When should I stop studying?

There’s always a moment in any hardcore study session when it all seems to be poised to go downhill. Your brain is getting fuzzy, you’re starving, you’re sleep deprived, and if you see one more French verb or Fourier transform, you’re going to go batty.

The question is- when should one push through, and when should one throw in the towel?

It’s not actually as tough a question as you might think. As you should know by now, I believe that short study sessions are the only way to go. When you’ve divided your workload into easily digestible chunks (remember splitting vs lumping?), you can call it quits whenever you need to, then pick up undisturbed at your next session.

Of course, not everyone takes my advice, not everyone has time for multiple additional study sessions, and not everyone knows the meaning of the word ‘stop.’ In my tutoring practice, I always get a few students every term who are obviously at the end of their rope. Their eyes are bleary, they can’t track what I’m saying, and they give the distinct impression that they’re existing in a universe that is slightly offset from ours in time and space. These are the kind of students I send home to take a nap. It takes cajoling, it takes gentle explanations, and sometimes it takes some hard bargaining (“Okay, we can go over ONE VERB, but only if you promise to go get some sleep!”) but I always send them packing. Why? Because studying when you’re not in the right mental space is worse than not studying at all.

So, how do you know when to stop?

If you’re going over the same thing again, and again, and again, stop. At a certain point you have overloaded all of your circuits, and you’re just not going to make any more progress without a break. If you have read the same page more than twice, or you’ve been doing the same math problem for more than twenty minutes, it’s time to go and do something else for a little while.

If you are dozing off, stop. Drool on your keyboard isn’t going to help anything at all. Go for a brisk walk to wake yourself up if it’s daytime. If it’s the middle of the night, go the crap to bed.

If you are emotionally distraught, stop. If the assignment is making you freak out, or something in your life has knocked you completely off balance, you need to regain some mental peace before you try to get anything else done. This is a good time for some exercise, meditation, prayer, a phone call to a friend- whatever is going to get you on an even keel and give you the balance and confidence to move forward.

If you are feeling angry or bitter, stop. This one might seem a little weirder. You can get good work done while feeling angry and bitter about the assignment, it’s true. On the other hand, it’s not going to be worth it. Just like angry cleaning, angry studying is a powerful force, but one that tends to leave you drained and unhappy. Go punch something or complain until you feel a little better, than break the problem down until you can approach it in a more neutral way.

Even if the assignment is due tomorrow, or the test is looming, you need to consider the quality of the work you are doing, and the quality of your mental health. Even if you can only afford a short break or a fifteen minute nap, it will boost your productivity and put you back on top of things.

10 College Questions to Ask Yourself

10. How am I doing in my current classes?

It’s a good idea to sit back on a regular basis and go over this semester’s classes in your mind. Make sure there aren’t any unsightly facts you might be overlooking; you can put on a brave face for others if you want, but you can’t lie to yourself. Was the C on your last quiz a one-off, or was it an omen of future things to come? If you can, take a look at your grades so far, and make sure that you are really aware of your status in the class.

9. Am I on top of the material I’m studying?

Again, this is something you need to keep an eye on. It is very, very easy to wake up halfway through the term and realize that you’re already behind. Perhaps you put off just one chapter, and then by the time you finished it, another two had already been assigned… Keep track of that, and start fixing it. Now.

8. Do I have everything I need for my next assignment?

There isn’t much that sucks more than sitting down to attack an assignment, opening your laptop, cracking your knuckles… and realizing that you need to quote a book that is only available via interlibrary loan. Weeks might go by before you see that sucker, and your due date will already have flown. Plan early and plan often, and make sure you’ve gathered all of your resources long before you need them.

7. What is the best part of my current classload? Why?

Go ahead, pick favorites. It’s important to examine your feelings about each of your classes, because they will (and should!) inform your future decisions. Do you prefer classes online or in person? Do you like small, discussion-heavy courses, or do you prefer to sit in a huge auditorium with 300 other anonymous students? If you are comfortable and happy in your classes, your grades will inevitably improve. Whatever you like most, make it your mission to fill next semester with even more of it.

6. What would I rather have taken this term?

Obviously, this relates to number 7. Why didn’t you follow your gut when you planned this semester’s courseload? If there were university requirements you absolutely had to meet, then grumble away and carry on. If, however, you were propelled by family, peer pressure, or some mistaken sense of obligation, quit it. Next term, take what energizes and inspires you.

5. If I had a choice, would I work with these professors again?

In fact, you do have a choice. Sometimes it can be downright impossible to get away from a professor. Create a mental shortlist of professors you love; it will make choosing your classes a breeze next term. Nothing beats a semester full of enlightening classes and pleasant discussion with a knowledgeable teacher, and nothing improves a letter of recommendation like an ongoing relationship with a professor. Be sure and visit their office hours!

On the other hand, if you can’t STAND one of your professors, do everything you can to stay away from them in the future. Bad professors are a recipe for terrible grades and general unhappiness.

4. Which classmate asks the best questions?

At some point in one of your classes, someone raised their hand and asked a question that made you say “Wow!” It opened a new door for you, and made you see the material in a whole new light. Go find that person. Sit next to them. Talk to them. Bounce ideas off of them. These kinds of classmates are one of the best resources you have in college, and this kind of discussion can be the basis for ongoing friendship. On the other hand, if you happen to ask an insightful question and some random person comes over and tries to pick your brain about it, be friendly. Discuss it with them. Exchange ideas. That’s what college is for, isn’t it?

3. Where could I find a better explanation?

One of your classes is stumping you. If it isn’t right now, then it did a little while ago, or it will again soon. Your teacher might try to explain it, but if their take doesn’t make it click into place, then you’re screwed.

No, not really. The truth is that sometimes, even at the best colleges, they way the professor and the textbook present the information does not work. Maybe it doesn’t work for everyone, or maybe just for you. Either way, your best option is to look for the info you need somewhere else. Websites, books, tutors, classmates, frat buddies- whatever you can find, use it.

2. What is the most interesting fact I learned in the last day?

Another good question to ask on a regular basis, and an especially practical one. If there is a fact that was so interesting, titillating, exciting or confounding that it pops into mind immediately, write it down. That, my friend, is your next term paper. (Or office hours question, or research topic, or test essay, or Trivial Pursuit triumph. I don’t care. Just USE IT.)

1. What should I be doing right now?

That’s right, what should you being doing RIGHT NOW? Ask yourself a dozen times a day, or more. Keep yourself accountable. Should you be at a party? Should you be in class? Should you be staring holes into your textbook? Should you be reading a silly blog on the internet?

There’s a time for each of those, I promise.

Now, whatever you should be doing- GO DO IT!

Office Hours: What They Are, and Why They Rock

They’re there on every syllabus, lurking under the header like a bad dream: office hours. Scheduled at arbitrary times, in a building you’ve never heard of, in a room with a number like 437J. J? What does that even mean?

Well, it’s time to stop ignoring the office hour listing. You may never have gone to office hours before, but it’s time to start. In university classes, you get little to no individual interaction with the teacher. In a room with a hundred other students, there’s very little you can do to stand out or to get extra information or clarification, and it’s easy to just fade into the background and coast through the course. Easy, but not advisable- and office hours are the answer.

Office hours are a set time (or times) during the week that your instructor will be available to talk with students in their office. This is a time that students can ask questions that wouldn’t be appropriate in class (too long, too complicated, or about something that has already been covered), to get extra info, to clarify assignments, or even to get a fresh copy of a handout. (It’s 10 o’ clock- do you know where your syllabus is?) This is also an appropriate time to discuss grades or ask for any special allowances, such as an extension on a paper deadline.

Office hours are also vital for building relationships with faculty. If you have any higher academic aspirations, you need to be making regular contact with faculty in your field. If you want to get into research, apply to graduate school or high-level professional training, or even if you want a reference for job applications, it’s important to have professors and other faculty on your side. Most responsible instructors won’t just recommend people willy-nilly, they want to know more about you and to have a better understanding of your academic abilities before they do. You can’t just make these relationships appear when you need them, so you need to start building them now.

When you go to office hours, it’s important to know what you want to talk about, have your questions ready, and bring any papers or materials that you want to talk about with you. The instructor will appreciate your efficiency and respect.

Finding the office can be a little difficult in most universities, so go a little early. Often offices are in a less-used part of the building, in the basement or on the top floors. Many faculty are corralled in communal offices that are either time-shared with other teachers, or are just cubicles in a larger shared space. (That’s where the J comes in- 457 is probably a large room with many smaller cubicles or mini-offices, each with an identifying letter.)

When you arrive, let the instructor know you’re there. A light tap on the door will do it, or a quick wave through the doorway if it’s a cubicle. If they invite you in, you’re set. If they’re with another student or on the phone, wait in the hallway until they ask you to come in. (As tempting as it is to eavesdrop on your classmates, it is not a good idea. Wait far enough away that you won’t offend anybody.)

Don’t take up more time than you need to. If someone else is waiting, stick to the business you brought with you and move on when your questions are answered. If no one is waiting and you are both enjoying the discussion, you can hang around for a while, but be careful to take the hint if your teacher needs to head out or make some phone calls.

Always thank the instructor for their time. They’re doing you a huge favor by being available to talk to you, and politeness will go a long way in maintaining good relationships with faculty. Even if you are having a disagreement with the instructor, respect the fact that they are using their (extremely valuable) time to talk to you, and thank them, regardless of the outcome.

If you’re a little scared to go to office hours, please try it anyway. Although meeting with a teacher one on one can be intimidating, it’s extremely valuable. Moreover, the more often you talk to professors, the better you’ll get at it, and the more able you’ll be to get the information you need and stand up for yourself if you want to dispute a grade or bring up problems with the course.

The takeaway here should be clear: office hours are an awesome resource, and you should be taking advantage of them regularly. Now go forth and talk to your teachers!

PS: If your teacher does not have regularly scheduled office hours, you can (and should!) make an appointment to talk to them. Email them or talk to them after class to set up a time.

Are You Splitting or Lumping?

It’s a story as old as academia: the end of the term is nearing, and looming over the hapless student like a towering monument to failure, the term paper approaches. It’s a huge and possibly hopeless task, but the poor student has no alternative- the paper must be written.

And so the student starts out with a pile of books, a freshly charged laptop, and a vague idea of what he’s doing… and gets nowhere. For days. Finally, out of sheer desperation, he hammers the whole thing out in one or two bleary-eyed nights, edging the paper in just a few minutes before the deadline. Then, next term, he does exactly the same thing.

What if I told you there was an easy way out of this cycle?

Well, there is. The first step is to recognize the trap you’ve fallen into- a trap called lumping. Lumping is the mindset that causes you to look at an assignment and see WRITE A TERM PAPER in huge burning letters. It’s a giant, unsurmountable task that will take untold amounts of time and thousands of convoluted steps.

With a quick POV shift, however, the assignment can be turned into a much less fearsome, and much more inviting, process. The antidote to lumping? It’s called splitting. Splitting is the process of taking an enormous task and breaking it down into its components. This lays out a clear road map to follow, and it takes a lot of the fear, stress, and misery out of any big project.

A lumper looks at the term paper and sees:

  1. WRITE A TERM PAPER.

A splitter looks at the term paper and sees:

  1. Read and understand assignment
  2. Pick topic
  3. Find sources
  4. Pick the best sources
  5. Outline the paper
  6. Write the introduction
  7. (8, 9, 10…)

Yes, the splitter’s to-do list just grew exponentially, but the secret is this: the splitter’s to do list will get done faster, and it will get done better. There are a lot of the benefits to splitting, but there are three important ones.

First, splitting eliminates confusion. A splitter already knows exactly what the next step is, and doesn’t need to go flailing around for what might get them a few lines closer to a finished paper. They know, if they’ve just found their sources, that it’s time to start working on an outline. Once their outline is written, they know it’s time to start writing sections. There’s no more guesswork, and no more hesitation.

Second, splitting allows you to work in shorter bursts. Someone who sits down to WRITE A TERM PAPER isn’t going to be done until he’s done. Someone who sits down to write an outline can just… write an outline. And then he’s done. At that point he might move on to another step, or he might go watch some TV. He’s got the flexibility to spend less time on the project but, nevertheless, get more done.

Third, splitting alerts you to future obstacles. If, halfway through your splitting process, you realize that (for example) one of your sources is a book you need to order through interlibrary loan, you can go ahead and put that first on the list. By the time you need it, it will have arrived. A lumper would not have been able to look that far forward; a splitter sees it coming a mile off.

Becoming a splitter is easy. Try it now! Grab an assignment- any assignment- and break it down into as many steps as you can think of. (Book report? Read book, write report.) Then, take those steps and break them down into more steps. (Find book, read book, outline report, write report.) Then split once more. (Pick book, get book, read book, identify themes, outline report, rough draft, final draft, proofread, format, print, submit.)

Split until you can split no more. The longer your to-do list is, the more successful you’ve been. Now, following the steps you’ve written out, do the assignment. You’ll be shocked at how quickly those tiny items get crossed off, and how easy it is to just knock one or two off the list in between other commitments. Your assignment will have turned from a giant albatross around your neck into a pile of bite-sized chicken nuggets.

Even if you’re skeptical, give it a try. I guarantee, you will never have to sit down and WRITE A TERM PAPER ever again.

I have no idea what’s going on.

There comes a point in every student’s career when they show up to lecture one day, and realize they have no idea what’s happening. Perhaps they’ve missed a lecture, perhaps they haven’t finished the reading, or perhaps they’ve been doing everything right but still don’t have a clue.

That’s okay. No, really. It is. Like I said, this happens to every single one of us at some point, and sometimes more than once. Whatever led up to this moment of mystification, you can start getting the situation under control right now, in just a few easy steps.

First, find your syllabus. It’s got to be somewhere. If the teacher handed out paper copies, look through your folders and notebooks. If not, or if you turned it into a paper airplane and floated it out the window, don’t lose hope. Most universities now have an online system like Blackboard or Desire2Learn, and you should check there for any important documents. If all else fails, go to your instructor’s office hours and ask for a new copy. They’ll be happy to give it to you.

Second, check for important dates. If you’re out of the loop, it’s quite likely that there’s an assignment looming somewhere in the near future. If there is, find the due date and the assignment requirements and review them now, before you move on. To prevent any future snafus, it’s a good idea to put any important assignments and exam dates into your calendar at the beginning of the term.

Third, review from the beginning. You might feel tempted to skip straight to the topic that’s confusing you the most, but that way lies madness. Start wayyyyy back at the beginning of term, with the material covered in the very first lecture. If the teacher posts the powerpoint slides, flip through them. If there was reading assigned, scan it. If you took notes, give them a quick once-over. If there’s nothing there that seems important or new to you, move on to the next lecture. You don’t need to do any heavy duty reading here, just skim through and find anything that looks alarmingly fresh and confusing. You need to know what you don’t know.

Fourth, tackle the trouble spots. When you find a red flag, slow down. Stop speed-reading, and get out some note paper. Write bullet points or important facts down, so you can skim over them later before tests. Having a little refresher on particularly challenging material is very valuable. Additionally, try to find ways to tie confusing or hard-to-remember information back to earlier, easier lessons. Topics in university courses tend to build in complexity, and if you keep an eye on the fundamentals it will be easier to to untangle the later, harder lessons.

Finally, seek outside help. Now that you know exactly what is giving you trouble, you might not even need this step. Sometimes finding the problem is actually the solution. (For instance, you might have accidentally skipped a chapter in your textbook. I wish I could say that had never happened to me.) If not, and if a review hasn’t helped, then look for new sources. Anything is fair game: google, wikipedia, your univerity’s website, the teacher’s office hours, your buddy Stan who aced this course last year. All good. Sometimes you just need to hear it rephrased in a new way, and then it clicks right in. Never feel confined to the resources you are given in class.

A special note about office hours: use them. We’ll be discussing this further in a later post, but the long and short of it is that your teachers want you to succeed, and office hours exist to give you the individual attention you deserve.

And there you have it. If you follow these steps, you can get back on your feet quickly and effectively. Moreover, these problem-solving techniques will become part of your study repertoire, and will help you keep up in the future. The better you get at catching up, the less you will fall behind. It’s great how that works out.

What is Study Less, Learn More?

Hello! Great to have you here. I hope you’re as excited about the launch of Study Less, Learn More as I am!

I’m a tutor and a graduate of Portland State University. I have a Bachelor of Sciences in Psychology, a Bachelor of Arts in Russian Language, and a Certificate of Advanced Proficiency in Russian Language. Currently, I’m working on some killer applications to doctoral programs.

When I wasn’t traveling the world, I spent my undergraduate career tutoring Russian and helping teach classes in behavior modification. I learned a lot from these experiences, not least of which was a unique and life-changing realization about school: whether they study a lot, or barely study at all, most students are studying wrong.

You may think you’re bound to ace your next test if you spend all night hitting the books, but in reality that may not be helping you much at all. Conversely, you might be struggling with the simple task of completing your homework or retaining anything you learned from your assigned reading.

Happily, there is a solution. When you know the principles of studying well, you will find that you learn more, retain more, and are more able to use that knowledge in the future. I am launching this blog to help students around the world work more efficiently, so they can do better in high school and college. As a bonus, better study techniques will actually free up time, so you can live the rest of your life.

That’s right, you can have your cake and eat it too. I’m here to show you how.