Are you—or is someone close to you—going off to college soon? It’s a big step that requires careful planning because it’s a whole different world than high school.
I want to tell you about a study method that took this 2.85 first-year college GPA to a 3.97 Valedictorian GPA at graduate school. Seriously! (And I don’t say that to brag, only to say that if it’s possible for me, it’s possible for anyone.) As I progressed through my academic career, here’s what I learned: How you prepare is just as important as your innate intelligence. (I have no other explanation for my academic transformation.)
This study method primarily involves test taking and preparation and is more applicable to courses that are more exam-oriented than papers-oriented. It’s designed to help you become supremely confident as you enter and take exams. Here are the elements of my approach:
1. Know your audience. In college, your audience is the professor who will be grading you. Many college students fear their professors and hesitate to seek help when needed. Don’t be that way. They’ll appreciate your visit.
A key topic to know is the relative importance of lecture content versus assigned readings. Professors vary widely in this area. Many focus their exams on lecture content (almost to the point where you wonder why you did your readings!) while others focus on the book (making you wonder why you bothered attending class!). It also pays to talk with other students who previously had that professor, to get their input. There’s no substitute for having the “inside scoop.”
2. Take detailed notes. I experienced a rude awakening while taking my first Cultural Anthropology exam. I bombed it because I never expected the professor to test in such detail. Unfortunately, until you take your first exam from each professor, you really don’t know how detailed the test questions will be. I learned my lesson the hard way and radically changed my note taking to become excruciatingly detailed. I ran through more notebook paper that way, but rarely missed a question on account of detail!
3. Highlight while you read. One of the secret ingredients of my study method is the generous use of highlighters, so much so that I call my approach the “rainbow highlighter method.” As you read your textbook, start with a yellow highlighter and highlight everything you feel is important that you would probably not remember after just one reading. Don’t bother highlighting a sentence or point if you’re confident that you understand it and can recall it on an exam. After your first pass, you might have as much as half a page highlighted, but that’s okay.
4. Complete all assigned reading four days before the test date. This will enable you to spend the ensuing time reviewing your material and preparing for the test. No last minute cramming allowed!
5. Develop your study schedule. This involves estimating how many study hours it will take to achieve an excellent result. Determining the amount of hours is an inexact science, but the bottom line is you’re better off overestimating than underestimating.
Once you’ve estimated your required study time, assign review hours into your daily schedule. Generally speaking, for midterms and finals, you should plan on studying over a four-day period for each exam. In building my schedule, I would work backwards from the exam date. My objective was always to complete my review by the night before the exam. For example, if my test was on Friday, I would start my review on Monday. That would give me the four days of review I required. Then, it was simply a matter of assigning my study hours to those days, taking into account my class schedule, activities, and the like.
6. Review your study material (textbook and notebook) using the “rainbow highlighter method.” Here’s how it works: Let’s assume your exam covers five chapters of material. Start your review with the first chapter, rereading the yellow highlighted portion from your initial reading. Because this will be your second reading of that material, your ability to understand and recall it will be twice as good (remember, it’s all about reps!). However, there still may be detail or concepts you might not feel totally confident in “regurgitating” if you took the exam tomorrow. In other words, you’d feel more confident with at least one more look. Simply take a different color highlighter (e.g., lime green) and highlight those sentences you would like to review again tomorrow.
Repeat this process again the next day using yet a different color (e.g., orange), but only reread the yellow-green section. You’re now reading this information for the fourth time, highlighting in orange any sentences you want to read again tomorrow. This will be yet a further reduction in the amount you need to reread.
You can see how your confidence grows and grows as the amount of material you highlight shrinks and shrinks. At the end of your review period, you’ve used several different highlighted colors and seen the most difficult material four to five times. This degree of repetition has a powerful impact on your ability to recall the material—not to mention your confidence as you enter the exam! Confidence is king!
How would you describe your study method? Does it prevent cramming and allow for greater focus on material you don’t understand as well? Are you able to efficiently prepare for multiple exams in a short period of time?