How to sharpen your study skills
Your memory is going to be your friend. Good study techniques are the key to exam success. Plan now for the summer and you will achieve better learning in less time. Here's how
People who study well are often accused of being swats, grafters, nerds or workaholics. The reality is that good study techniques lead to better learning in less time. If you're in an exam year, do yourself a favour. Adopt effective study habits and save yourself hours of frustration, wasted time and panic.
The first thing you need to do is change your attitude to the exam. It's not a colossal test of everything you've ever learned. You don't have to memorise every last line of every textbook in order to succeed. Think of the Leaving as an Olympic event. If you are competing in the 100 metre sprint, you don't train for the marathon. Find out what your event is about and practice exactly that.
Your best friends are your books of past exam papers. Buy these early in the year and make sure they are dog-eared by June. If you regularly test yourself with questions from past exams, you are training correctly for your event.
Charles Garavan has spent years studying effective memory techniques. He started out as an average student himself. He admits to an undistinguished career at second and third level - barely scraping through exams despite putting in the effort. He decided to take on the Institute of Taxation examinations at around the same time that he started to study memory techniques. He came away with the highest marks in the country and an award for outstanding achievement.
"I learned that my approach to study was all wrong," says Garavan, who runs an training programme for students called the Memory Academy. "I was reading material over and over, trying to get it stuck in my head. It was a frustrating and ineffective technique, and when you look at how the brain works, it simply doesn't make sense to try and learn that way."
Anyone with a mobile phone will admit that they don't remember phone numbers like they used to. Why? Because the brain knows that the information is available in your phone. Every time you go to make a call you look up the number. You have trained your brain not to retain this information. If you looked at the number once and then tried to write it down, however, you would quickly tell your brain that this is information that must be kept. Effective study works on the same principle, says Garavan.
"If you are not consistently testing your learning as you go, your brain will not save it," says Garavan. "We receive so many messages from our senses and environment every day that our brains learn to discard any information that it does not regard as important. You tell your brain what's important by testing the knowledge as you go."
So how does this method translate in a study setting? Rory Mulvey, director of Students Enrichment Services, describes the method.
"Before you begin studying a topic, quickly test yourself. Jot down roughly on a piece of paper everything you know about the subject, no matter how little. Spend about three minutes on this exercise and then open the book. Quickly read through the relevant section, taking brief notes. If you come across an important diagram, close the book and practise it quickly, then open the book and correct your attempt. When you have worked like this for about 20 minutes, close the book and notes.
Now comes the important part. Quickly test your knowledge by jotting down all you now know. This can be done in two minutes - don't write sentences, just key words. Then check your notes to see how you did."
This method works for two reasons. Because you call on your brain to retrieve the information before and after the session, your brain learns that this is information it needs to store. The act of testing yourself before and after gives you a clear idea of where the gaps in your knowledge are. That way you don't waste time reading over information that you already know. By the end of the session, you have a clear idea of what you have learned and what you still need to learn. This sense of progress and awareness of work to be done is the essence of effective study.
This whole exercise should take about 25 minutes. By the end you are ready to move onto something else, knowing that you have made the most of this session.
However, 25 minutes can easily be wasted tidying the desk, responding to text messages, nipping down for a bite to eat - by the end of the session you've achieved nothing and you feel a sense of dread because the end of your study session is nowhere in sight. Sound familiar? Once you get into the habit of studying in the way described, three or four 25-minute sessions per night can yield great results. That's less than two hours. You could easily spend three or four hours at your desk daydreaming, procrastinating, worrying and fiddling. It's no fun so what's the point? The way to get the best from the method is to plan each session in detail. It's not enough to say "In this session I will study physics". You need a clear goal such as "In this study session I will learn about the Doppler effect". Write what you know, open the book, read the chapter, taking notes and testing yourself on diagrams as you go, close the book and notes and test yourself by writing down key words. Follow by attempting a past exam question on the Doppler effect in the next session.
Rory Mulvey recommends a preparing a weekly timetable every Sunday. Map out your study sessions in 25-minute blocks with five-minute breaks in between. Timetable breaks for TV programmes, phonecalls, taking a walk etc. Be specific about what you want to achieve in each 25-minute block. Even if you don't stick religiously to the plan, the weekly act of making the timetable helps you to focus on your goals.
If you follow these guidelines, test yourself regularly and get familiar with the exam papers from day one, the Leaving Cert/Junior Cert cannot throw you a curve ball. You've been examining your progress for months and the exam will just be another test of what your brain can do. And just in case you think you're not bright enough, remember that if you can commit anything to memory, even a phone number, your memory is working and you can make it work for you.
• Student Enrichment Services run study skills seminars in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick. For further information visit www.studentenrichment.ie or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
• The Memory Academy runs regular memory technique seminars in Dublin. Contact Charles Garavan at email@example.com
• Recommended reading: Surviving The Leaving Cert - Marie Murray (Veritas). The Essential Parents Guide to the Secondary School Years - Brian Gilsenan (www.primaryabc.ie)