On Campus

Learning how to learn: How to hit the books better

Many post-secondary students struggle with studying, stress, and lack of sleep come exam time

It’s April. It’s exam time. It’s the night before the big test and you haven’t studied.

What’s the best course of action? A) Brew a pot of coffee and hunker down for the all-night cram; or B) Hit the high points and get a good night’s sleep.

The answer is B, say learning strategists, who add that very few students get it right.

Self-imposed sleep deprivation along with poor time management and inflexible study strategies are the three demons that trip up many a student making the leap from high school to the halls of higher learning. “It’s a whole new game,” said Karen Kovach, director of learning resources at the University of Alberta. “There’s more demand on the brain. In order to meet those demands you have to have a new way to study.”

For a wide-eyed kid just out of high school, the post-secondary experience is almost like being on another planet. The tightly structured teacher-centric universe is replaced by instructors with hundreds of charges and no time to chase truants. Reading assignments grow geometrically in size, exponentially in depth. Lab reports and term papers set months in advance are suddenly due. Students who are accustomed to memorizing dates and concepts face exams demanding they compare, contrast, contextualize, analyze, synthesize.

“When you get there it’s like, ‘Oh this is just like high school, we don’t need to study.’ Then when you get to your mid-terms it’s ‘Oh crap, I don’t know any of this stuff,”‘ said Kayla Hynes, a 19-year-old science student at the University of Alberta. “You’re doing twice the information in half the time, so it’s like four times the information all at once. It’s hard to keep up.”

Some fall far, vow to pull up their socks, sleep less, drink more coffee, stop exercising. Stress grows. And down it spirals. “Tears are fairly common. We always have boxes of Kleenex in our offices,” said Kovach, whose office offers study and test preparation, and for the last two years has run an interactive website to help first-year students find their feet.

Reed Hilton-Eddy, learning skills strategist at Ryerson University in Toronto, says she’s also seen the tears. “There’s so much pressure. The number of sentences I’ve heard that start with ‘My parents are going to kill me,’ – I’d say it’s 70 per cent.”

Kovach said they are helping students by moving away from structured study approaches such as SQ3R (survey, question, read, recite, review) to teaching students how to learn strategically. Strategies are adapted to course work and to test questions, akin to training different muscles for different sports. The common thread is comparing and contrasting concepts, whether it’s a math formula or a historic battle. How are they alike? How are the different? What drives each? The study method can be mind maps, charts, graphs, cue cards, mnemonic devices or whatever — but the goal is the same. “Because I’m learning meaningful information, I will remember it better. If information is not meaningful, it’s not put into long-term memory.”

Hilton-Eddy said they play to strengths. If a student got one right answer on a test, they go back to see how he did it. If someone makes it to only one class a week, they research to see how the person did it, in hopes of boosting attendance on other days. “Once they focus on success instead of failure, it changes the mentality,” she said.

Time management, said Kovach, is another key spot where students fall down, not because they can’t make a schedule, but because they can’t stick to it. For instance, they pencil in three hours of study after a three-hour lab even though they know they’ll be tired and need a break. Sleeping, eating, and just plain downtime are shortchanged. The schedule is unworkable and eventually junked.

Hynes said she turned the corner when learning centre staff helped her to devise a study schedule that eliminated the panicky all-night cram. “They baby you too much in high school. When you get here it’s like you expect them to give you time for everything. And when you don’t get the time, you’re stuck wondering what the hell you’re going to do because you’re not used to the time management.”

Time management skills are just part of what Lorraine Spenrath teaches students in class and in one-on-one sessions at Archbishop MacDonald Catholic High School in Edmonton. Even though it’s an academic school with most of the students moving on to post-secondary education, as many as one in three come to them without a clue about how to hit the books, said Spenrath, the school counsellor. To be effective, she said, learning strategies have to be adapted to the material and to the student’s strengths: auditory learner, visual learner, someone who wants just the facts or someone who learns information better if she gets it in narrative form.

Ideally, she said, instructors should make study strategies for a course a unit of the course itself. “Depending on what the course is, you will study a little bit differently for it – and students don’t know how to do that. If it’s built into the curriculum of each of these main courses, students will make the link.” Spenrath also helps students with note-taking skills, which, along with exercise and avoiding junk food, help take a student over the top.

And don’t get strategists started on the importance of getting your Zs. Interrupted or lack of sleep leads to potentially catastrophic fuzzified thinking on test day. But they acknowledge it’s a pre-test ritual few students will relinquish. Instead, said Hilton-Eddy, look at the course outline, and focus on the main themes and areas likely to be on the test. Apportion your time and then get your six or eight hours of shut-eye.

Young students, she said, must play to their strengths: “They have this energy about them and this physical stamina,” she said. “We just have to harness that.”

– with a report from CP

Ten tips to help students learn:

1. Encourage students to master the material rather than “learn the material” or aim for a specific grade.

2. Do not focus on “passing the exam”; focus on the challenge of doing the exam well.

3. Do not focus on how your grade will make you look; focus on the material.

4. Do not focus on aspects of intelligence, smarts or stupidity; attend to how to do the task well.

5. Be realistic: if you do not like or understand the material, do not expect exceptional grades.

6. Try to avoid last-minute cramming; do a little every day to avoid the stress of mass studying.

7. Relaxation techniques other than diaphragmatic deep breathing will not work to settle a student down in an exam unless the student has been practising them for a long time.

8. Students with high anxiety should build in relaxation time the evening before an exam.

9. It’s OK to be a perfectionist – but only if you’re striving to improve yourself, not if you are striving to impress others or obtain a reward.

10. You cannot learn a difficult subject without proper self care, and that includes regular sleep.

Source: University of Alberta Academic Support Centre

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