I’m finishing my final year of undergrad this year, and boy have I learned a lot.  When I finally got serious about school, I realized that I didn’t have to be the best in every class, but I did need to pass every class with a decent grade.  I half-decided, half-procrastinated my way into delaying many different reading assignments, taking a heavy load of 18 credits and working part time.  What I found was that staying up with the reading in many classes simply wasn’t worth it, and that I could acheive satisfactory results by minimizing my reading and maximizing my attention in class.  Here are the four priciples of my “Procrastinatory Study Method”:

1. Don’t read before class

When you first learn about a new topic, you need to get a single perspective in order to develop an idea you can challenge.  Initially, it is better to completely understand an issue from a single point of view than to muddle your thinking with many different ideas, requiring you to quickly determine the correct one.  I don’t intend that you should be one-dimensional in your understanding of the world, but you should wait to challenge your assumptions until you understand what they are.  Many modern textbooks are starting to do an ok job of presenting differing views on issues, albeit usually in oddly colored boxes near the end of the chapter.  If you go into class with your mind already trying to sort out many different ideas on a topic, one of two things will happen: Either you will come out more confused with another view to consider, or you will have adapted the teacher’s perspective.  So you’ll either be further from your goal (comprehension) or back to square one – wasted time.

2. Pay attention in class – seriously

Teachers are amazing people, but they have a job to do: teach you everything you need to know to get an ‘A” in their class.  Honestly, they do a great job at it.  I highly recommend purchasing or leasing a laptop during school, and endure the looks from your pen and paper classmates as you take notes on it in class.  If you already type faster than you write (if you don’t yet, you will), you’ll find your recordation to be incredible.  You can honestly almost type every word the professor says, since professors tend to use quite a few breaks in their talking for the pen and paper crowd.  In effect, you’ll be writing down 90% of your test.  I used to write a lot of “outline” type notes with pen and paper – getting down the main ideas, and trying to arrange the weird order the teacher was going in.  I neglected minute details because I couldn’t possibly get those down in time.  On the computer, I can quickly reformat outline structures when the teacher goes back to a previous subject.  There are many advantages to taking notes on your computer:

  • Quick and easy formatting makes your notes intelligent. Once you learn keyboard shortcuts for just basic commands such as bold, italic, and underline, you now have pointers and emphasis with a keystroke.
  • Done-for-you outlines. No more guessing about how far to indent, and how many sub-topics the teacher will cover.  ANY word processing program makes a better outline than you do.
  • Search. When we discuss preparing for the test, you will find this indispensible
  • You can actually read your notes. Even on those drowsy days, Verdana always looks like Verdana.
  • Internet access. NOT for IM, or browsing, but for easy lookup of terms or ideas you didn’t understand.  Teachers also tend to “soft-lie” (I don’t know, but I assume…), and it’s a good idea to check them from time to time.

Here’s the deal though, it’s not just the computer that makes you a great student.  You need to spend your time in class focused on the professor, and getting everything out of their lecture.  Look at it this way – you didn’t have to spend last night reading, so the least you can do is spend that 75 minutes in class paying attention.  Here’s more good news: you won’t have to read after class either, so don’t waste that class time.  I said you can probably write down just about every word the teacher says, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll come close.

3. Wait to get the study guide, then study

Most teachers give out some sort of study guide these days, or at least give you a pretty good idea of what topics will be on the test (some even give you the test questions!)  You don’t need to worry about those notes or the book until we get to this point.  Often, this is about one week before your test, or maybe just a couple of days.  Regardless, you don’t have to worry about a thing until you get this document.  Your studying will be based entirely on this piece of paper.  Here’s the method I generally use:

  • Print out my notes, read through them once or twice, on the bus or something, just to activate the information.
  • Take out that study guide and fill out as much information as I can, no notes in hand, no reading done yet.
  • With the study guide filled out from memory, go back through my notes and add supplementary information, or fill in items I didn’t know.

It’s rare that a teacher will give you 100% of the information for the test in class, but don’t be surprised if you can fill out greater than 50% of the study guide from memory, and 75% or more with your notes available.  Finally, we come to the reading.

4. Read to fill in the gaps

Books generally have a wonderful thing at the end: an index.  If your teacher gives you some sort of “terms” study guide, with a lot of individual words, you have a great chance of hitting paydirt in the index.  If your teacher expects you to  know a term for the test and it WASN’T in your notes, you can bet on a simple, concrete definition being in the text, and that definition will be easy to find from the index.  If you teacher gives you a more elaborate study guide with ideas, questions, or general topics, you can often reduce these down to indexable words – the writers of the book had to do that to make the index!

Finally, if you find a topic that isn’t in your notes, and isn’t an easy find in the book, you have two options: Try to find it in the book by any means possible, or Google it.  I’m not kidding.  Look at wikipedia, even though your teacher thinks it is evil.  Frankly, information about the life of Charlemagne probably is not so volatile to get a misinformation attack on wikipedia, and you’d probably spot it if it was barely out of place.  Many topics will have a quick and dirty explanation on the internet – enough to use for a test.

The reality is, using this method you have a great chance at a ‘B’, and a good chance at an ‘A’, depending on your own personal level of comprehension and recall.  Of course, this is not the method you use for your advanced chemistry classes or your senior seminar with the teacher that you want a letter of recommendation from.  This is for your American History II class, or your English for Dummies freshman class.  I’m a history major, so this has been a boon to my study habits.  If you are pre-med, please don’t use this often.  But if you’re “buying” your degree from a state college, then don’t hesitate to cut the fluff and get an easy ‘A’ in the easy ‘A’ class.