Years after college, when I started my career as an educator, I came across a tattered book called How to Study (1924) by Arthur Kornhauser at an estate sale. Reading through the 100-year-old tips, I was reassured that learning effective study habits is not only a timeless struggle but a common one.
Though often treated as such, study skills are not inherent. Part of being initiated into the academic world is figuring out how to master these skills. Since these strategies often go unspoken, it can be a lonely journey when poor advice and more appealing distractions are competing for attention. As for me, after multiple unsuccessful attempts at all-nighters and forgoing notetaking for a nonexistent photographic memory, I eventually learned study skills that worked.
Nevertheless, I might have learned these skills much faster had I read and practiced the tips compiled in Kornhauser's book ranging from "Conditions Favorable for Concentration” to “Training One’s Self to Read Rapidly.” In 12 short chapters, Kornhauser brings to light the soft skills it takes to be a successful student in an easy-to-digest way that reminds me of the genre of “life hack” tutorial videos. Except, unlike most life hacks, these tips work. From those 12 tips, I have whittled it down to a few that most benefit people attempting to master effective study habits.
Learn to gain interest in a subject you didn’t pick
We don’t get to pick every class required for our major: yes, there are classes we want to take, but there are also classes we have to take. We have unlimited information to choose from, so it can be challenging to force ourselves to spend time on a subject that was chosen for us. That said, transforming a feeling of indifference about a subject to curiosity and motivation will serve you long after college when you are assigned a project at work. In “The Fundamental Requirement for Effective Study,” Kornhauser lays out how to do this in a simple, straightforward way: discover your driving motive.
Discovering your driving motive basically means determining why you decided to come to college. Journaling your goals can help ground why you are here. To start, ask yourself, “Why college? How can getting a degree get me closer to achieving my life or career goals?” and, most importantly, be sure to ask, “What are my life and career goals?” After discovering that driving motive, any step that can get you closer to those goals becomes more motivating.
With that motivation in the back of your mind, you can then start to discover how new information – even if it’s a topic or subject you didn’t pick – can relate to what you do care about. Understand why this information is still relevant and then personalize it by relating it to matters of real concern to you. Make the information relate to something you care about.
Once you have determined its relevance, engage with this new knowledge. Engaging with this new knowledge beyond the classroom helps you retain more of it. Discuss it with friends, roommates, and classmates. In other words, don’t just read the textbook and move on. If you want to remember it and make it relevant, keep the discussion going. Keep the knowledge fresh. Think about how it applies to your life and the other knowledge you’ve acquired. Essentially, reflecting and connecting the material moves us from passive information absorbers to active interested learners.
Don’t just read: read with purpose
Strategic reading is another assumed skill that gets overlooked after 3rd grade. In fact, this overlooked skill got me my first post-college job at the Institute of Reading Development! At the IRD, professionals took a 5-week program to learn to speed read and memorize dense reading material. As I read Kornhauser, his strategies looked very familiar to the ones I taught professionals. He had his finger on the pulse of reading strategies that help with comprehension, retention, and time management.
The first tip for effective reading strategies is to establish your purpose. Are you reading to gather information? To research? To understand an assignment? Knowing your purpose will help you determine how you should read. Do you need to quickly skim for an overview of the text, or do you need to closely read and take notes to prepare for an exam? If research is your purpose, you may decide to skip a whole section of text that is irrelevant to your research topic. Not establishing a purpose for reading will slow you down and make the reading part of your study habits overwhelming.
After discovering what your reading purpose is, preview the text. When I say preview, I mean think about this text in context with the other readings you’ve done for the class. Read everything around the text before going straight into it. If there is a note about the author, read about her to get an idea of her expertise and what she might potentially say about the topic. Read the subtitles and chapter names to get an idea of the structure of the text. I liken this to driving to a new destination. If you pull up a map and read the main turns ahead of time you are a lot less likely to miss those turns than if you try to figure it out as you drive. Even with GPS technology, knowing to get in the left lane in time is more up to chance if you haven’t already skimmed through the main turning points. That quick glimpse of directions can save you from having to find a place to turn around and backtrack before you are on the right path. Similarly, reading through the structure of the text and the context around the text before you read will help you grasp the concepts quicker than if you are just trying to contextualize them as you go. Previewing a text only takes a couple of minutes or seconds but can save you time and effort when you start reading.
After previewing a text, decide how thoroughly you need to read it. Chances are, reading every single word may not serve you well because every single word may not matter. Instead of soaking up every single word, read at whatever pace will get you the information you need. If you aren’t skimming to find a specific answer to something, you might need to take notes as you read. To do this, stop every couple of sections and say out loud or write in your own words the point of those sections. This habit helps test your comprehension of the material and will help you remember it for longer because you’ve engaged with it by putting it in your own words. Then, think about how these concepts relate to what you’ve already covered in the class.
Notetaking and contextualizing new materials on the front end will save you time because you won’t have to spend so much time re-reading information. As Kornhauser puts it, “[t]aking critical notes and marking passages will force you to think.” When you are forced to think, you’re focused. Focus will save you from having to re-read a passage over and over because your mind is elsewhere. Additionally, when reviewing for a test, you can refer to the points you noted in your reading instead of starting the reading over. You’re basically creating your own study guide while you read!
Strategically take notes and actively engage during class.
Kornhauser anticipates our current mindfulness trends by asking us to be intentional with our class time. Before class begins, think about previous class discussions or subjects to get in the right mindset. Once class begins, go beyond what is being said to stay engaged during lectures and discussions. Think all around the subjects being presented, question them, and connect them with other knowledge and concepts you’ve learned before. Your first purpose is to understand, secondary is taking notes.
Based on the way the course is run, strategize the best note-taking method. In discussion-based classes, you might focus less on taking notes than in lecture-style classes. For example, in a discussion-based class that has assigned reading, you may note what you found thought provoking in the discussion and add those to your reading notes. In a lecture class, you may be provided slides or an outline that you can use to organize your notes into a specific structure or process. If this isn’t provided, then note important concepts and reorganize these notes at the end of class to make sense of the content. As before, don’t just absorb the material; engage with it. Reorganizing notes will save you time later when you study. As before, you may even find yourself creating a useful study guide just by reorganizing your notes. That said, all this work will be for naught if you don’t manage your time well. So, to ensure that you understand and remember the content for exams, create a regular, weekly study schedule where you can review your notes. Doing so will help you remember the concepts longer as well as give you time to search for answers in the book or ask your instructor if something is unclear.
These mindful study tips can move you from the survival stage of passive learning to thriving and actively engaging with material much faster. Moving from surviving to thriving can make the academic experience more enjoyable because you’re not letting the academic experience just happen to you. Instead, you are actively choosing to participate; you are taking control of your learning experience.