Thursday, April 23, 2009

How I Studied (or at least tried to make it pain-free)

I recently took two 3-hour long essay-based exams, part of the part time Masters programme I'm currently doing at NTU.

I'm still in my first semester (out of 5) but I've gained some "wisdom" that I thought may be worth sharing with you, especially if you are one of those not "coping" so well at this moment with your studies, or have always wondered if you were studying "right".

Doing a part time Masters programme is actually rather painful... Although the lessons are only twice a week, they are three hours long (with a 5 mins break in-between), in the evenings from 6.30 to 9.30pm after a long day of work, and there are tonnes of readings to be done, everything from 30 to 60 pages of journal articles per week.

At the same time, there are long written assignments (2500 words) to be completed, with bibliography and all; class discussions which we have to participate in as they are graded, as well as individual 1 hour long presentations to be done, in which we also have to come up with discussion questions to lead the class.

And at the end of the semester, after 13 weeks of lessons, we have an exam to take for which we have barely 1 week or so to study, on top of still going to work. And for these exams, we will have to study pretty much alone, cos we don't actually have "consultations" where we get more advice on our materials from our lecturers.

So how do I cope?

The answer is: Consistent class and homework; as well as studying hard and very smart for the exams.

Before lessons: I try to complete the required readings, no matter how long they are (30, 60, 90 pages). That usually means I'll have to give up some of my activities in the weekends. On some Sundays, I'll be reading after lunch all the way to evening/dinner time. I don't try to deceive myself by saying "I'll do it later". I won't. And besides, I'll have other readings that I'll need to do. Then I'll be playing "catch-up" all the time. And anyway, reading ahead helps me to understand the lessons better and I may even be able to ask better questions and take part in discussions. I'm not being "kiasu". I'm just "minimising" the pain I'll feel later...

Readings: There is a trick to understanding what a long journal article is really saying - either read the abstract that is given, or go straight to the "Conclusion". Usually, the summary is given, the key points reiterated, which makes the article that much easier to understand when you read the whole thing later. And if a short review of the journal article is given online, better still. Read it to get a quick idea of what the article is about. And to speed read, do not "subvocalise", or what they call "silent speech", which is defined in Wikipedia as the "internal speech a person makes when reading a word, or imagining the sound of the word as it is read". This is WHY many people read quite slowly, cos they read word by word, as if they are vocalising each word in their mind. It is a habit that is not easy to break, especially if you have been doing it all your life. But if you can train only your eyes to move, you can read a lot more quickly. Trust me. Oh, and if you know you need to review the material again later, just before your exams, then when you are reading it now, highlight the key points and write annotations. It will help you save A LOT OF TIME later when you revise.

During lesson time: I try to pay 100% attention to the lecturer; and take down in the margins whatever points he/she says that I think may be helpful in my understanding or revising of the material later on for my exams. Since I won't have a chance to ask questions later, or may forget what I need to ask, I try to raise the question in class instead of staying ignorant. Anyway, when you are ready to ask questions, you tend to stay awake better too.

Assignments/Presentations/Class Discussions: I try to "ace" them as well as I can. I do the research that needs to be done. I try to know the topic very very well. I study the question carefully and try to answer it. REALLY ANSWER IT. By doing well in my assignments, I find that I would have also covered the topic pretty well and when it comes to revision later on, I can practically "skip" the topic cos I'm already so familiar with it. TIME IS EXTRA PRECIOUS during revision time so the less studying I need to do, the better. And if the assignment is graded, I'll have already scored part of the marks and I need to worry about my final exam a lot less.

Exam Preparation: When I'm a student preparing for the exams, I study. Plain and simple. I put in the hours that I need to put in (as much as it is necessary to cover ALL the materials) and put aside all unnecessary distractions, including the phone, the Internet or TV. I try to get enough sleep just to keep healthy and eat properly (avoiding starchy food that makes me sleepy) and drink enough water to ensure I don't dehydrate. And how do I make sure I"m studying smart? To make sure that what I am studying is "meaningful", I create questions that I have to answer. These questions can be "lower level questions", such as recall type to help me remember stuff, or "higher level questions", such as discussion of both sides of an issue. Creating questions also helps me to see the broad issues surrounding a topic, which in a sense allows me to anticipate what may come out in an exam.

Do not just "go through the motions" flipping through the notes. If you can't recall what you have read, YOU HAVE WASTED YOUR TIME!

Pre-Exam: I try not to cramp any material into my brain in the last minute. I just pick up my list of questions and jog my memory a bit to make sure the stuff I know is ready for recall. No point picking up a whole set of notes and re-reading. You will only exhaust your mind and make yourself nervous. An hour or two before the exams you really can't do anymore.

So this is what I did. Hope it helps.


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