I like to think that study is like exercise; you’re working hard to train a part of your body (in this case, the brain) to perform a certain task as well as possible. The harder and more efficiently you train, the more likely it is that you will succeed on game day. At this very moment, year 12 students across the country are pushing their brains to the limits, in the final stretch before their exams.
When an athlete is preparing for a big event, they often put a lot of thought into their training; they concentrate on diet, liquid intake, tracking progress, managing the amount of sleep they get, avoiding injuries and making sure they are psychologically prepared for their event. To put it simply, athletes are very good not just at working hard, but figuring out the most efficient way of doing so. Students, on the other hand, are not.
I see too many students with very poor study habits: they pull “all nighters”, they skip meals, they fill up on sugary snacks and energy drinks and they gaze blankly at page after page of notes, wondering why the information isn’t sticking in their mind. Would a professional athlete get away with such poor habits? No. And if your child really wants to perform well on their exams, then neither should they. So, on this note, today’s blog will be dedicated to providing tips on how your child can get the most out of their study time, and make the jump from amateur to pro!
1. Take Productive Breaks
Study does not follow mathematical rules. Some students assume that if they can get x amount of work done in 1 hour, then they can get 2x done in 2 hours, and 5x done in 5 hours. This is not so. The brain, like any other part of the body, gets fatigued over time. A student that studies non stop for 5 hours will usually find that the last 2 or so hours were completely wasted; they got distracted, unfocused and forgot most of what they learned.
This is not to say that students shouldn’t do much study; it just means that they need to be clever about how and when to take breaks. In my opinion, students should aim to take a 20 minute break every 1-2 hours. This means getting up from their desk, getting snack or something to drink and getting some fresh air. Taking regular breaks has two benefits. Firstly, it allows students to refresh their minds, clear their heads and start again with renewed energy. Secondly, it means that students will be more productive during work time; it is more likely that they will be motivated to work hard if their know that they can relax later.
2. Ask Yourself Questions
People love questions. All exciting books, movies and television shows rely on unanswered questions. Will the main character survive the explosion? Will the couple fall in love by the end of the movie? Who was the jewel thief? When the brain is given an unanswered question, it creates what is called a knowledge gap. A knowledge gap is something mysterious, something just out of reach, that you don’t know, but you really want to find out.
So, what does this have to do with study? Knowledge gaps, as it turns out, can also be used to make study more rewarding, engaging and efficient. Students who ask themselves questions before studying are more likely to be motivated to search for an answer. Before your child delves blindly into their notes, they should write does some questions that they hope to answer. For example:
-How do I antidifferentiate logs?
-How does Shakespeare use symbolism within his sonnets?
-What was the name of the psychologist who invented the concept of Classical Conditioning?
-How am I supposed to solve question 13 from my last practice exam?
Already, your child is becoming more focused and curious about what they are about to study. Instead of just cruising through their notes, they will be hunting for answers. These questions are also a great way of gauging how successful a study session has been; if they can answer the questions by the end of their study session, they have been successful. If they can still answer the questions a week later, even better!
3. Activate Your Feelings
Close your eyes and think of the most memorable experience of your life. How do you remember it? Do you remember the sensations: how you felt, what you saw, what you heard, the smells and tastes that you encountered? Or do you remember words? Think about the last great book that you read. Do you remember what the characters looked like, what the location was like and how it made you feel, or do you remember the exact words?
Here’s the thing: the memory doesn’t like remembering words. Memories, more often than not are made up of sights and sounds and emotions. The more sensations and emotions that are in a memory, the stronger it will be. This applies to study. The more your child can use visual and emotional cues in their study, the more likely it is that information will stick in their head. Here are a few ways that they can do this.
-Use colour-coded highlighters to identify different ideas
-Use mind-maps to organise information
-Use acronyms or nemonics to remember lists of words
-Use a spatial location to remember information. Imagine all the things you have to remember sitting in different locations in your house.
-Try to develop emotional connections to characters, events within English texts.
4. Talk About It
Quite often, the best way to learn something is to teach it. This may sound strange, but it’s true. If you have to explain a concept to someone who is unfamiliar with it, your mind finds ways of breaking it down, making sense of it and simplifying it. If you can put a concept into words that easy to understand, then it is more likely that you will remember it in the long term.
I used to use this trick a lot when I way studying for my ATAR score. Fortunately for me, my mum used to like to ask a lot of questions about what I was doing over dinner. What’s your essay about? What does this poem mean? How did you solve that equation? What’s kinetic energy? Fortunately, by that point I had gotten over my moody teenage stage, so instead of ignoring her, I tried my best to explain everything to her. Sometimes, I would have to draw her diagrams, or give her step-by-step instructions. And the more I did this, the more confident I felt, and the more things started to make sense to me.
5. Look After Your Body
The brain is not a computer; it is part of your body. It needs food, drink, sleep and exercise. If it is looked after, it will perform well. If it is neglected, it will not perform as needed. Students forget this far too often. They forget that, quite often, a good night’s sleep, a healthy meal, lots of water and regular exercise can do just as much good as an extra few hours of study. Looking after your body can help to increase focus, improve memory, enhance energy and reduce stress and anxiety. If your child needs a reminder of this, show them the following list.
Things that your brain likes
-8 hours of sleep each night
-Half an hour of exercise each day
-Big, healthy meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner
-Fruit and vegetables
-Lots of water
-Talking to people
Things that your brain hates
-Too much coffee
-Too much sugar
-Lack of physical exercise
-Lack of fresh air
-Looking at screens for too long
-Lack of social interraction
–Too much facebook
Just like a professional athlete looks after and trains their body, your child needs to think about how they are treating their mind. Hard work, does not always equal success; it is not necessarily how hard your child works, but how cleverly, efficiently and productively their use their time that will determine how happy they will be when the ATAR scores arrive. If they can step back, think about their habits, and make plans to get the most of their study, their brain will thank them.