The Evolution of Studying: The Co-President's Journey from First to Third Year
April 16, 2020
I have always been obsessed with getting good grades because everyone says you need them in order to be successful. I have come to believe that just like in life, good grades aren’t about the end result but rather the journey taken to get there. In the case of school, the journey is the many hours spent studying. University teaches you more than just important information to be successful in your career. It teaches you how to be a successful lifelong learner, how to work with others and many more valuable skills.
Going off to university is often a big transition—from meeting new friends, to living on your own and of course, studying all the time. I would like to walk you through my journey of how my studying method and techniques have changed over the years, as well as some scientific evidence behind effective studying. I hope when you read this you may be able to implement some tips that I’ve found helpful.
To begin, it is important to identify your learning style. The VARK model, developed by Niel Fleming, describes 4 different styles of learning: visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic. Visual learners tend to learn best when they see the information presented visually rather than written, such as in diagrams and flow charts. Auditory learners prefer hearing the information presented to them through lectures and conversation. Reading/writing learners favour written text and learn best from reading textbooks or writing out class notes. Finally, there are the kinesthetic learners. These individuals need to practice what they are being taught through labs and simulations.
Personally, I am a visual and kinesthetic learner. Therefore, my studying habits reflect visual and kinesthetic learning methods. Keep in mind though, that by no means are my habits the perfect way to study. Everyone has their own methods that work well for them. Here are mine.
In my first year of university, I was the kid who studied all the time. I would stay in the library until 2am, I studied while I ate, and I never did anything else. I did not have much of a social life nor did I focus on my physical well-being. I would sit there and type out all my notes, every little detail, because I knew that I’d be able to race through my notes when I studied and therefore I could get through a large quantity of information very quickly. Once that was done, I would read my notes over and over again until they stuck in my brain.
I also thought that these notes needed to be aesthetically pleasing to make studying more fun. My thought was also that when I look back on them in the future, all the information would be nicely organized and pretty. Fast forward a couple years and I have not looked back at my notes from first year.
Today, the whole idea is to keep information in my head so I don’t have to keep looking back at my notes. The analogy I would use to sum up my first year is, if you throw enough mud at the wall some of it will stick… some of the information I’ve studied has stuck, but I had to spend way too much time studying for such little yield.
After first year, my marks were alright but I knew I could not keep studying the same way. So at the beginning of second year, I wanted to take a new approach and experiment with the whole studying process. I took the approach of hand-writing all my notes and making sure that I only wrote the important points. However, close to finals I realized that I was running into the same problem that I had before—it just wasn’t sticking. I could remember the information for a short period of time but in the long run, it was mostly forgotten. So, during my second semester of second year I decided yet again, to try another strategy.
Instead of sitting there hand-writing notes, highlighting and re-reading, I would try to teach the content as if I were the professor giving the lecture. After going through my notes and writing the most important information out, I would go to my room, close my books and just begin talking out loud about a certain topic that I just learned. Did I look crazy? Yes, but was it working? I’d say it was. I could retain information for much longer than I could before. I continued to use this process throughout the remainder of my second year and I was pleased with my results.
At the beginning of third year, I reflected on my previous year. I was pleased with my results but I wondered if there was a way to be able to retain all this information for longer periods of time and have enough free time to live a more balanced life. After doing some research, I came across two principles that I have now implemented. The first technique is active recall1 or in other words, testing yourself. Many people may grumble at this idea at first, but hear me out. By testing ourselves, it forces us to retrieve the information we’ve learned and forces our brains to work on retrieval methods. The information is already all in our brains—it is just a matter of getting it out. In contrast, passive learning involves highlighting and copying out notes; it doesn’t force our brains to be active. That’s why everyone does it. It's easy, but not as effective.
The second method that I’ve implemented is spaced repetition2. All this means is that you have progressively longer periods of time before the next review session. Each of us forgets new information; it's only natural. Have you ever heard the saying, “use it or lose it”? Well, it’s the same idea here. In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus described something called the ‘forgetting curve’. The forgetting curve demonstrates that we all forget a certain amount of new information after we learn it. However, lucky for us, we can interrupt the forgetting curve by spacing out our revision of the material. Eventually, it takes us a longer time to forget the material and that is when we retain it!!!
Now, these are simple enough ideas but how did I find about them and how did I go about implementing them? Well that is where my mentor, Ali Abdaal, comes into this equation. Ali is a Youtuber and doctor in the UK who has been preaching about these scientifically proven methods of studying. Personally, I have utilized his strategies and have found them to be extremely helpful. To test myself, I use an app called Notion because it has an awesome feature for hiding information under certain headers.
This is how it works. I pull up what we’ve learned in lecture and then repeat that idea but in question form. For example, if we were learning about edema, I would write, “What are the 5 ways someone can get edema?” and I’d force myself to actively recall that information before looking at the answer, which was hidden under the header.
Now some of you may argue that this is basically what you are doing but with flash cards. I’d agree that the main idea is the same, but really ask yourself: Are you are actually understanding the information and recalling it, or have you just memorized the answer and the only way you were able to answer that question was through association of your prompt question? For myself, Notion allows me to see the flow of information and organize it in a hierarchy. This helps me to understand where each piece fits into the bigger picture. Additionally, I implement spaced repetition by reviewing the questions I made up the next day, do a quick revision on the weekend, and a third revision one week from learning the content. By the time I have a test for that particular class, I have already done most of my studying.
By implementing these strategies in my third year, I gained much more time to broaden my horizons while maintaining my marks. Looking to the future, I hope to keep experimenting with different techniques to help create even more efficiency during this process.
If you are looking to learn more about these methods you can check out Ali Abdaal’s Youtube channel and read the book, Make it stick - The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown. I hope you’ve been able to learn something from reading this, and I wish you the best in your studies!
FVC Co-President 2019-2020
 Evidence for active recall: Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J. and Willingham, D.T. 2013. Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 14(1): 4–58.
 Evidence for spaced repetition: Karpicke, J.D. and Bauernschmidt, A. 2011. Spaced retrieval: absolute spacing enhances learning regardless of relative spacing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 37(5): 1250–1257.