Swamped in studies

I met with a tutee last week, a fellow who is studying Human Anatomy. Of all the courses one can take, anatomy is a particular humdinger, if for no other reason than one must memorise such a load of new terms and be able to identify and name parts. It’s an especially difficult class for students who are slow to memorise things, who have trouble with spelling (so many words are orthographically similar), and/or who have trouble with recall upon demand.

He’s an extremely determined student, one who wants to very conscientiously get everything down pat before moving onto the next thing. Unfortunately, at the standard 1-semester pace of this class, he’s not going to be able to do that, unless he figures out a way of hammering things into his memory at a much faster rate. Because of his earnest desire to do well, he has been poring himself through his materials, including reading the text and studying the lab models and reviewing the quizzes from the textbook’s Web page, and doing the review worksheets, and making flashcards, and …

It’s all very exhaustive, and exhausting. And likewise, very frustrating as his work scores don’t improve. I had to impress upon him that he cannot afford to concentrate on getting every last factoid from the first unit (histology) down, when they were already starting the second unit (bones). Some of the information will end up making more sense later on, but as the final exam is not cumulative, he needs to be able to keep up and focus upon the current material. I hate being in this kind of position, as a tutor or as a student. But in many ways, we still have to remain focused on how to best navigate the “real” world, as opposed to the ideal world of study where everyone could proceed at their own pace.

Part of his feeling swamped comes from trying to figure out which kinds of study methods will work best for him in this kind of class. His other classes have been subjects like mathematics and composition, where he learned new skills, but didn’t have masses of memorisation to deal with. As I pointed out to him, he’s not just learning about human anatomy in this class, he’s also learning about how he learns, and trying to be more savvy about his metacognition. The other students who don’t struggle as much with the subject may already know some of the material, or may already know how they learn this kind of material.

When next we meet, one of the things we’ll go over is how he apportions his study time. Not the exact length of hours he spends studying, or number of names he should have learned, but rather, the proportions he devotes to the different parts of his lessons. For many students, this is something they’ve long since figured out, and possibly aren’t even aware they do. But for the student who feels like they are swamped in studying, it’s important to acquire the needed structure to be efficient with their focus.

There are actually three parts to the studying process.

The first part of studying is the Preview. For my student who is facing a mound of new terms, and has difficulty with mentally juggling the attention, listening, watching, and note-taking functions all at once, the preview stage is vitally important. He needs to do the preview before each class (not necessarily right beforehand, but at least between one class and the next). Preview can include:

Examine the syllabus to determine what the instructor will be lecturing on, not only to know what part of the text to review, but also as a heads-up so he knows what the lecture will generally be about. (This of course assumes that one has the sort of organised prof who has the semester planned out, writes up a syllabus to give to the students, and then sticks to it as best as humanly possible. Thankfully, nowadays more schools require their profs to have concrete syllabi.)

Read over the appropriate section of the text to become somewhat familiar with the concepts and vocabulary that will be presented. I warned to him that he will naturally not understand everything he reads — that’s why there is a lecture as well, to explain material as well as to review material. But if there are specific things he doesn’t understand, or has questions on, he should make (written) notes of those to be sure that they get answered by the end of lecture. It also helps to look up the meanings of unfamiliar words.

In some classes, the textbook is the primary information source, and the lecture summarises the information. In other classes, the lecture is the primary information source, and the textbook is supplementary. His class happens to be the latter, but every student needs to figure out which sort they have (by the end of the first week or first few lectures), so they know whether the text or their handouts and notes will be more important as a studying resource.

Visual learners (like my student) should also spend particular care to examine the illustrations, including reading the descriptions. This way there is something already in the memory to “hook” the new information onto, especially when listening to a lecture. Likewise, when the prof throws up an illustration, that bit of familiarity will help link the content of the lecture to the content of the book.

The second part is the View. This is when one is actually IN the lecture and/or the lab, and includes listening and handling things and taking notes, as well as seeing words put on the board. It’s the second exposure to the material being studied. At this point, it should start to make sense, and questions should get answered if it doesn’t. There should be some slight familiarity from having previewed the material, but it’s not likely to have yet been memorised.

Because trying to focus, listen, watch and take notes simultaneously is difficult, we looked over the instructor’s handouts from a couple of classes. This is when the format of the lecture became apparent, and I pointed out that the teacher had a regular sort of pattern for introducing material (the function, what the [bones] were made of, different kinds of tissues, structural parts, general types [of bones], growth and development). Although not all of the lectures would follow that format, a lot of them would. Being aware of that pattern would make it easier to both understand what the instructor was talking about at the moment (especially in relation to the rest of the content of that day’s lecture), and would also help cue him in to what would probably come next. This works in much the same way that reading a description of a movie lets us know what to expect in the way of plot development.

The third part (as you may have guessed by now) is the Review.

There’s actually two parts to the Review. The first is the regular review, which is going over (either that night, or at least before the next class) the material that was in the lecture, lab, book, study notes or whatever. This is when any bits of confusion should be ironed out, and the bulk of the memorising gets done. This should be the third time that the content has been addressed.

In addition to the regular review, which is the daily work, there’s also the periodic review, where one practices memorising things, and going over material from previous days to refresh it. And lastly, there’s the grand review, which is studying for exams. Of course, any of these study periods can be broken down into smaller sessions. Depending upon one’s schedule, they might preview before the class, and review after the class, rather than doing both in the evening before.

When done right, this format of studying lets a student go over the material several times before the exam. It also helps the student identify and address topics of confusion before they are quizzed on such, and before things get accidentally mis-learned. And importantly, the Preview-View-Review process also keeps the student up to date with the class, so they aren’t stuck trying to figuratively finish their appetizers before the waiter brings by the coffee and dessert.

It’s a rather basic system of studying, one that many of us have picked up without a great deal of metcognition. But for those students who have not yet figured out how to optimise their study time, breaking things down into this sense of overall structure helps them figure out how to spend their time, and what proportions of time they may need to spend on various parts of the study.

Now, if we could just move to a different planet that had 30-hour days, we’d be able to get done everything we needed to in a day, even a full night’s sleep!



  1. 16 September 2007 at 10:53

    Whatever happened to my preceding post the one about outdated academic convention, and the social and cultural preference for the priveliging of oracy over literacy.

    A deconstruction of the notion that one needs to know the name of something in order to know what it is and what to do with it.

    A pox on you version of Academia, it is the one I am actively fighting as I make my way through the academic jungle, machete in hand, woe betide the sacred cow that wanders accidentally accross my path.

  2. 15 September 2007 at 20:10

    Oh yeah I guess I should have presumtively styled myself

    Laurentius-rex PGCert (pending) in the style of a certain poster :)

    I think it would be even more presumptios to style myself PhD pending, no I think I am already entitled morally to call myself a Doctor of Philosophy cos that’s what I do, I doctor philosophy :)

  3. 12 September 2007 at 0:49

    Very interesting post, indeed.

    It actually surprises me – certainly with respect to Finnish university and polytechnic institutions – that this sort of thing is not taught early enough in the student’s academic career for it to have the maximum effectiveness for the student concerned. The student who volunteered as a participant in my magisterial work was in something of a similar position to the student you refer to above, and then had other study-related issues beyond that.

    During the time for which I was able to work with this student, a number of issue were identified that indicated a serious lack of study skills development. When asked about study skills development and study counselling, his response chilled me: what do you mean?

    He did not know that there are ways to study that might be more effective for him than the ones he was taught to use during his schooling.

    Shameful situation, really. Hard to comprehend how a country this ‘good’ can be so lacking in its educational provisions for adult students with special educatonal needs. I get the impression, after 10 years (nearly) of living here, that such students are expected to perform in exactly the same way as their peers who do not have special educational needs… or fade right into the background.

    Doesn’t bode well for many, for example, who are Asperger-autistic and who wish to study in a Finnish polytechnic (which was the case with the student in my M. Ed. research study).

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