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Study skills – and how to improve them!

Study skills – how to improve them!

Honing your study skills not only prepares you for your whole academic journey, but also improves your overall efficiency and is something you can carry forward into your working life. Knowing how to organise information is as important when you are writing an interdepartmental proposal, or justifying a professional decision, as when you are composing an academic essay. Be objective and look through the following list of topics, and ask yourself where you are less than confident or in need of guidance. Make sure you focus on your weaknesses – and address them.

Study Skills – Time management

Are you always stressed, running late, unable to remember what you need to do before the weekend and when you have to take a test? It is time to change.

Devise a system for staying in control of your workload – whether this is at school, at home or at university. Practise the approach, outlined below, and adapt it to your personal challenges.

Your coursework is an integral part of gaining a secondary school certificate and degree, and it is all too easy to fall behind and suddenly find yourself with too many outstanding tasks and far too little time. As the old adage states: slow and steady wins the race. Get organised. Buy a notebook and write down every task or assignment as it is given to you, along with the subject, a short summary, the date it has to be returned, any recommended articles you need to read, and the references you have been given.

Set yourself SMART goals and work on your skills: these must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. For example, you may need to revise the Periodic Table, a specific task, which can be measured by checking you know it, and thus is achievable; in addition, it will help you in your work and is therefore relevant , and you aim to finish within a fortnight (time-bound). Compare these SMART targets with a vague goal, such as “revising the First World War“ or “getting on top of algebra”. You are unlikely to succeed unless you know precisely what you need to do.

Prioritise sub-tasks. Perhaps you cannot start the essay or project until you have read specific material; maybe you need to download  theories or a table; perhaps you have been asked for an opinion and you will not have one until you have researched the subject? Once you have broken the task down into its various steps, create a timetable, using realistic action plans – and follow it.

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Study Skills – Reading comprehension

Another study skill you should be working on is the effective reading comprehension, which is based on reading for gist and not concentrating on individual words, but on the sense of what you are absorbing. It is difficult to acquire knowledge without strong reading skills, in spite of the growing popularity of audio books and texts, and one of the best techniques for honing your comprehension is practicing how to summarise.

You can do this in many ways: producing a precis of five of your favourite films and getting someone to guess what you are describing, or by setting yourself word limits and summarising articles, arguments, information, instructions, leaflets etc. This will teach you how to sort out key content and separate it from “padding” or incidentals, and help you to store and organise what you learn during classes.

Three techniques for reading efficiently:

You may find that you have a talent for skim-reading, which is basically looking at a text quickly and trying to pick out the main themes and sentences. This ability can be improved with practice and is particularly helpful when you are faced with a mountain of texts to go through in a limited period of time. Flipping through a magazine and reading a couple of lines of each article, in order to decide what interests you, is a good example of skim-reading. Another useful technique is known as scanning. Here, you look at a text in order to find a particular fact, person, reference etc., and gloss over the rest. When you are examining a list of suppliers, or trying to track down a particular company address, you are using  the scanning approach.

Finally, you can also read for detail, which is something we do when reading novels, for example, savouring every description and nuance of the text. All these techniques have their own place in reading comprehension, and in exams. Sometimes you will be asked to discover who did a particular thing (scan), on other occasions you may be asked to compare two ideas (skim, and then read for detail).

If you have a heavy workload, or find it easy to become distracted, do not assume that you will remember everything you have read. Use notes, jot down key words, and annotate or highlight text – this is not recommended if you are reading a textbook or, even worse, a library book! Notes are not summaries, but main ideas, questions and prompts.

Improving your reading comprehension takes time. You should try to set aside a regular slot for reading, say half an hour every day. Some people find it useful to write down new vocabulary and definitions, others do not – it is entirely up to you. The more you read, the more knowledge and verbal fluency you will acquire, and both are essential for your future studies and professional life.

Reading comprehension and exams

NB: when it comes to sitting exams, you need to differentiate between the verbs which you will see in the questions – or you could end up misunderstanding what you are being asked, answering at cross-purposes and throwing away good marks. Here are the 10  most common verbs you will see in examination papers:

As you can see, the answers you are being asked for differ significantly. To take one example, that of Brexit, outlining Brexit is a factual summary of the process; discussing Brexit calls for personal opinions to some degree and demands a balanced argument; while justify expects you to give the case in favour of the UK leaving the EU.

Make sure you know the meaning of these terms before you walk in to sit an exam…

Upgrade your study skills in writing

Every course you take will expect you to write essays, so honing your writing skills is very important. If you have weak grammar, then you need to tackle this, either by enrolling on a language course or independent study. Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use is a brilliant book, full of exercises, which comes in two levels – the red and the blue – and has been used by students from every part of the world for decades now. If Murphy cannot sort out your grammar, no one will!

Spelling is another area you cannot overlook. There are many helpful strategies for improving spelling:

  • Use flashcards and get a friend or relative to “ambush” you
  • Recite problematic words and how to spell them into your phone and play the recording back regularly. It has been established that listening or reading in bed enables the brain to better process what it is absorbing overnight
  • Write down useful hints: for example “The Principal is my Pal “- which will help you distinguish between principle and principal , two commonly confused nouns
  • Use scraps of paper or post-it notes to create spelling reminders which you can then stick in your pocket, wallet, handbag or on your wall, until you no longer need them

Learn how to structure your writing. Plan what you are going to say, produce a draft, make sure that there is a logic underpinning the sequence of statements you are making. Use clear, coherent vocabulary and ensure that you have an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction should set out what you will be expanding in the main body of the essay, and the conclusion will summarise, suggest/recommend.

Essays are not freestyles: learn how to do them properly as one of your study skills!

 If you are making an argument for or against something, then produce examples, counter-arguments and reasons why you are in favour of a specific idea and against another. Each new strand of the argument should start a new paragraph.

Mnemonics and improving your memorising skills

Mnemonics are memory devices. They can be rhymes or sentences, or form the basis for a visual prompt. For example, while the word SPA tells you the order in which the most important Greek philosophers were born (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), you can always add another dimension to the mnemonic and visualize the three men sitting in a spa, together, splashing bubble bath at each other. Visual images are powerful, memory-enhancing tools.

Memory is also part of the most important study skills!

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Mnemonics are useful in many fields of study. Look at the following examples:

Camels Often Sit Down Carefully, Perhaps Their Joints Creak? Possibly Early Oiling Might Prevent Permanent Rheumatism – this is a mnemonic for the geological periods, starting with the Cambrian and ending with the Recent Epoch.

Or: Do Men Ever Visit Boston? – a quick way of remembering the rankings of nobles.

Mathematics students need to know Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, which refers to the order in which you tackle complex mathematical equations: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition and Subtraction.

If you have difficulties remembering sequences, dates, rankings, lists and people, you  should make up your own mnemonics. You will be surprised at how effective this technique can be, in every subject.

The more you write, the better you will become as a writer. Set aside some time every day to just write. You could decide to commit your thoughts to a diary, to write letters or to put forward a point of view. You could react to the day’s news, produce a book review or dance critique, or do something creative like describing a fantasy world peopled by creatures with wings, horns and superpowers, born of your imagination. Have fun, challenge yourself, and keep on writing…

Just as it is difficult to drive a car without knowing the rules of the road, so trying to cope with academic work without guidelines and techniques makes life far more difficult than it needs to be. Decide what skills you need to hone -and start practicing. It is worth it…