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13 STEPS TO BETTER STUDY SKILLS
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By Judi Kesselman-Turkel

Effective studying is the one element guaranteed to produce good grades in school. But, it's ironic that the one thing almost never taught in school is how to study effectively. For example, an important part of studying is note taking, yet few students receive any instruction in this skill. Reliable data on how to study does exist, though. It has been demonstrated scientifically that one method of note taking is better than others and that there are routes to more effective reviewing, memorizing and textbook reading as well. Following are 13 proven steps you can take to improve your study habits.

STEP 1: Use behavior modification on yourself. Remember Pavlov's dogs, salivating every time they heard a bell ring? Such association can also work with you. If you attempt as nearly as possible, to study the same subject at the same time in the same place each day, you will soon find that when you get to that time and place you're automatically in the subject groove. Train your brain to think French on a time-place cue, and it will no longer take you 10 minutes a day to get in the French mood. You'll save time, and the experts say you'll also remember more of what you're studying!

STEP 2: Don't spend more than an hour at a time on one subject. Psychologist say that you learn best in short takes. In fact, studies have shown that as much is learned in four one-hour sessions distributed over four days as in one marathon six-hour session. One reason you learn better this way is that you use time more efficiently when you're under an imposed time restriction. (Have you noticed how much studying you manage to cram into the day before a big exam?) Also, between study times, your mind subconsciously works to absorb what you've just learned. If you're doing straight memorization, whether math formulas or a foreign language or names and dates, don't study more than 20 to 30 minutes.

STEP 3: Keep alert while you're studying. The amount of attention you give a subject is as important as the amount of time you spend. The more alert you are while studying, the more you'll learn. You can promote a high level of alertness by minimizing distractions: two or three hours of study without noise or other interference is more effective than 10 hours of trying to work amidst bedlam. Another technique for keeping your mind from wandering is to begin with your most boring subject-or your hardest one-and work toward the easiest and/or the one you like best.

Take frequent rest breaks. The specialists say you'll get your most effective studying done if you take a 10-minute break between subjects. (Again, it's akin to behavior modification. Pavlov's dogs were taught to respond on cue by being rewarded with tidbits. The break is your reward.) Dr. Walter Pauk, Director of the Reading and Study Center at Cornell University, suggests you take that short break whenever you feel you need one, so you don't fritter your time away in clock-watching and anticipating your break.

STEP 4: Study similar subjects at different times. Brain waves are like radio waves; if there isn't enough space between inputs, you get interference. The more similar the kinds of learning taking place, the more interference. So separate your study periods for courses with similar subject matter. Follow your hour of German with an hour of chemistry or history, not with Spanish.

STEP 5: Avoid studying during your sleepy times. Psychologists have found that everyone has a certain time of day when he or she gets sleepy. Don't try to study during that time. If you have a pile of schoolwork, use that time to sort your notes or clear up your desk and get your books together.

STEP 6: Study at the most productive time for each type of course. If it's a lecture course, do your studying soon after class, if it's a course in which students are called on to recite or answer questions, study before class. After the lectures you can review, revise and organize your notes. Before the recitation classes you can spend your time memorizing, brushing up on your facts and preparing questions about the previous recitation.

STEP 7: Learn the note-taking system the experts recommend. Quite a bit of research has been done on note taking, and one system has emerged as the best. It has several minor variations; here's the one we prefer:

Use 8½ by 11-inch loose-leaf paper and write on just one side. (This may seem wasteful, but it's one time when economizing is secondary.) Put a topic heading on each page. Then take the time to rule your page as follows:

A. If the course is one in which lecture and text are closely related, use the 2-3-3-2 technique. Make columns of two inches down the left-hand side for recall clues, three inches in the middle for lecture notes and three inches on the right side for text notes. Then leave a two-inch space across the bottom of the page for your own observations and conclusions.

B. If it's a course where the lectures and the reading are not closely related, use separate pages for class notes and reading notes, following the 2-5-1 technique: two inches at left for clues, five in the middle for notes and an inch at the right for observations.

The clue column is the key to higher grades. As soon as possible after you've written your notes, take the time to read them over-not studying them, just reading them. Check, while it's all still fresh, to see whether you've left out anything important or put down anything incorrectly, and make your changes. Continue then, in that left-hand column, to set down clue words to the topics in your notes. These clue words should designate or label the kind of information that's in your notes. For example, to remember the information contained so far in this section on note-taking, you need just the following clues: 8½ -by -11 loose leaf, one side; 2-3-3-2; 2-5-1. As you can see, they're simply memory cues to use later on in your actual studying.

Dr. Robert A. Palmatier, assistant professor of reading education at the University of Georgia, suggests that you study for tests in the following manner. Take out your loose-leaf pages and shift them around so the order makes the most sense for studying. Take the first page and cover up the notes portion, leaving just the clues visible. See if you can recall the notes that go with the clues, and as you get a page right, set it aside. If you're going to be taking a short-answer test, shuffle up your note pages so they're out of order. (That's why it's important to use just one side of the paper.) "This approach provides for learning without the support of logical sequence." Dr. Palmatier says, "thus closely approximating the actual pattern in which the information must be recalled." If you're going to be taking an essay test, you can safely predict "those areas on which the most notes are taken will most often be the areas on which essay questions will be based."

The beauty of the clue word note-taking method is that it provides a painless way to actively think about your notes and make logical sense of them in your mind. You won't learn by passively paging through your recorded notes. It's been proven that active recall is more conducive to remembering what you've learned.

STEP 8: Memorize actively, not passively. Researchers have found that the worst way to memorize-the way that takes the most time and results in the least retention-is to simply read something over and over again. Instead, use as many of your senses as possible. Try to visualize in concrete terms, to get a picture in your head. And also use sound: say the words out loud and listen to yourself saying them. Use association: relate the fact to be learned to something personally significant or find a logical tie-in. For example, when memorizing dates, relate them to important events with dates you already know.

Use mnemonics. For example, the phrase "Every good boy does fine" is used for remembering the names of the musical notes on the lines of the treble clef. Use acronyms, like OK4R, as the key to remembering the reading method outlined below in Step 9.

STEP 9: Take more time for your reading. Read with a purpose. Instead of just starting at the beginning and reading through to the end, you'll do the assignment a lot faster and remember a lot more if you take the time to follow the OK4R method devised by Dr. Walter Pauk.

O. Overview: Read the title, the introductory and summarizing paragraphs and all the headings included in the reading material. Then you'll have a general idea of what topics will be discussed.
K. Key ideas: Go back and skim the text for the key ideas (usually found in the first sentence of each paragraph). Also read the italics and bold type, bulleted sections, itemizations, pictures and tables. Now you'll know what the author is saying about his topic.

R1. Read your assignment from beginning to end. You'll be able to do it quickly because you already know where the author is going and what he's trying to prove.

R2. Recall: Put aside the text and say or write, in a few key words or sentences, the major points of what you've read. (This is the time to put down reading notes in your loose-leaf book.) Dr. Pauk says that one minute spent in immediate recall nearly doubles retention of that piece of data!

R3. Reflect: The previous step helps to fix the material in your mind. To keep it in your memory forever, relate it to other knowledge: find relationships and significance for what you've read.

R4. Review: This step doesn't take place right away. It should be done for the next short quiz, and then again for later tests throughout the term. Several reviews will make that knowledge indelibly yours.

STEP 10: Devise a color and sign system for marking your personal books. Dr. Palmatier suggests red for main ideas, blue for dates and numbers, yellow for supporting facts. Circles, boxes, stars and checks in the margins can also be utilized to make reviewing easy.

STEP 11: Clue your lecture notes, too. Underline, star or otherwise mark the ideas that your teacher says are important, thoughts that he says you'll be coming back to later, items that he says are common mistakes. Watch for the words-such as "therefore" and "in essence" that tell you he's summarizing. Always record his examples. In fact, in such subjects as math, your notes should consist mainly of the teacher's examples.

Pay closest attention in your note-taking to the last few minutes of class time. Often a teacher gets sidetracked and runs out of time. He may jam as much as a half-hour's content into the last five or ten minutes of his lecture. Get down that packed few minutes' worth. If necessary, stay on after the bell to get it all down.

STEP 12: Keep your themes to the point. Themes are graded on what you say and on how well you say it. Narrow down your topic to one you can cover easily in the assigned length. Stick to the topic and develop it thoroughly, using facts or examples to support every statement. (Be careful to label what's fact and what's opinion.) Once you've got it all down, do what all professional writers do: edit and rewrite. And remember that a simple word used correctly is infinitely better than a complex word misused.

Name, list, define, tell, enumerate, all mean just to give the information asked for.
Summarize and outline mean give the main points.
Define means just give the meaning.
Illustrate means give examples.
Justify means give the facts to prove it's true.
Prove means show that it's true and its opposite is false.
Discuss and review means examine from all angles.
Compare means show how they're the same and how they differ.
Contrast means show the difference.
Evaluate means give your opinion as to the advantages and disadvantages.
Criticize means examine the pro's and con's and give your judgment.
Explain means how, in logical sequence, something happened.

STEP 13: Pre-read math, science or engineering text material just before the topic is covered in class. That will provide clues for taking class notes and will also make the lecture partly a review.

When doing homework, it's important to understand new words, new concepts and new laws before trying to solve sample problems. If you can't do a problem, which has complex numbers in it, try substituting simple numbers. In these subjects you'll learn infinitely more from your mistakes than your correct answers, so always redo to find out where you went wrong.

Fully 20 percent of all computation errors are made from inaccuracy. Write all numbers carefully, in straight columns, and write it all down-don't short cut by figuring parts of the problem in your head.

If, after the homework is explained in class you still don't understand something, look for help immediately. Each new bit of information in math and science is built on the step before it, and if any one step is rickety your entire staircase to understanding will fall the first test.

In studying for tests, teach yourself to recognize a problem-and its method of solution out of context. Copy out the problems from all the chapters you're reviewing, mix them up and then do them.

Research has proven that it's not how much time you study that counts; it's rather how well you study. In fact, in at least one survey, students who studied more than 35 hours a week came out with poorer grades than those who studied less. Use your study time wisely, and you too will come out ahead.

The Study Smart Series by Judi Kesselman-Turkel and Franklynn Peterson
The Study Smart Series, designed for students from junior high school through lifelong learning programs, teaches skills for research and notetaking, presents strategies for test-taking and studying, provides exercises to improve spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, and reveals secrets for putting these skills together in essays.

The Grammar Crammer
A concise, sensible grammar handbook that explains lucidly how to remember correct word forms and sentence structures. Useful as a reference tool for high school and beyond, it packs an entire grammar encyclopedia into just over a hundred pages. 136 pp. 5 ½ x 8, ISBN 0299191346, Paper $6.95.

NoteTaking Made Easy
“There is advice on how to read a nonfiction book … [and] hints on how to keep your mind on the business at hand … The book is inexpensive, written in a chatty style, and printed in larger than usual type …” Bernice Roer Neal, Culpeper Virginia News 112 pp. 5½ x 8, ISBN 0299191540, Paper $6.95.

Research Shortcuts, revised edition
“Thirty-eight research shortcuts are presented in a concise manner and with ample examples … Excellent suggestions for source materials and methods for utilizing them are presented. The art of deciding exactly what needs to be researched is explained. Instruction on interviewing skills and using surveys is also given. Finally, methods for developing the rough and first drafts are offered. Designed for use by college students, this work is useful for anyone doing research. Recommended.” Library Journal, 136 pp. 5½ x 8, ISBN 0299191648, Paper $6.95.

Secrets to Writing Great Papers
How to work with ideas, develop them, hone them, and transform them into words. It provides techniques and exercises for brainstorming, choosing an approach, working with an unknown or boring assigned topic, overcoming writer’s block, and selecting the best point of view. 96 pp, 5½ x 8. ISBN 0299191443, Paper $6.95.

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For more information on studying, the following books are also available: How to Study in College, second edition, by Walter Pauk (Houghton Mifflin, 1974) and How to Study, second edition, by Clifford T. Morgan and James Deese (McGraw-Hill, 1969). Both are available in paperback.

The University of North Carolina also has studying tips, including ‘Ten Traps of Studying’ posted on their website: http://caps.unc.edu/TenTraps.html

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