During the re-write, the dividing lines between topics, the ORGANIZATION, became clear. I KNEW what had been covered, and what had been emphasized!

I tried to write "clean notes" on class material within a week of its coverage in class, before my memory became stale. But before a test I would look them over, paying special attention to organization: where each topic started, how it was logically developed, and what conclusions and consequences followed. In doing this, the relationship between the different blocks of material also became clear.

3. A few days before the test: On a separate single sheet of paper I would write out a LIST of the topics that had been covered: essentially an outline of the clean notes. I would then isolate myself in a quiet spot, read the first topic, and recite to myself (writing on occasion - but not neatly; this was scrap-paper stuff) everything I knew about that first topic. Then, to check myself, I would look at my clean notes to see what I had missed or left out. After that, I went on to the second topic, and then the third, and so on. This first time through the list might take an hour or even two. Then I would take a break (an hour, say), after which I would come back and "do the list" again. The second time through, I would do better, leaving out/missing fewer points. Going through the list would take less time. Then I would take another break - maybe even overnight - and go through the list a third time. By about 4 or 5 times through, I would have essentially memorized the material in the clean notes - that is, everything that had been stressed in class. By "memorized" I do not mean rote word-for-word; rather that any mention of a topic on my list would instantly bring to mind a flood of information.

4. If the course was a physics or math course, I would need to work some end-of-chapter problems, of course. But now these suddenly seemed easy. Some of them were part of the in-class stuff (having been used as in-class examples), and I had those DOWN COLD at this point. Most of the other problems suddenly seemed awfully SIMILAR to those worked in class - the equations I needed to work them were clearly in my mind, since they were part of the in-class stuff that I knew. Honestly, I didn't spend very much time working end-of-chapter problems that had not been covered in class - just a few to build confidence. To repeat: with the class material clearly in mind, the end-of-chapter problems were pretty easy.

5. I would usually wake up early on test day and go over my list one more time, but would then deliberately NOT study immediately before the test. I did not, at that point, want to muddle my head with new stuff. I not only knew the class material, but I KNEW that I knew it. Confidence is a wonderful asset in test-taking. I went into the test knowing that any question/problem that came from the class material was a GIFT - I could answer as fast as I could write! Then, I had the rest of the time to figure out anything that did NOT come from the class material. But I found that, with the class material mastered, the other stuff was seldom mysterious - and if it was, then my classmates faced the same challenge that I did.

Of course, I did not achieve perfection on every test, but I did pretty well. Finding it easy to get all-A grades without studying in high school, I arrived at Georgia Tech as a freshman with no study habits at all, a fact reflected in my 2.5/4.0 first-term GPA. Gradually, and especially in the fall of my sophomore year, I evolved the study system described above. Afterward my term GPAs were consistently in the 3.5 - 4.0 range at a time when the student-body overall GPA at Tech was 2.3 (this being the pre-Vietnam war era). I graduated with honors, ranked sixth among the 31 physics graduates that year. I continued its use in graduate school, where my GPA was 3.8.

I do not aggressively "push" this system because I don't know that it will work for everyone - only that it worked for me. I describe it to any student who inquires, and I have had several students come back to tell me that they tried it and that it worked for them. (I suspect that if it does NOT work for a student, then I don't hear about it.) Whether my system or some other, I believe strongly that every student needs to HAVE a system, instead of spending valuable study time aimlessly flipping pages, working randomly selected problems, and trying to out-guess the instructor about what will be on the test. Many students arrive at college without any study system (as I did), but many of them HAVE a system figured out by the time they take physics from me: I don't recommend changing something that works! I am, however, very willing to share my experience. I am always interested to know if my system works for others.

Best regards,

Harry W. Ellis