Top 5 Learning Challenges

student with his head down on a table UBC Learning Commons on Flickr CC:BY

We all face challenges in learning at some point. There are a whole host of reasons why this may happen including stress, workload, family pressures or academic preparation. We’ll focus on the academic side here but check the Links section for each challenge for additional wellness resources at UBC.

argh! exclamation of frustration.

Challenge 1: I got a low grade.

Getting a lower than expected grade is a disappointment. Understanding the why and the how of the matter (in the most objective way possible) can help you re-align your approach to studying/research with your goals for next time. Sometimes, our own beliefs about learning may be our biggest obstacles. Here are a few examples:

Learning should be easy and fast (if I'm doing it well)

In fact, when we are learning something new by re-reading and highlighting (rather than self testing and solving problems), our brains often fool us into thinking that we are learning. This is called a fluency or familiarity bias and it happens when we think that something familiar and clearly explained has actually been learned. In fact, the best way to test whether you know something is to try to teach it to someone else - this will help you clarify your gaps in understanding.

Talent is everything. If I'm not talented in a subject - I can't expect to do well.

Talent can help, but your attitude about learning is way more important. If you believe your learning abilities are fixed, you'll put up mental blocks that hinder your learning. For example, if you are used to getting straight A's you may tend to avoid risks that might take you out of your comfort zone and risk your perfect record. Conversely, if you believe you are not good at something (say math for example) you may lower your expectations,etc. Either way, those fixed beliefs will prevent you from opening up to new experiences that may have a profound impact on your learning. Students who have a 'growth mindset' about learning, and believe that they can really improve over time and with effort tend to take more chances, progress faster, and see risk and failure as part of the learning process (Dweck, 2006). See Myth #1 below for more information and resources.

I'm a good judge of my own learning.

Research tells us that we are not very good at assessing our own learning. We tend to overestimate or underestimate our own abilities. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, a well documented cognitive bias. According to Steven Novella (in his article about the Dunning-Kruger effect): "the most competent individuals tend to underestimate their relative ability a little, but for most people (the bottom 75%) they increasingly overestimate their ability, and everyone thinks they are above average."

Memorizing the facts is what's important in learning.

At university, what's important is your understanding of concepts and ideas, when to apply them and how and in what circumstances they are useful. This sort of understanding is enhanced when you look for the connections between concepts and ask yourself questions about what you are reading so that you can extract meaning.

So how can you overcome some of these biases and problems and study smarter? Have a look at the strategies section for some good ideas.

Find out about common myths that impact this challenge and what you can do to bust the myth!

Talent can help, but your attitude about learning is way more important. If you believe your learning abilities are fixed, you'll put up mental blocks that hinder your learning. For example, if you are used to getting straight A's you may tend to avoid risks that might take you out of your comfort zone and risk your perfect record. Conversely, if you believe you are not good at something (say math for example) you may lower your expectations,etc. Either way, those fixed beliefs will prevent you from opening up to new experiences that may have a profound impact on your learning. Students who have a 'growth mindset' about learning, and believe that they can really improve over time and with effort tend to take more chances, progress faster, and see risk and failure as part of the learning process (Dweck, 2006). "Research suggests that students who view intelligence as innate focus on their ability and its adequacy/inadequacy, whereas students who view intelligence as malleable use strategy and effort as they work toward mastery." (Schoenfeld, 1983). Mindset can have positive and negative impacts on learning: intelligence and ability are neither innate nor static. Our brains grow, change, and adapt as we use them.

A combination of motivation and focused effort in deliberate practice will really help you develop a deeper understanding. Deliberate practice is about more than just putting time in: it includes frequent feedback, repeatedly adjusting your approach, and a belief that you can learn and grow with effort. What you do is just as important as how often you do it.

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Bust the Myth

  • Know that your beliefs affect your behaviours. Cognitive psychologist Dr. Stephen Chew calls these "beliefs that make you stupid". Watch his video: How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Part 1 of 5, "Beliefs That Make You Fail... Or Succeed" for suggestions about how to overcome these.
  • Apply what you learn in practice. Practice builds accuracy and fluency (the real kind, not the illusion of fluency). This fluency also builds the confidence and flexibility to apply what you've learned in different situations. Professor of Mathematics, Michael Starbird, describes how practice leads to deeper understanding. Watch his video: 5 Elements of Effective Thinking: First Element: Understand Deeply.
  • Feed your curiosity. Ask questions, perform experiments, talk to experts, work with others, make mistakes, and explore your questions from many different angles. This helps develop a mindset of growth and will take you farther in your development.

References:

  • Dweck, Carol (2009) Mindestonline.com Retrieved: May, 10, 2014.
  • Ambrose, S.A, Lovett, M.C. (2014) Prior Knowledge is More Than Content: Skills and Beliefs Also Impact Learning, in Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php.


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Strategies that work!

Check your judgement

  • Monitor your learning. Ask yourself:
  • how well do I understand this assignment?
  • what are the most important things to understand/demonstrate?
  • how well do I think I will do on this assignment?

Then compare your predictions with the result (after assessment) and consider what you need to change for next time. If you don't know, ask your prof or TA for specific feedback on how you can improve.

Aim for understanding (vs. surface knowledge)

  • Try teaching or explaining to others what you are learning (in your own words). Respond to their questions. Then have them tell you what they learned and compare this to your notes or the text. You really begin to understand something when you can teach others.
  • Make connections between course concepts, different courses, and real-world situations. If you’re having trouble understanding something, ask yourself how these concepts apply to your life. Mind maps and concept maps can help you visualize the connections and lead to meaningful learning, as they force you to re-organize and make sense of the information as part of a bigger picture (rather than isolated concepts and facts). Redo your notes as a diagram or as a concept map.
  • Ask good questions (of yourself and others). Check your thinking by asking questions about what you’re learning. What’s being said? Who is saying it? Why are they saying it? Who else says this? What do I believe? Why do I believe it? What’s missing? Where is the error in this and how can I fix it? Why does another solution work better? Asking good questions helps us solve problems, make thoughtful decisions and think creatively. Adopting this practice can lead to insights that can open up doors in your thinking and improve your learning significantly. More on 5 Habits that will improve how you ask questions!
  • Self-test rather than re-read. Answering questions from memory (rather than just looking up the answers and reading) requires you to retrieve what you know. This retrieval practice (along with other forms of practice and applying what you know) helps to build strong connections in memory.

Check out some of our student toolkits to support your learning:

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Challenge 2: I failed a course.

I failed a course. You've failed your first big exam or maybe an entire course or two. Now what? First off, failure it not unique to you, it is common. It can often be one of the most powerful teachers we have. Recovery (and even using failure as a catalyst to learning), requires a shift in perspective. Instead of beating yourself up, ask "what can I learn from this?" In order to make good decisions about what to do next, you need to understand what happened. Here are some common scenarios that may lead to your first "bomb:"

Waiting too long to seek help

This is a common mistake for first year students who are often nervous about meeting with their profs outside of class. You may feel like you will be judged or that your questions are stupid. It may be helpful to know that your questions will likely not be new to your professors - they've likely heard it before from many students before you and can offer some immediate and specific advice to help you. Remember that your professors and TAs are here to help you learn and they want to see you succeed.

Not doing the work

Maybe you got by in high school when you skipped the readings or didn't work through problem sets outside of class. But in university, you are aiming for deep, conceptual understanding. This kind of learning takes practice over time and in many forms. After all, you are preparing to use what you've learned in a professional setting after you graduate - so you need to spend the time to learn it well. You may need to ask yourself why you are not making time for the work outside of class. The answer to this question will lead you to a strategy for improving your self discipline.

Not going to class

Every student makes decisions about when, why and whether or not to go to class. Missing too many classes can be de-motivating, especially of you are missing important lectures or learning activities that help you make sense of the course content. Again, you need to ask yourself (and answer honestly), why you are missing classes. Conflicting schedules, poor health or sleeping habits can be contributors and are fixable.

Ineffective study methods

Cramming, multi-tasking, re-reading (without self testing) are all methods that fool us into thinking we are learning and being productive with study time. Reflecting on your own study methods and a willingness to try new approaches is a good first step.

The following myths about learning are relevant to the challenge of failure.

5Qs for Self Directed Learners.png

Being a self-directed learner requires planning.

Answering the 5 questions from the graphic above can help to build a disciplined approach which will help you tackle your academic work.

Planning can also help you develop a workable schedule for studying. "Research shows spacing study episodes out with breaks in between study sessions or repetitions of the same material is more effective than massing such study episodes. Massing practice is akin to cramming all night before the test." (Clark and Bjork, 2014).

Planning reduces stress, helps you avoid cramming, and builds skills in metacognition. Planning is an important part of any career or occupation, so learning to plan well contributes to your overall competency. Even learning to plan takes practice, so start early!






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Bust the Myth

  • Target your studying: try to study key themes, and take what you know about the exam structure into account when you're planning. If you know you'll have an essay, write outlines! If you have to solve problems, go over homework or make up your own.
  • Review or practice throughout the term. Without regular review, you may have to re-learn a large portion of the course right before the final.

Reference:

  • Clark, C.M., Bjork, R.A. (2014) When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction, in Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php.

"Every success is built on the ash heap of failed attempts." This reminder from Prof. Michael Starbird (U of T at Austin) offers a good reason not to fear failure. Failure doesn't often feel good, but it may be your best teacher. In fact, in their book 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, professors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird, say that failure is, in fact, an important foundation on which to build success. But, as they point out seeing failure as an opportunity for learning requires a fresh mindset. "If you think I'm stuck and I'm giving up; I know I can't get it right, then get it wrong. Once you make the mistake, you can ask, why is THAT wrong? Now you're back on track, tackling the original challenge." Failure is an important aspect of much creative work - though it goes by a different name - iteration. Iteration is important in refining, working though problems, starting small and refining until more can be added. Iteration is a feature of work in design, science, technology and really any field where innovation is important.


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Bust the Myth

  • Use failure as an opportunity to re-think: Ask yourself, why did you get it wrong, what happened? What is an alternative approach? How might a new approach be more successful? Watch Prof. Michael Starbird's video about making mistakes as a strategy for learning: The Second Element of Effective Thinking: Making Mistakes.
  • Give yourself permission to fail . When working through problems or studying unfamiliar concepts - consider allowing yourself to fail 9 times before getting it right. This may free your mind to think creatively about solutions without the pressure to "get it right" and you may find that repeated failures while learning, may actually lead you to new insights about the problem that you can take into other contexts.

Reference:

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Strategies that work!

  • Diagnose your problem: Reflect on the behaviors that caused you to lose focus on your learning. You might even try making a two column list - on one side list the easy fixes - the things related to health, sleep, exercise that you can change by setting up some different habit and sticking to a plan. In the other column, list the things that you will need to change about the way you are studying, planning or seeking help - these things may take a little more effort and preparation to change.
  • Come up with a workable plan and set realistic goals for building better learning habits.
  • Focus on building a daily plan to with short focused chunks of studying and small rewards. Gradually increase your study time to meet your needs.
  • Seek help early in the semester during your profs office hours or from your TA.
  • Use our Assignment Calculator to help plan those big research papers and projects.
  • See the Links section for resources from College Info Geek - for some specific planning approaches to try.
  • Take steps to build effective study strategies.
  • Space study sessions. Start studying now and keep studying as you go along. Use your time-management skills and tools. Recall improves when studying is spread out over time. By spreading out your studying, you can avoid mental exhaustion and having to cram before exams. So, try practice testing after you have read material, and take study breaks to let yourself to relax, mentally and physically.
  • Test yourself on key concepts/practice problems. Testing encourages deep, elaborative processing. This is because every time you retrieve something from memory, you’re essentially re-learning it. The act of testing itself creates different pathways for retrieval, and the more paths to the knowledge you create, the likelier it is that you’ll find a way there when you need it. Recent research showed subjects who read a passage and were immediately tested on it retained about 50% of the passage a week later. A control group who simply re-read several times, or crammed for the test, retained basically nothing. (Karpicke and Blunt, 2011)

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Challenge 3: I can’t keep up.

Keeping up with all of the work expected of you at university can be challenging. Between classes and readings and assignments sometimes it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. You are not alone in this feeling. The workload increases dramatically from high school to university, and you no longer have your parents keeping on top of you to get things done. This means that it is important to plan well and to use your time effectively by avoiding procrastination as much as possible. But it’s also important to stay healthy and to leave time for having fun as well as studying. Some issues that might be impacting your feeling of being overwhelmed are:

Reading everything

Generally a syllabus is divided into required readings and recommended readings. It is next to impossible to read every single article or book mentioned by your professor, and trying to will lead to feelings of burnout and falling behind. You will need to find ways to deal with reading overload by determining which articles and texts are the most deserving of your attention.

Not going to class

Every student makes decisions about whether or not to go to class, after all most profs don't take attendance like teachers did in high school. But remember that missing too many classes can be de-motivating, especially if you are missing important lectures or learning activities that help you make sense of the course content. While classes generally are a big time commitment, not going will likely cause you to fall more behind and actually increase your stress. Just copying a friends notes won't truly help you engage with the content and classes are also an excellent time to ask questions if something is confusing.

Not writing things down

While you may have been able to get through high school without taking notes, most profs don't provide handouts that outline the important points of a given lecture. This means that you need to determine for yourself what information is important and write it down. This is especially true when details are given in class about assignments and tests, as many teachers will not continually remind you that an upcoming assignment is due. Staying organized is key to success in university!

Waiting too long to seek help

This is a common mistake for first year students who are often nervous about meeting with their profs outside of class. You may feel like you will be judged or that your questions are stupid. It may be helpful to know that your questions will likely not be new to your professors - they've probably heard it before from previous students and can therefore offer some immediate and specific advice to help you. Remember that your professors and TAs are there to help you learn and they want to see you succeed.

The following myths about learning are relevant to the challenge of keeping up with your work.

Sometimes, study methods that worked in high school - just don't serve you well in university. If your tried and true study strategies aren't working, use a different approach. Monitor your learning, by measuring your knowledge against what you expect. Before you start studying, guess how it'll go. Predict your homework and test results, and see if you're accurate or not. Notice when your expectations fall short of (or overshoot) reality, and adjust your approach accordingly. This is called metacognition, and it's an important part of effective learning.

There's also some evidence to suggest that mixing it up (in terms of where, when and how we study and learn) promotes recall (Carey, 2015)

Dialog-information on.svg

Bust the Myth

  • Reflect on your studying by asking yourself these three questions: what did you do? Was it effective? What can you change?
  • Test your perceptions. After an exam, make a prediction of how many questions/problems you answered correctly. When you get the test back, see how your score matched with your prediction. If you were way off, consider changing your study strategy to incorporate more self-testing, spaced study sessions and varied approaches to practice.
  • Use strategies like generating your own questions and creating concept maps. Need some guidance? Take a look at this video by Dr. Stephen Chew, on How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Putting Principles for Learning into Practice.
5Qs for Self Directed Learners.png

Being a self-directed learner requires planning.

Answering the 5 questions from the graphic above can help to build a disciplined approach which will help you tackle your academic work.

Planning can also help you develop a workable schedule for studying. "Research shows spacing study episodes out with breaks in between study sessions or repetitions of the same material is more effective than massing such study episodes. Massing practice is akin to cramming all night before the test." (Clark and Bjork, 2014).

Planning reduces stress, helps you avoid cramming, and builds skills in metacognition. Planning is an important part of any career or occupation, so learning to plan well contributes to your overall competency. Even learning to plan takes practice, so start early!






Dialog-information on.svg

Bust the Myth

  • Target your studying: try to study key themes, and take what you know about the exam structure into account when you're planning. If you know you'll have an essay, write outlines! If you have to solve problems, go over homework or make up your own.
  • Review or practice throughout the term. Without regular review, you may have to re-learn a large portion of the course right before the final.

Reference:

  • Clark, C.M., Bjork, R.A. (2014) When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction, in Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php.

Dialog-information on.svg

Strategies that work!

  • Don't bite off more than you can chew
  • Ensure that your course load aligns with the amount of time you have. While it is good to feel challenged, you don't want to go beyond your personal capabilities. This is especially true if you are working and going to school at the same time. There is no shame in taking classes in the summer, or taking an extra year or semester to complete your degree if necessary.
  • While socializing is a major part of going to university, be realistic about how much you can do in a given week. Joining clubs, playing sports, or going out for dinner with friends are great ways to blow off steam, but let these things augment your life, rather than ausing them to avoid school work.
  • Get Organized and use your time effectively
  • Write major due dates on a calendar so that you can visualize when you will be the busiest and plan accordingly.
  • Focus on building a daily plan with a clear list of realistic to-dos and short focused chunks of studying or working on assignments.
  • Prioritize readings and assignments based on their due date and level of importance.
  • Use our Assignment Calculator to help plan those big research papers and projects.
  • See the Links section for resources on fighting procrastination and alleviating burnout.
  • Take steps to build effective study strategies.
  • Space study sessions: to avoid mental exhaustion and feeling like you have to cram before exams. Use your time-management skills and tools. Recall improves when studying is spread out over time.
  • Take study breaks to let yourself to relax, mentally and physically. Poor nutrition and lack of sleep and exercise are directly related to your mental wellness and are integral to feeling ready to take on the stresses of university life.
  • Ask for help if you are feeling overwhelmed
  • Seek help early in the semester during your profs office hours or from your TA if you are feeling overwhelemed. You can also just visit them to say hello so that they know who you are in case you need to ask for an extension on an assignment in the future.
  • If things feel totally unmanageable, check out the services available to students through the Wellness Centre especially the information on stress and anxiety management. You are not alone and there are many people and services on campus that can help you.

Check out some of our student toolkits to support your learning:

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Challenge 4: I’m studying hard and it’s not working.

I'm studying hard and it's not working. Though putting lots of time into studying can make it feel like you are learning a lot, the fact is that studying must be effective rather than lengthy to be useful. Studying for hours every day will make you feel like you've accomplished something, but if the information you are learning cannot be quickly and easily put into practice, then you need to re-asses your study methods. Many of our ideas about studying actually negatively impact our learning, such as:

Learning is fast

When we are learning something new by re-reading and highlighting (rather than self testing and solving problems), our brains often fool us into thinking that we are learning. This is called a fluency or familiarity bias and it happens when we think that something familiar and clearly explained has actually been learned. In fact, the best way to test whether you know something is to try to teach it to someone else - this will help you clarify your gaps in understanding.

Memorizing the facts is what's important

At university, what's important is your understanding of concepts and ideas, when to apply them and how and in what circumstances they are useful. This sort of understanding is enhanced when you look for the connections between concepts and ask yourself questions about what you are reading so that you can extract meaning.

Talent is everything. If I'm not talented in a subject - I can't expect to do well.

Talent can help, but your attitude about learning is way more important. If you believe your learning abilities are fixed, you'll put up mental blocks that hinder your learning. For example, if you are used to getting straight A's you may tend to avoid risks that might take you out of your comfort zone and risk your perfect record. Conversely, if you believe you are not good at something (say math for example) you may lower your expectations,etc. Either way, those fixed beliefs will prevent you from opening up to new experiences that may have a profound impact on your learning. Students who have a 'growth mindset' about learning, and believe that they can really improve over time and with effort tend to take more chances, progress faster, and see risk and failure as part of the learning process (Dweck, 2006). See Myth #1 below for more information and resources.

It's fine to multi-task while studying

Though we all believe that we multi-task well, the truth is we don't. Every distraction we have when studying decreases the amount we are able to learn, and increases the time we must devote to studying. We are especially bad at multi-tasking when one task involves concentration and effort, meaning that studying is best done with extreme focus and minimal distractions.

I'm a good judge of my own learning.

Research tells us that we are not very good at assessing our own learning. We tend to overestimate or underestimate our own abilities. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, a well documented cognitive bias. According to Steven Novella (in his article about the Dunning-Kruger effect): "the most competent individuals tend to underestimate their relative ability a little, but for most people (the bottom 75%) they increasingly overestimate their ability, and everyone thinks they are above average."

The following myths about learning are relevant to the challenge of studying.

Sometimes, study methods that worked in high school - just don't serve you well in university. If your tried and true study strategies aren't working, use a different approach. Monitor your learning, by measuring your knowledge against what you expect. Before you start studying, guess how it'll go. Predict your homework and test results, and see if you're accurate or not. Notice when your expectations fall short of (or overshoot) reality, and adjust your approach accordingly. This is called metacognition, and it's an important part of effective learning.

There's also some evidence to suggest that mixing it up (in terms of where, when and how we study and learn) promotes recall (Carey, 2015)

Dialog-information on.svg

Bust the Myth

  • Reflect on your studying by asking yourself these three questions: what did you do? Was it effective? What can you change?
  • Test your perceptions. After an exam, make a prediction of how many questions/problems you answered correctly. When you get the test back, see how your score matched with your prediction. If you were way off, consider changing your study strategy to incorporate more self-testing, spaced study sessions and varied approaches to practice.
  • Use strategies like generating your own questions and creating concept maps. Need some guidance? Take a look at this video by Dr. Stephen Chew, on How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Putting Principles for Learning into Practice.
The Path to Learning.png

Often, we are fooled into thinking we understand something, because terms or concepts sound familiar. You might find yourself feeling like you really understand the material, when your brain is really just responding to the fact that it's seen this exact material before. To add to that, if it is presenting in a clear and pleasing manner, it might create an illusion of fluency. This is called a fluency bias or familiarity trap—when everything seems familiar, your brain doesn't have to work so hard, so it feels like you've mastered the material, even though you haven't. Try to mix things up as you're studying.

More and more, evidence suggests confusion is where deep learning lies. It might even be that some level of confusion activates parts of your brain which regulate learning and motivation, helping you achieve a greater level of understanding. If you're not confused, you might not be learning. See Learning Goes Through the Land of Confusion by Rhett Alan, a physics professor at Southern Louisiana University, for a brief explanation. Don't let yourself get discouraged if it feels like you aren't 'getting it': that's a good sign.

Other science educators have found support for the idea that confusion is important to learning. Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics education researcher, has done some interesting research on the topic—a summary of his findings can be found in this blog post. Another researcher and science educator, Derek Muller, has looked at the relationship between learning and video. Watch this video where he explains his findings and talks about the strengths and weaknesses of Khan Academy.

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Bust the Myth

  • Retrieve—don't regurgitate. Develop your own test questions, ask yourself questions, solve sample problems, and analyze for deeper meanings. Need some good questions to ask yourself? Try: why is this answer important? What does it relate to? How does this answer connect with what I already know? Can I elaborate this answer? Can I illustrate it with an example? You can find some more at the Teaching Professor Blog.
  • If you're confused, don't give up. Working hard to understand a problem or figure something out isn't a bad thing, and will likely lead to a deeper understanding of the material which will stay with you for a long time. This is especially important if your other courses build on that concept you are grappling with. If you need help developing new strategies, Dr. Stephen Chew's video, Cognitive Strategies for Optimizing Learning, might do the trick.

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Strategies that work!

Take steps to 'build effective study strategies

  • Create a quiet study area free from temptation (stay away from your bed, the TV and the fridge). Study in the same place every time to create a routine, as this will force your brain to go into study mode automatically. This is especially helpful if you face a wall where you won't be distracted by outside sources.
  • Space study sessions. Use our time-management skills and tools to guide your studying. Recall improves when studying is spread out over time. By spreading out your studying, you can avoid mental exhaustion and having to cram before exams. So, try self-testing after you have read material, and take study breaks to let yourself relax, mentally and physically.
  • Test yourself on key concepts/practice problems. Testing encourages deep, elaborative processing. This is because every time you retrieve something from memory, you’re essentially re-learning it. The act of testing itself creates different pathways for retrieval, and the more paths to the knowledge you create, the likelier it is that you’ll find a way there when you need it. Recent research showed subjects who read a passage and were immediately tested on it retained about 50% of the passage a week later. A control group who simply re-read several times, or crammed for the test, retained basically nothing. (Karpicke and Blunt, 2011)
  • Put away your phone. We know it's hard, but every time you check your phone or go online, you are impacting the effectiveness of your studying. By taking frequent breaks, and studying in shorter 20 or 30 minute chunks, you can reward yourself with a check of your messages, or a quick trip onto social media when your mini study session is complete. This will minimize your distractions will still keeping you connected.
  • Get enough sleep. Being tired will greatly impact your ability to retain information, so get as much as you can.

Aim for understanding (vs. surface knowledge)

  • Try teaching or explaining to others what you are learning (in your own words). Respond to their questions. Then have them tell you what they learned and compare this to your notes or the text. You really begin to understand something when you can teach others.
  • Make connections between course concepts, different courses, and real-world situations. If you’re having trouble understanding something, ask yourself how these concepts apply to your life. Mind maps and concept maps can help you visualize the connections and lead to meaningful learning, as they force you to re-organize and make sense of the information as part of a bigger picture (rather than isolated concepts and facts). Redo your notes as a diagram or as a concept map.
  • Ask good questions (of yourself and others). Check your thinking by asking questions about what you’re learning. What’s being said? Who is saying it? Why are they saying it? Who else says this? What do I believe? Why do I believe it? What’s missing? Where is the error in this and how can I fix it? Why does another solution work better? Asking good questions helps us solve problems, make thoughtful decisions and think creatively. Adopting this practice can lead to insights that can open up doors in your thinking and improve your learning significantly. More on 5 Habits that will improve how you ask questions!

Check out some of our student toolkits to support your learning:

What did you learn from Challenge 4: I’m studying hard and it’s not working? Please select a response.

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argh! exclamation of frustration.

Challenge 5: I forget the important stuff.

I forget the important stuff. While attending classes, taking notes and doing your assigned readings are important parts of learning at university, simply doing what is asked of you by your professor will not necessarily result in your retention of new information or a deep understanding of key concepts. While you may be putting in lots of study time, and feel as though you are studying hard, how, what and where you are studying may be impacting your memory. To improve your retention of information you need to rethink some of these thoughts and practices:

Memorizing the facts is what's important in learning.

At university, what's important is your understanding of concepts and ideas, when to apply them and how and in what circumstances they are useful. This sort of understanding is enhanced when you look for the connections between concepts and ask yourself questions about what you are reading so that you can extract meaning. Simply re-reading your notes or textbooks will not lead to remembering important information, your learning must take place at a deeper level than that. Most teachers will not test for the memorization of isolated facts, they will ask you to demonstrate your comprehension of a concept by applying it. Being able to interpret a concept and think about it deeply is key to retaining new information.

If I put in the effort, I will learn

Intention to learn does not actually help your memory, nor does simply playing close attention to the material you are studying. All learners have various levels of processing that go from shallow to deep. In order to remember information, you must use your deep level processing, this means using study activities that involve interpreting information and relating it to your prior knowledge or experience.

Using ineffective study methods

Cramming, multi-tasking, re-reading (without self testing) are all methods that fool us into thinking we are learning and being productive with study time. Reflecting on your own study methods and a willingness to try new approaches is a good step to improving your understanding of new concepts. Just putting in the time, does not mean that you are actually learning, you must spend time interpreting and applying new concepts to make your study time useful. It is also important to continue studying even after you can simply recall a new concept. You must be able to recall it quickly and easily to have truly mastered it.

Learning should be easy and fast (if I'm doing it well)

In fact, when we are learning something new by re-reading and highlighting (rather than self testing and solving problems), our brains often fool us into thinking that we are learning. This is called a fluency or familiarity bias and it happens when we think that something familiar and clearly explained has actually been learned. In fact, the best way to test whether you know something is to try to teach it to someone else - this will help you clarify your gaps in understanding.

So how can you overcome some of these biases and problems and study better? Have a look at the strategies section for some good ideas.

The following myths about learning are relevant to the challenge of memorizing.

Sometimes, study methods that worked in high school - just don't serve you well in university. If your tried and true study strategies aren't working, use a different approach. Monitor your learning, by measuring your knowledge against what you expect. Before you start studying, guess how it'll go. Predict your homework and test results, and see if you're accurate or not. Notice when your expectations fall short of (or overshoot) reality, and adjust your approach accordingly. This is called metacognition, and it's an important part of effective learning.

There's also some evidence to suggest that mixing it up (in terms of where, when and how we study and learn) promotes recall (Carey, 2015)

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Bust the Myth

  • Reflect on your studying by asking yourself these three questions: what did you do? Was it effective? What can you change?
  • Test your perceptions. After an exam, make a prediction of how many questions/problems you answered correctly. When you get the test back, see how your score matched with your prediction. If you were way off, consider changing your study strategy to incorporate more self-testing, spaced study sessions and varied approaches to practice.
  • Use strategies like generating your own questions and creating concept maps. Need some guidance? Take a look at this video by Dr. Stephen Chew, on How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Putting Principles for Learning into Practice.

If you stay up all night cramming for a test, you'll probably pass. If you've got a test tomorrow and you haven't cracked a book, you don't have a choice. But have you really learned anything while you were cramming? Cramming doesn't give the brain time to process information and make critical connections necessary to retrieve it from memory later. If you have classes that build on previous courses, you'll wish you'd spaced out your studying. That's your note to self for next time.

Learning goes beyond your test scores: critical thinking analysis, applying principles to solve problems, the ability to assess your effectiveness, revise, and apply what you know are skills that you'll need through the rest of your life. If you have a test the next morning, you might have to pull that all-nighter, but you'll do better on the test and remember the material for longer if you spread your learning out, and use some of the strategies laid out here.

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Bust the Myth

  • Apply learned material. Try to think about situations where you might use what you're learning: come up with your own examples of a concept, or try to teach it to someone else. All these activities require you to retrieve what you know, and every time you retrieve it, you're relearning it.
  • Think ahead about the classes you'll be taking, and what you'll be expected to know when you take them. Get some advice from a second year professor, TA or academic adviser. Take note of concepts you'll need to know well for the future, and focus your time on those items.
  • Learn from failure. If you fail an exam, take steps to analyze what went wrong and change your strategies for next time. Take a deep breath, and do your best to learn from the experience. For some guidance on what to do, review Dr. Stephen Chew's video: I Blew The Exam-Now What?

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Strategies that work!

Understand the difference between facts and concepts

  • Facts are things that just need to be memorized and there's no way around it, they include things like formulas and dates that will need to be recalled on a test. A way to help you memorize these are mnemonic devices which associate facts with acronyms or rhymes such as ROY G BIV for the colours of the rainbow.
  • Concepts are bigger ideas that you need to grasp deeply. A way to determine whether or not you truly understand something is if you can put it into your own words, either orally or in writing. Recall makes your reading active and will improve your retention of new information.

Aim for understanding (vs. surface knowledge)

  • Know the difference between recognition and recollection. Information can seem familiar when we are reviewing even if we don't yet have it committed to memory.
  • Try teaching or explaining to others what you are learning (in your own words). Respond to their questions. Then have them tell you what they learned and compare this to your notes or the text. You really begin to understand something when you can teach others.
  • Make connections between course concepts, different courses, and real-world situations. If you’re having trouble understanding something, ask yourself how these concepts apply to your life. Mind maps and concept maps can help you visualize the connections and lead to meaningful learning, as they force you to re-organize and make sense of the information as part of a bigger picture (rather than isolated concepts and facts). Redo your notes as a diagram or as a concept map.
  • Ask good questions (of yourself and others). Check your thinking by asking questions about what you’re learning. What’s being said? Who is saying it? Why are they saying it? Who else says this? What do I believe? Why do I believe it? What’s missing? Where is the error in this and how can I fix it? Why does another solution work better? Asking good questions helps us solve problems, make thoughtful decisions and think creatively. Adopting this practice can lead to insights that can open up doors in your thinking and improve your learning significantly. More on 5 Habits that will improve how you ask questions!

Create good study habits

  • Check out our toolkits to help you develop good note taking and textbook reading strategies.
  • Most university students can concentrate on studying for about 25-30 minutes, so make sure to keep your study sessions short and sweet and break them up with a 5 minute break period where you do something fun. Studying for a long time doesn't really mean you are studying hard or well.
  • Create a quiet study area free from temptation (stay away from your bed, the TV and the fridge). Study in the same place every time to create a routine, as this will force your brain to go into study mode automatically. This is especially helpful if you face a wall where you won't be distracted by outside sources.
  • Get enough sleep, as being tired will greatly impact your ability to retain information.

Check out some of our student toolkits to support your learning:

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