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Study Tips

Eight easy steps to success

I'm Ian, Class of 2014. I’ve had a few people ask me how to study successfully, both medical students and college students. Many times they say they lose focus. A friend of mine said that he sometimes daydreams while he’s in the middle of reading something important, and won’t remember what he read. Out of frustration, and because of a time crunch, he’ll feel like he needs to move on, and doesn’t retain the information. You may find yourself in a similar situation. I’ve decided to create eight easy steps for you to follow.

Now, I don’t claim to be a master at studying, but I do try to follow these guidelines and they certainly enhance my ability to study and retain information. Steps 1-5 are especially important during your studying, while steps 6-8 are mostly while you’re not studying.  I  hope these steps will guide you to study more effectively!

1. Be patient
Sometimes information doesn’t stick in your head. Be patient. It will. You may be the kind of person who has to go over the material a few times before it sticks in your head. Just know yourself, and if it takes three passes to learn the material, then take three passes.

A good strategy to employ when studying, especially for anatomy: when you do a chunk of material and move on, make sure you try to quiz yourself on the old material. For example, I was just studying the lacrimal gland, and moved on to the orbital bones. After learning the bones, I quizzed myself on the lacrimal gland section, just to see if I remembered it. Turns out there were a few parts I had forgotten, but by reviewing it then, I made sure to strengthen my recall.

2. Stay calm
If you find yourself reading the same paragraph over and over at least 20 times, do NOT get frustrated! This will only make it harder to study. It’s important to keep a positive attitude, take a deep breath, and learn it. When you stay calm and read something for entertainment because you enjoy it, you remember it much better. Call me a nerd, but this is how I study well for anatomy and physiology. I even had a Friday night in which I opened a bottle of wine, listened to music, and casually perused through some physiology. I’ll tell you what, that night, in a race against time and ethanol, I had a great time. And to top it off, I woke up the next morning remembering everything I studied. But then again, I enjoy what I’m studying. If it’s not something you enjoy, focus on staying calm. Don’t pressure yourself.

3. Self control/discipline
Catch yourself when you see you’re straying away from studying, and correct this behavior. The difficult part is recognizing when you are daydreaming or losing focus and getting yourself back in check. I tend to lose focus a lot, but I constantly work on regaining my concentration. If you can’t redirect your attention to studying after attempting to refocus a few times, you might want to consider step 4 (note: practice getting good at refocusing. This is the step most people need to practice. Myself included). Self control is infinitely important. You need to have the control to sit down and do your studying.

4. Reward yourself
Having referenced this step already, you can see that I’m a big proponent of it. It’s okay to take frequent breaks. But be careful not to reward yourself too soon. This goes hand in hand with self control. Tell yourself that you’ll do a certain amount of work, and then take a break (but be careful to follow steps 1-3).

If you are unable to practice self control (step 3 is rough), you need to find something outside of yourself to keep you under control. What my study group and I have done several times when we find that we’re off track is set a stopwatch timer for ourself. We’ll set the timer for about an hour, get a good solid hour of studying in, and after the timer is up, we’ll take a break. Make sure you do the same; it’s okay, you’ve earned it! But make sure you can control how long you spend rewarding yourself; that can easily get out of control.

5. Planning
For many people, planning is absolutely essential. Make a schedule of what you’re going to study and when, and do your best to stick with it. This will help you practice self control, because you’ve scheduled the time in for yourself. You no longer have to make time to study, all you have to do is follow your calendar.

6. Dynamic fluidity
Or in other words, go with the flow! Sometimes you don’t get all the studying done that you’ve planned out to accomplish in a day. All I can say is: 1. Be patient and 2. Stay calm.

Those are the two most important rules to follow. If your day doesn’t go the way you planned, it’s okay. There are too many variables that can alter your schedule, and if they’re out of your control, then why would you sweat it? Just augment your schedule, and make a new plan of action. Of course, if what is preventing you from studying IS in your control, do something to change it. And make sure the changes will lead you to a positive outcome. (For example, don’t sacrifice time spent with the ones you love for the sake of getting in more study hours.  Or at least, don’t make that the first thing you sacrifice to get study time in. You’ll be unhappy, they’ll be unhappy… yeah, no fun). Also, remember to set realistic goals for yourself, otherwise you may become easily frustrated.

7. Mind and body
People don’t often make the connection, but mind and body are HUGELY related. When it comes to studying (and living a healthy lifestyle), you need to pay attention to how closely connected your mind and body are. Don’t dismiss it as being trite and insignificant… this is seriously a big key to success that can amplify your study time!  I’ll break it down into several parts.

  • Sleep
    Sleep is essential. Surprisingly many people don’t realize this. How do you expect to focus when you’re tired? I saw this a lot when I was an undergraduate; people staying up the night before the test and studying their asses off. But when it came time to take the test, they couldn’t focus, and would invariably do poorly. As for me, I made sure to sleep well before each test. And look at me now; I’m in medical school! Even now, there are times when I’ll take a nap instead of studying and I’ll wake up completely rejuvenated to tackle several more hours of studying. And those several hours are usually the most productive. Get your sleep! It’s better to eliminate the random wasted minutes/hours throughout your day than to sacrifice minutes/hours of sleep. If you’re sacrificing sleep, then you should have already maximized your daily studying.
  • Activity
    Activity is especially important to maintaining focus. Do things that challenge you physically or mentally. Go rock climbing. Go to the gym. Go surfing. Go running. Play a sport. Practice yoga. Take that pilates class you’ve been wanting to try out. Do something. It doesn’t have to be every day, but an hour every other day won’t hurt you. You’ll feel better. Along with exercising physically, make sure to maintain your mental exercises. Studying is important, but do another brain activity, something completely unrelated. Breathing exercises are good. Maybe focus on absolutely nothing and clear your mind. Meditate. That’s a mental exercise within itself. Other activities, like cooking or playing an instrument are good, too. This goes along with taking a break; make sure to combine therapeutic activities with breaks.
  • Diet
    Along with staying active physically and mentally, make sure you’re eating a balanced diet of proteins, carbs and fats. Yes, I said fats, too. You need fat. However, the problem is that in the american diet, the fats are usually animal fats and lard. Let’s face it: those fats are not all that great for you. But there are some essential fats that you should incorporate into your diet, like omega-3′s. My favorite way to get the fats I need are from fish and olive oil. Look up some recipes online and try making a couple. Might be a fun activity to do!

8. Enjoy life
this goes along with rewarding yourself. Look at the world around you and take in all the beauty. Remember to smile. Make it a point to go out and enjoy yourself, and don’t think about what you have to get done later. Worrying about something else while you’re trying to have fun is NOT fun. Enjoy the moment! There will be time later to focus on what you need to accomplish. Yeah, you may call me a hippy or whatever for having this outlook on life, but it does make a difference.

I hope all of these simple guidelines help you as much as they've helped me.