Study Skills 1: Setting goals and getting started

 

Introduction

There are three months to go to the biggest exams of your life and the weeks seem to be slipping by. The "mocks" are taking place at the moment, even though you haven't got the course fully covered. The oral exams are coming up shortly and you think you might need extra preparation. The CAO form has been sent off, but you aren't sure about the order of your choices. Easter is approaching fast, and then there will only be a few more weeks of classes left. The tension is building at home and the weight of expectation is heavy on your shoulders. It seems a big mountain to climb and you don't know where to start. Your dreams of that college place seem to be fading fast. It's time to panic, right?

Wrong - it's time to get SMART!

With 14 weeks still available to you, now is the time to clarify your goals, be positive, identify the key areas to attack, make out a realistic revision schedule and get a system working for you.

This series on study skills will run every week for the next six weeks. It aims to provide you with practical help to meet your needs at this stage of the academic year. While it is useful to have an understanding of the learning process, what is needed at this point is not theory but practical help - tips and advice that can be implemented immediately without trying to revolutionise your entire study pattern.

Over the coming weeks, some of the key aspects of study and revision such as time management, concentration, organisation, reading, note-taking, memory skills and exam technique will be covered. In each case, the emphasis will be on practical help to complement your schoolwork and your home study. The aim is to show you how to save time and improve academic performance, thus reducing stress levels and helping you achieve your goals.

Each individual student profile is different, so take the opportunity to identify your particular strengths and weaknesses and focus on those areas that could make a crucial difference to you.

What is good study?

Study could be defined as "the systematic pursuit of understanding", and this gives a clue as to how best to approach the task of learning. Throughout this series, reference will be made to the key characteristics of effective study as they apply to the various aspects of the job. To be effective, study must be. . .

Active:

Always work with a pen and paper, look for key points, test yourself. Never just sit down and read for a set period. Focus on tasks, not time.

Organised:

Always ask yourself at the start of a study session: "what do I want to have completed in this session?" Have a plan for what you want to cover this week and this month. Have an overview of the priority areas in each subject.

Aimed at understanding:

Always look to build material into patterns and associations that make sense to you. Link new information with existing knowledge of a subject. Make use of graphic examples and illustrations. When you understand something, you will have little difficulty in remembering it.

Setting smart study goals

A goal could be described as "a dream with a deadline". Athletes motivate themselves with the dream of Olympic glory in four years' time. Footballers slog through the winter mud in preparation for the first championship match of the summer. For a Leaving Certificate student, the dream may be a college place or career oportunity next autumn - but the deadline is June.

All your "training" should be geared towards being properly prepared on the day. But this large goal will be achieved only by meeting a number of smaller goals along the way. As the Chinese proverb goes: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

Be sure the bigger goals are your own, such as the choice of college course you are targeting. Do what means most to you. Goals that you set for yourself are better motivators than those imposed by others. For the shorter term goals, remember that to be effective they must be SMART.

S - Specific:

Don't have as your target "read up on physical geography". Do have as your target "revise chapter eight of physical geography book and sketch a model answer to the question on last year's paper".

M - Measurable:

Measure your progress towards your goal. Use a revision planner for each subject and tick off each topic as you study/revise it. In this way, you'll literally see your progress.

A - Action-Related:

Break down your study goal into a set of specific tasks - e.g. do background reading of research material, draw up essay plan, complete writing of essay. Base each study session on tasks, not time.

R - Realistic:

Don't set goals you are unlikely to achieve. Make realistic demands on yourself, in consultation with teachers and guidance counsellors. Otherwise, you will quickly lose heart and lose interest.

T - Time-Based:

Avoid panic before a deadline. Always time your study tasks, working back from the deadline. If you have a test in three weeks' time, set blocks of revision work for each of the three weeks.

Revision planners - "Eating the elephant"

Break up the job into smaller pieces. You'll get more done if you can do it piece by piece. Each subject that you are studying can be broken down into its constituent parts, with main sections, sub-topics, and supporting details. A very useful start is to list out all the topics on the course according to this hierarchy and use this framework as a "revision planner" for the subject. Left is an example of such a framework for the Leaving Certificate business course. More examples may be downloaded free from www.leavingcert.net simply by registering on the site and choosing your subjects.

You can tick off the boxes as you cover the topics in class and as you revise them in your study sessions. It is a useful device that has the effect of giving you an overview of the subject and a means of monitoring your progress relative to the time available.