Now that schools and universities are starting again it's high time for a little study survival guide! Yay! Although, as I'm starting my master in less than a month (!?!) I'm a bit scared that I'll jinx my study abilities too much by publishing this post, but (touch wood) hopefully it'll just serve as a reminder for myself as well.
Before we start, I need to take a moment and emphasise how individual the learning process is. These are the things and methods that work for me, but they might be a total disaster for someone else. So the most important thing that I can say is: find your own way of studying. It takes time to get to know yourself and your workflow, so if you're in first year and feel super lost and have no clue what you're doing - don't panic. You'll be fine, I promise.
Rule number one: stick to your deadlines. So boring, I know, but it is so important in order to manage your workload and to not put yourself in the stressful, painful, and completely unnecessary situation of having to do all-nighters at the library in order to get your stuff done on time (been there, done that, never doing it again, etc.).
I find that the best way of avoiding deadline stress is to look at how many assignments you have during the semester ahead of you; write them down in your calendar, estimate how much time you need to finish each assignment, and set dates when each assignment/step needs to be done, so you know you'll have enough time and don't get overwhelmed with work.
structure your day.
I try to treat studying as a normal job, with set times and tasks for each day. Therefore, my top tip is to make a schedule of your day - and stick to it. It doesn't have to be something advanced, and you don't even need to write it down (although, I'd advice you to, because writing it down makes it harder to cheat and trick yourself into not working), as long as you know what you need to do, when it needs to be done, and how you are going to do it.
With that said, breaks are as important as the actual work, because if you don't take breaks your brain will eventually shut down. I've noticed that it is easier for me to relax during my breaks if there's a clear divide between 'work time' and 'break time'. Therefore, if I'm studying at home, I go out in the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea/coffee, or if I'm in uni I go for a short walk around the campus, just to get away from the screen for a while.
break it down.
In order to get a better overview of my work and what needs to be done I break it down into smaller parts. If I'm writing an essay (or any other piece of work), these are usually the different steps I go through:
- Research: this is the phase which usually takes the longest, where I get an overview of the literature and slowly form an argument. I find it very beneficial to take notes while researching; I don't write down every useful thing I find (that would take way too long), but I jot down key words and especially good resources (the oldest trick in the book, but oh so good; if you find an article that fits your essay perfectly, look up the sources that the author refers to, and you might find that you can base your whole essay on those, hehe).
- Structure: what do I want to say in my essay, and how am I going to say it? This will form the skeleton of the essay, and I usually give each paragraph a heading (e.g. for the last essay I wrote at QMU the structure was: introduction, feminism and the sex/gender dichotomy, essentialism within feminism, overview of Butler's argument, deconstructing sex/gender dichotomy, the normativity argument, conclusion) so that I don't get lost while writing. And another top tip: make a mind map out of your essay structure! It makes it so much easier to see how the key points connect and how they interact with each other.
- Writing: then it's time for the actual writing. Use resources that make it easier (I'll get back to this later), and re-write over and over and over again until you're happy with your text. Don't be scared to use new words and 'imitate' academic writing to the point that it feels a bit cringe; that's how you learn how you're 'supposed to' write (+ fake it 'til you make it is a thing in academia too, that's how I got through the first half of my degree). It's also important to know, or at least have an idea of, what kind of writing that your field wants. For example, when writing psychology essays I had to restrain my language and adopt a very formal and objective tone, whilst I could experiment and be a bit more creative in sociology essays.
- Referencing: often the references make up 10% of the mark, and since 10% definitely make the difference between an A and a B, I never leave it too late but put aside at least a day for referencing. The best thing is to reference continuously throughout the writing process so that you don't forget where you found what information, and then you'll also avoid the horribly boring and tedious task of writing out all the references in one go.
- Proof read: I read my stuff at least 5 times before I submit it. It's so important to proof read in order to get your essays flow, to make sure that everything makes sense, and to give you a chance to correct mistakes and improve the quality of your writing. Also, team up with a friend (preferably a native English speaker if you're a little foreigner like me) and proof read/discuss each other's essays! I usually get Otto to go over my essays and come with constructive criticism and correct stupid grammar mistakes = invaluable help. However, even if you're not writing essays in your second language, ask someone to read through your essays before you submit them! Others will always find mistakes that you miss just because you've been staring at your essay for too long.
The same goes for exam revision: breaking it down into sub-parts makes it much easier to get an overview of what needs to be done and makes it feel less daunting. I usually write down each step in my calendar (along with my overall plan of the semester) so that I know that I'll have enough time.
Reading academic literature is not as easy as it can seem, and you save so much time and energy if you have a good way of 'dealing' with dense academic texts. This is what works best for me:
- I read through the article/chapter from beginning to end, look up words and jargon that I don't understand, and try to form a general impression of the article; what is the author trying to say, and how? What theories are in use? Any research? What previous knowledge do I have about this topic? Do I agree/disagree, and why?
- I go through the text again and highlight the important parts.
- then I read through it one more time, but only the highlighted parts, and take notes of especially useful things.
- I also jot down initial thoughts/reactions to what I've just read, everything from questions, to things I need to look up/read more about, and ideas of how I can use it in my essay.
It may seem like a tedious process, but it helps me understand what I'm actually reading, which is of course much better in the long run. Also, if you can, discuss what you've read with other people! Input from friends that do the same course/classes as you, and friends who have no clue what you're talking about, is so important! It'll give you other perspectives and, hence, add another layer of understanding to your readings.
when and where?
Where you study is super important. You need a place where you can work efficiently, with minimal distractions. Preferably with coffee within reach. Sometimes that's a quiet library, sometimes that a cosy café, and sometimes that's your desk at home - for me that's completely dependent on the assignment and mood of the day. But I'd advice you to scout out a handful of study spots where you know that you can work comfortably!
When you study is also super important. I personally get more work done between 8 am and noon than I get during the rest of the day, no joke, and therefore I always try to put aside those hours for work. But I also know that other people work best after midnight. So find out when you're the most productive and plan your schedule after that; there's no right and wrong, as long as you know that you'll be productive and get the work done on time (and preferably have some kind of functioning sleep+food routine).
In order to smoothen the writing process I always have two tabs open when I write essays; the first one is tyda.se where I translate from Swedish to English or vice versa; and the second one is thesaurus.com where I look up synonyms to words and phrases so that I don't repeat myself.
Kill News Feed is my new best friend. It's an app for Google Chrome which does exactly what the name implies - kills your facebook feed (aka productivity's worst enemy). So when I log in to Facebook I see a blank page instead of the newsfeed. You still get notifications and you can still do and see everything else, it's just the newsfeed that's gone. You might miss out on photos of what your old high-school friends had for dinner yesterday or random videos of cats, but it will prevent you from falling into the black hole of aimlessly scrolling through your facebook feed.
SelfControl is an app for your laptop that allows you to create a blacklist with the webpages that you know will distract you (I have bloglovin, facebook, gmail, the guardian, etc. on mine) and block them for a set time of your choice, everything from 15mins to 24hrs.
Noisli is a webpage where you can listen to sounds like rain, thunder, waves, etc. You can mix and match the sounds, and adjust the volume to your liking; perfect when you need to focus.
And those days the library feels like a prison you can listen to these sounds and pretend that you're at Hogwarts instead.
I also have some go-to study music that I listen to whenever I'm tired of listening to rain. I have a meticulous system worked out for when I listen to what music, and therefore I need to squeeze in yet another disclaimer: this is the music that works for me, and it might be the worst possible study music for someone else (e.g. Fatou, who rather listens to Drake or old 90's music when she studies). So if this music doesn't work for you, find something that does!
Anyway, this is my most used study-playlist on Spotify. It's full of tried and tested classical tunes that I listen to while I write essays (and yes, it was playing non-stop while I was writing my dissertation). Some of it is a bit weird, but it always gives me energy to keep on going and puts me in a good mood. But beware, it's horrible to listen to while reading stuff that requires full attention, and you'll probably get an annoying earworm or two.
When I need something less distracting but still upbeat (e.g. when I read articles or do research) I listen to Gidge. When I'm stressed and need to calm down (and later in the day so that I'm not too hyped when I go to bed), I listen to Grouper.
Good, noise cancelling headphones, for obvious reasons.
A calendar that gives you a good overview of the coming week/month, and that has enough space to write in. I've been using Moleskine's Weekly Diary Notebook for years now because it has everything I need, but find something that works for you!
To keep your brain happy, you need to keep your body happy. And how do you keep your body happy? With food, of course. You need to eat regularly and properly to keep your blood sugar levels even, because if your blood sugar drops it will be impossible to focus and get anything done. Apart from the regular meals I always make sure that I have some kind of snack ready if I feel that my attention span is getting shorter due to hunger; nuts, fruit, date balls, dark chocolate, etc.
Another, very self evident thing, but yet so important: you need to sleep if you want your brain to work. I'm one of those people who stop sleeping as soon as I get a tiny bit stressed, which means that I need to actively work to keep a healthy sleep routine. This is what has worked for me:
- Never, and I mean NEVER, study in your bed. It will be the end of your sleep.
- Implement an evening routine that helps your brain + body relax before it's time for bed. I have a 'sleep easy' herbal tea that I drink every night, I light candles, and read a chapter in a book. Very cliché and mindfulness-y, but it works.
- Have at least 45 mins of screen-free time before going to bed.
- Think about things that make you happy before you fall asleep, it will keep you from dreaming nightmares about your dissertation and prevent you from getting anxious over all the things you need to do.
- Go to bed + wake up at roughly the same times every day to give your body a sleep-wake-routine.
exercise & fresh air.
I've noticed that it's so much easier to focus (and to relax, and to sleep well) if I get at least some fresh air and exercise everyday. Again, it doesn't need to be anything advanced or last for hours on end, but a 30 mins walk in a park makes all the difference in the world, trust me.
take a break and do something fun.
Okay, I admit that I'm the worst for taking proper breaks and 'allowing' myself to do something else than studying, but I'm trying to get better and I know that it makes such a big difference to my performance and wellbeing. Also, remember to write down the fun things that you have planned in your calendar, however small or insignificant they may seem, because it'll make it less stressful to look at the coming weeks.
treat yo self.
Reward yourself when you've done something you're proud of, when you've finished an essay or just had a productive day. It can be anything from having dinner with your friends, buying a new notebook, binge watching your favourite series, or anything else that makes you happy.
The fear of not being good enough, the fear of failing, is the most draining, horrible thing ever; making it impossible to get any work done. I feel it sometimes, luckily very rarely nowadays, and I've noticed that the best way to get through it is to take a deep breath and just do it. It doesn't matter if it doesn't turn out great, or if you don't get an A (or even pass), the most important thing is that you keep on trying.
ask for help.
Ask for help if you need it, both with study related things and if you find it hard coping with the stress. You're not weak if you do, just human.