For the majority of us, the experience of studying for an exam can be summed up in a single word: panic. You have 18 hours, are exhausted, and are staring at an equations sheet full of gibberish. Why? Why didn't I start sooner?
Believe it or not, there are forces working against you, preventing you from beginning early enough to comfortably learn new material. Here are seven of the most pernicious reasons for not starting early, as well as what you can do about it.
1. You anticipate a lot of work
Procrastination is widely regarded as a guilt-ridden character flaw shared by nearly all students. The problem is, from an evolutionary standpoint, this is exactly what we should expect to happen.
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Humans are known to be cognitive misers: we conserve mental resources whenever possible, especially when confronted with tasks that are not deemed “essential to our survival.”
In other words, we put off studying until the last minute because (1) we know the work will be difficult and will require a lot of mental energy, and (2) we are not in enough emotional pain to start studying until there is the threat of actually failing the exam (and thus potentially being humiliated publicly).
Furthermore, when your brain anticipates multiple outcomes that are all perceived as “painful” (the pain of studying vs. the pain of failing out of college), you become immobilized, unable to choose the lesser of two evils and pushing off the work even further.
Schedule time for yourself first, and then study to fill in the gaps.
As Niel Fiore discusses in his best-selling book, The Now Habit, part of the reason you procrastinate is that you see no end in sight.
Consider the distinction between a 100-yard dash and a marathon. Because you can see the finish line and know it will be over soon in the first case, you can exert maximum effort. The marathon runner, on the other hand, is not so fortunate. They are aware of the long road ahead, which will be filled with pain and exhaustion, and they subconsciously conserve their energy to ensure they can complete all 26.2 miles.
All of this is to say that if you know you can go hang out in your friend's dorm room and goof off for an hour after you study, you'll be much more likely to invest that energy.
As an added bonus, you get to take advantage of Parkinson's Law. Because your work expands to fill the time allotted, scheduling less time for studying actually increases your productivity and focus.
2. You have a lack of sleep
Who in college isn't addicted to caffeine?
Students who force themselves to sleep for 4-6 hours every night for weeks on end are significantly deteriorating two aspects of their mental performance that are critical to exam preparation: motivation and vigilance.
According to research, a lack of sleep has a negative impact on motivation.
But no one needs a study to tell them how much worse their outlook on life is when they are sleep deprived.
And vigilance, or the ability to maintain focused attention for extended periods of time, is significantly reduced during either acute (staying up all night studying) or chronic (shortening sleep for multiple days) sleep deprivation.
Set a timer for the end of the day.
Yes, studying in shorter bursts will allow you to spread it out over a longer period of time, reducing the need to sleep deprivation in order to complete your coursework. But, in reality, it's a psychological problem.
There are a million things we'd rather do than go to bed after a long day of classes, only to have to get up and do it all over again. This is a chicken/egg situation: if I don't get enough sleep, I procrastinate on studying, but if I go to bed, I'll just have to get up and study. Once again, it's a lose-lose situation. We must break the cycle.
Set an alarm for yourself. But not first thing in the morning. Set your alarm 45 minutes before you should go to bed and allow yourself a full 8 hours of sleep. If you stick to that, you'll be surprised at how many hours of free time appear to appear.
Students who have enough study time, free time, and sleep are more likely to be happy and successful.
3. You have an erroneous sense of security
You may think you're being a good student by sitting through the lecture, paying close attention, and taking page after page of notes from the professor. You could even be following along and raising your hand now and then. However, there is a significant difference between feeling as if you understand something and being able to reproduce it on a test.
This is known as passive learning, and it is the best way to ensure that you will waste a lot of time and effort trying to learn new material without actually remembering anything.
Take a test on yourself.
Don't let your professor's overly logical explanations fool you. This guy is already familiar with the material, so it's simple for him to explain it in a way that others can understand. The true test is whether or not you can do the same.
If you're not sure if you understand something, test yourself. Or, even better, explain it to someone (or yourself, but be warned: people tend to stare).
“If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough,” Einstein once said.
By quizzing yourself on a regular basis, you will get a dose of reality as to whether you actually know the material or not, as opposed to what most students do, which is to assume they know it until the night before the test, when they freak out because they can't do any of the practice problems.
4. Not all study time is equal
Fact: Seven hours of studying spread out over seven days is far more effective (more learning per time spent) than seven hours of studying in one sitting. This is especially true for technical courses that require you to learn new jargon.
Divide your study time into chunks.
The brain consumes a tremendous amount of energy (20% of our resting metabolic rate), and there is only so much you can expend per day. You should use both active learning and recovery to maximize your retention of new material.
Because the brain consolidates new neural pathways during sleep, particularly during REM sleep, the more sleep cycles you intersperse between study hours, the more likely you will retain the material and be able to recall it on test day.
This also allows you to benefit from spaced repetition. Instead of constantly reviewing your material to keep it fresh in your mind, you can follow a cycle of increasing time intervals between review sessions (the “forgetting curve”), reducing the overall amount of time required to re-learn material you may have forgotten from the beginning of the semester when the final comes around.
5. The planning blunder
Humans routinely overestimate what they can accomplish in the short term while underestimating what they can accomplish in the long term.
Ironically (and unfortunately), we only have this problem when evaluating our own tasks – providing a fairly accurate picture of how long things will take when objectively evaluating someone else's situation.
Apply the 50 percent rule.
Estimate how much time it will take to study for your exam as conservatively as possible, assuming you start early and work consistently.
Okay. Now multiply that figure by 50%.
This will provide you with a more accurate picture of how much time you should set aside to begin studying.
6. You believe you have more study time than you actually do
Take a look at your Sunday schedule. What do you notice?
Oh, it looks like I'll have a lot of free time between 4 and 10 p.m. Perfect, I'll just study for 5 or 6 hours and then call it a night.
Please try again. It's closer to 2-3 hours.
Another type of planning error is overestimating how much productive time we can squeeze out of any given period.
Things we forget: we need to eat, we need to sleep, and there will be interruptions (as if you're going to turn off your phone).
But there's something else we overlook: the body goes through 90-120 minute activity cycles (called the Ultradian Rhythm). So, even if you've been sitting there highlighting your textbook for three hours, you really only have the ability to absorb material for 1.5 to 2 hours before needing a break.
Reduce the number of hours you expect to work by half.
If you think you'll have 8 hours to study after the game on Sunday, think again. When you account for eating, breaks, and normal daily activities, you actually have four or fewer.
7. You are unable to become motivated or focused
Many of us prefer to sit and wait…
Waiting for a burst of motivation to start working on the homework assignment due in 24 hours or studying for the midterm.
The issue is that motivation comes and goes, but the demands of school, learning, and daily life do not. And if you rely on your motivation to keep you focused, everything you do will be late and last-minute, because there is never enough motivation to go around.
Concentrate on the process while keeping the end goal in mind.
What is the purpose of your attendance at school? What is your motivation for pursuing a degree? Determine your motivations in detail.
However, contemplating the future is insufficient. That future vision that drives your emotional intensity must be linked to your daily activities. (For example, “Every day I study for Calculus brings me one step closer to becoming a doctor and making a difference in people's lives.”
What is the one set of activities you should do every day that will almost certainly ensure your academic success?
And what can you do to organize your day, set up incentives, give up things that don't matter, and so on to almost guarantee that you will do that one set of activities day in and day out, regardless of motivation?
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