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Study Skills

Learning About Learning: Study Tips for Students

Picture of Stefanie Toye
By Stefanie Toye on December, 9 2020 | 6 minute read

Pop quiz! We know some students are quickly approaching mid-term exams and long papers before the holiday break, so here’s a mini-quiz to get you started. We promise this quiz isn’t just another will actually help you save time in studying for your real tests. 

  1. What do surrealist painter Salvador Dali and inventor Thomas Edison have in common? 
  2. How long can we truly focus? For 5 minutes? 5 hours?  
  3. What animated movie from 2015 stars Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler and The Office’s Phyllis Smith?

Before we dive into the answers to these questions, let me tell you what the three questions above have in common—they are all questions related to metacognition. Metacognition, put simply, is thinking about thinking, and that’s what we’re doing today. The more you understand HOW you think, the better you'll be able to use your thinking abilities, whether studying for a big test or writing a long research paper. Now, let’s get back to those questions... 

1) Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison both used a strange method to help them when they were stuck on a difficult problem. They didn’t keep spinning their wheels; they stepped away and relaxed. More specifically, they employed the technique of waking themselves up just as they were about to fall asleep, and then harvested the ideas they generated when were in that very relaxed state. Dali kept a set of keys in his hands, and as he was about to doze off, when those keys dropped to the floor, he awoke and collected his thoughts. Thomas Edison did the same with ball bearings. Great minds do think alike, even if they’re in very different fields.  

What does this mean for students? Breaks are important! While focus and completing tasks is important, so is stepping away from the problem at hand. If you’re stuck when you’re writing a paper or trying to solve a problem, go relax. Set an alarm for 10 minutes and leave your work (but don’t get on the internet or your phone), or channel Dali and grab those keys while you’re sitting upright and relaxing. Just don’t fall off your chair! 

One of the most popular free online courses is taught by Professor Barbara Oakley, who notes that she herself wasn’t very good at math in her younger years, as she found it challenging and earned poor grades. She became an engineer after serving in the army and retrained her brain to learn math. She gives a great 15-minute TedX talk where she discusses some of the above. 

2) We can truly only focus for somewhere around 20 minutes on average, 45 minutes at most—and this is true even for adults! The questions then arise: has COVID affected our ability to focus for this long, and is it possible that using technology has reduced that average further? That’s for another day, but let me introduce  The Pomodoro Technique—a trademarked term which means studying or attacking a task for 25 minutes. You then take a short break before returning to another 25 minutes of that task. This also helps us with procrastination—sometimes the thought of taking two hours to write a lengthy paper is simply overwhelming and we’d rather just avoid that task, but you need to begin somewhere. You can do it for a small chunk of time, only a 25-minute chunk, then again for another 25 minutes, and so on. And if you do this, you’re engaging in what we educators call “chunking.” 

3) Inside Out came out in 2015 and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year. It stars Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader and others in a tale about a tween named Riley, who must cope with her family relocating from the Midwest to San Francisco. Her basic human emotions are represented as tiny characters—Joy, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, and Fear—who work hard in her mind to ensure she makes a smooth transition. We are shown how long-term memories are created, in a rather accurate way, since there seem to be some neuroscience concepts disguised in the movie's visually stunning scenes.  

What does the cartoon have to do with you as a student? You need to sort through your own emotions and information and determine what is worth storing in your long-term memory. Practice recalling that information immediately after you studied it—perhaps it’s a physics formula or a sequence of events for APUSH. The more you practice recalling that topic, the greater the chance it will get stored in your long-term memory. For more on this topic, watch “Wired to Grow,” a free lecture by Dr. Britt Andreatta.  

Learning about how YOU learn is an important process, and as you move through high school and onto college,  you may want to figure out how you learn best now. We here at Collegewise always talk about how the path to college is just as much about learning about yourself, as it is learning about the world around you, college included. And the more you know how you study, the better you'll do not just in college, but beyond. 

Take a deep breath, set your timer for 25 minutes, and go tackle those tests and semester papers. It’s been a strange and stressful year, but you got this! 

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