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How to study effectively

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Entering into higher or further education can be a nerve-wracking undertaking. Everything’s new, and the stakes are running high, with the decisions you make today offering the reward of a happy and successful career tomorrow.
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Everyone’s familiar with procrastination, stress and the grind, but what if we told you success at South West TAFE could be as simple as writing a timetable? This article will help cover the strategies and techniques you can use to study smarter, not harder.

Learning how to learn

One of the most critical skills to succeed as a student is effective learning, both in and outside the classroom. Effective learning is even more crucial in the workforce, with problem-solving and self-motivation attractive to potential employers. Ineffective studying techniques can lead to poor time management, stress and a feeling of hopelessness. Still, usually, you’re just spinning your wheels! You may find yourself studying for hours on end but retaining nothing, or maybe that book you’re reading is just telling you the same old stuff! These feelings and experiences mean that your learning techniques are probably ineffective. The good news is that you’ve already taken the first step towards improving your learning techniques, with learning about learning requiring self-reflection and the ability to self-evaluate.

Self-evaluation and self-reflection in this context is the ability to take time to look at what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and how you might do it better.

Once you’ve identified the problem, it’s time to explore how to learn effectively. A great starting point is considering your learning style. There are four basic learning styles, but it’s important to remember that everybody is different and that your preferences may fall within various types and techniques. Not only may your learning preferences fall into multiple categories, but as time goes on, you may begin to feel complacent or bored with your learning. This feeling doesn’t mean it didn’t work, just that it’s time to go back to the drawing board! The four learning styles are visual, auditory, read/writing and kinesthetic.

  • Visual learning: This learning style is most suited to people who prefer visual aids such as expressions, pictures and videos. These learners can benefit from study techniques employing the creation or use of charts, graphs and diagrams. These learners struggle without visual aid and may have difficulty learning from text or speech-based mediums.
  • Auditory learning: This learning style is most suited to people who prefer learning from listening. If you find yourself prone to audiobooks, this might be you. Other preferences may include listening to or participating in discussions as well as reading out study materials. Auditory learners may prefer study spaces where sound isn’t considered rude or disruptive, so unless you’ve got headphones, you might want to steer clear of the library.
  • Read & write: This learning style is most suited to students who prefer reading and writing to retain information. This style means you might want to look at your notetaking techniques and consider ways to refine them. The main disadvantage of this learning style is the inability to follow along without written source material or writing implements.
  • Kinesthetic learning: This learning style is also known as an interactive learning style and is most preferred by students who like to get in and participate. Kinesthetic learning is a great learning style for workplace and TAFE environments due to the practical hands-on elements. However, in a classroom setting, these types of learners may struggle. Techniques you might want to consider including in your study routine may be flashcards or explaining study focuses to a study buddy.

By identifying your learning style, you can start to think about your experience with studying and where it might be going right or wrong. Consider asking yourself questions such as:

  • What environment do I learn best in?
  • When do I find myself most focused?
  • Why do I study best in this way?
  • What do I struggle with when studying?
  • What do I enjoy when studying?

If you don’t know the answers, that’s okay. The first step to finding answers is to have questions. Learning isn’t something you ever finish doing, even when you’ve got your qualification, so it’s essential to get into the habit of self-reflecting and working on improving yourself and your approach to learning. From here, it’s time to begin planning when you’re going to study, and more importantly, what!

Time management skills

Whether running out of time on an assignment or watching the clock tick down in an exam, we’ve all been there, and we all don’t want to be there again. For most of us, the hours just don’t add up. You may be prioritising the wrong things. When you’re putting together a study schedule, you need to weigh up the percentage and importance of what you’re studying. Not only that, but you also need to remember that perfection is the enemy of progress! Passing a class is about getting all of the work done, not perfecting the first assignment. When that assignment is only worth five per cent of your final grade, was it worth the time spent?

By considering the weighting and importance of individual tasks and assignments, you can start to think about how much time you need to allocate. Practising better time management techniques will help to reduce stress and lack of preparation. Time management can help you space out your studies and gain back a regular sleep routine. Spaced out study or “distributed practice” is essential for information retention, and sleeping is vital for processing and creating connections. By spacing out your learning, you’re challenging yourself to remember what you studied last time and revise what you haven’t retained. Having a regularly planned timetable with shorter bursts of study also helps you develop habits, reducing the likeliness of procrastination or an unwillingness to tackle larger, less valuable chunks of study.

When beginning a new unit, you should take some time to look at the unit outline and what types of assessments or weekly requirements you’ll be required to complete. That way, you can begin to plan out your weekly study requirements, a general rule of thumb is for every hour of contact hours or class time, you should schedule two hours of study. This number can be altered depending on the weighting or difficulty of your class. Once you have a weekly study goal, breaking tasks down into smaller chunks or blocks can help you set realistic goals. A plan for each study session will help you skip the wasted time wondering what you should do and instead jump straight into work.

Additionally, having a goal or specific focus can help you decide how much time should be spent. For example, if an assignment is only worth 10 per cent of your overall grade, you can aim to spend only 10 per cent of your overall time on that assignment. You can continue to adjust and revise your schedule through weekly revisions and planning, e.g. each Sunday, you could allocate 15 to 30 minutes where you go over what you’ll be studying the following week. Alternatively, you could make a plan at the end of each day; ultimately, the fun part about further study is that you’re in control of your learning.

Timetable tips

  • When planning your time, you need to avoid slacking off on weeks where nothing is due; this is valuable for keeping caught up and maintaining good study habits.
  • Plan to study earlier, not later; starting on a topic late into the evening could cut into precious sleeping time.
  • Break up the work; cramming will only lead to stress and gaps in knowledge. The best learning is paced learning.

Study techniques

Once you have a timetable in place, it’s time to consider some different types of study methods to help you along the way. There are various study strategies you can explore and try to improve your learning, including

  • Interleaving: Interleaving is the practice of mixing or switching between topics to train your brain to differentiate between problems and information.
  • Group study/study buddy: Working alongside any number of fellow students to discuss and share knowledge and information, giving you different perspectives and solidifying knowledge. This study technique is suggested for later study instead of the beginning, revising through discussion of information you’ve covered on your own.
  • Create connections: It’s easier to retain information that you feel is relevant or applicable to your life. Personalising what you learn through self-reference is the practice of relating or applying your studies to your own experiences. This technique creates more robust connections and a better practical understanding of the concepts you’re studying.
  • Recall: Putting down your book or your notes and taking yourself away from your studies to test your memory helps you strengthen your understanding of the topic.
  • Memory palace: If you have difficulty remembering information, a quick and powerful tool is the memory palace. Say you have something simple like a list of animals and fruit: monkey, apple, snake, banana, cat, orange. A memory palace uses attachments between the list items and places you are familiar with, e.g. “I woke up in bed to find a monkey in my closet, on my way to the kitchen, I tripped over an apple only to find a snake on the floor. I quickly grabbed a banana and my cat and ran down the hallway to the orange front door!”. This technique can be a lot of fun, and with a bit of experimentation, you can combine or play with different words.
  • Spacing: We can not stress this one enough; spacing out your study has proven results. A 2009 experiment has shown that college students who saw flashcards of words in spaced-out sessions compared to a single day retained more information. Do not rely on cramming. Additionally, spacing out your study allows you to get over the “curve of forgetting”, a concept developed in 1885. The curve of forgetting refers to the statistics on retention, where students who have recently been to a lecture or class retain up to 80 per cent of the information learnt. By participating in quick bouts of revision and study, you can continue to solidify this information and increase your retention by up to 100 per cent.
  • Self-testing: Testing yourself can be a great way to explore your knowledge and figure out what you need to revise. Remember to make yourself some flashcards each time you learn something new. Once you have a few cards, you can mix different topics and categories into one big flashcard test. You may also consider doing practice tests to prepare yourself for the real thing.
  • Paraphrase: Whatever you read or study, you should paraphrase into your own words, simplifying it down. Hence, you feel confident in your ability to explain the concept.
  • Music: Music can be a significant aid for some students, actively engaging parts of your brain and generally providing an uplifting experience when studying.
  • Environment: Consider your study space and the ease of access you have to your study materials. A clear workspace provides a clear mind. Changing your work location or area can also assist in improving your study results, so consider changing the room you study in now and then. Remember to avoid distractions and aim for a quiet and clean study environment.

Pomodoro technique

A popular and easy study technique you might consider is the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo and refers to the Italian pomodoro, meaning tomato. Francesco would use a tomato timer to measure a 25-minute session of study, hence the name Pomodoro Technique.

Due to the use of the pomodoro timer, 25-minute intervals became known as pomodoros.

The Pomodoro Technique requires just three things: a timer (of any kind), a list of tasks and a willingness to try. First, you choose your jobs and assign them pomodoros, determining how many 25-minute sessions they will require to complete. Then you simply set the timer and focus. Once your 25 minutes are up, you take a five-minute break and then it’s back to work.

While this technique can sound a little intense, jumping between tasks like this puts into practice both interleaving and spacing, helping you avoid perfectionism and push for completion. Once you’ve completed four pomodoros, you can reward yourself with a more extended break of up to 30 minutes. These times are flexible, so remember to take a look at your progress and adjust accordingly. Ultimately, this study technique is a fantastic way to combat procrastination. Its popularity offers heaps of options in terms of companion Pomodoro apps on your phone.

Study snacks

Any good study schedule requires good study snacks, so consider cracking out some healthy treats now and then as a fun reward. Consider foods like almonds, dried fruit, dark chocolate and fruit salad to keep your brain steadily chugging on. If you can’t avoid caffeine, remember to get plenty of water and avoid drinking coffee too close to bed.

Other ways you can reward yourself and break up the monotony of studying include:

  • Exercise: Get moving to add on some much-needed adrenaline and endorphins.
  • Stretch: Sitting down all day is terrible for your back and bad for your mind; take some time to stretch and practise mindfulness, cutting down on the stress.
  • Nap: If the midday yawns have you finding it hard to focus, take a quick 20-minute nap to revitalise your mind and refill your energy.
  • Step away from the screen: Your parents weren’t wrong on this one. Use your breaks to spend time away from your screen, get outside, read a book or cook something yummy.
  • Don’t get greedy: Taking long study breaks isn’t just bad for time management; it’s terrible for motivation. Try to come back after 30 minutes max. The longer you spend away from study, the harder it will be to get back on track.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself, you are only human, and it’s okay to take time and ask for help. Consider seeking assistance from South West TAFE’s student services and support, with free support sessions on offer for assistance in all aspects of studying.

Studying online

With current flexible work and study arrangements, many students and educational institutions have found themselves adapting to an online working environment. Now more than ever, the ability to self-motivate and learn independently is essential for everyone. Many courses at South West TAFE include combination delivery, employing online and in-person methods to deliver your learning materials.

When studying online, it’s vital to employ the discussed skills and approach your course with the same determination as a face-to-face lesson. It’s easy to fall into complacency when studying online, as flexible arrangements can provide you with many new freedoms. Set aside time each week to study and participate in class activities, hold yourself accountable for your learning, and show respect for the course materials. Remember to maintain a dedicated learning environment and do your study in a place tailored to your education. Whilst it can be tempting to study from the comfort of your bed, this can cause poor mental associations and reduce the quality of your learning.

With the tools and support offered in further learning, remember to communicate and contribute to your class discussions. Active participation is a strong tool for memorisation and understanding.

Ultimately, by pushing your study to the next level, you can eventually transition into the workforce with well-established habits, self-motivation and flexible thinking techniques. Remember to keep learning about your learning, with regular self-reflection and adjustment to your timetable. If something isn’t working, change it, and know that you will always have the support of your student services and teachers to refine your study techniques. Don’t study hard; study smart!

Study support at SWTAFE

South West TAFE is here to help you through your studies and offers assistance to students, who have gaps in their prior learning, with foundation skills to complete your coursework and succeed in the workplace.

The Learning Support Unit (LSU) programs focus on vocational reading, writing, numeracy (maths) and communication (speaking, presenting and listening) skills. The LSU support service is flexible and provides help in classrooms alongside vocational teachers, one-on-one and in small group tutorials both online via Webex, Zoom or face-to-face in one of our campus libraries.
To access this service, you will be referred by your teacher based on your LLN or PTR results. Teacher referrals are common, and they may request support for an individual, small group or entire class. The LSU team's job is to help you fill in these gaps to ensure a long and happy study and employment journey.

Once we have your permission, the LSU support facilitator usually makes contact within your first four weeks of study and maintains contact throughout the duration of your course.
You can also self-refer to the service if you identify that you have gaps in your foundational skills that are preventing you from really understanding what's being asked in your units of study and associated assessment tasks.