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We covered Step 1 (Manage Your Time in Five Minutes a Day) and Step 2 (Declare War on Procrastination). Here is the third step of the “Study Basics” offered by Cal Newport in his book “How to Become a Straight-A Student; The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High and Study Less”.
Step 3: Choose When, Where, and How Long
I. Question: When is the best time to study? Answer: Early.
Study in a big chunk after class or between classes, advises a student from Brown. Most people are inclined to wait for nighttime, which seems like a nice long stretch of uninterrupted good work time.
Why not study at night? First, nighttime is not as long as you think; supper, gathering materials and settling down can barely get started before the wee hours are upon you, tempting you to sleep. Second, nighttime is prime time. Your TV shows, partying friends, speakers and performances happen at night. People gather at their dorm rooms to socialize.
And finally, your body is winding down at night; it wants to begin its slow descent into sleep, and the energy and focus you were counting on just is not there.
So minimize the amount of work you do after dinner.
Even though studying in the daytime can be complicated, don’t be afraid of a fractured schedule. Bring your materials with you and fill in any small patches of free time with productive study. A Harvard student says she sneaks in work between meetings or classes, using small blocks of thirty to forty-five minutes at a time.
The trick is efficiency. Head straight from the first class to the library or similar study location near the second class. Mentally prepare yourself on the way over so that when you hit the study spot you can become productive within seconds.
Avoid your dorm room or other public places as much as possible during the day; you are much more likely to become distracted and let a potentially productive period slip away for nothing more than a boring conversation.
“Become a ghost during the day. Like an academic ninja, slip from hidden study spot to hidden study spot, leaving only an eerie trail of completed work behind you… Remember: Work hard, play hard is always better than Work kind of hard, play kind of hard.”
In addition to the extra energy and focus that come with studying early, the spread-out nature of the schedule makes it less of a strain. And you’re freeing up your nighttime hours for fun.
II. Question: Where should you study? Answer: In isolation.
Identify hidden study spots around campus. Avoid your dorm room or house like the plague, as well as any public gathering places. Look for less-visited libraries, carrels high up in the stacks, a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop or local public library.
You need multiple locations for two reasons: first, squeezing in study sessions between classes, it’s nice to always have a nearby spot. Second, changing locations keeps you from burning out at any one of them.
Quarantining yourself in a study bunker also seems to increase the importance of the work you are about to tackle – much different from your state of mind when you plop down on your couch with a book on your chest. Says Newport: “These mind games are not trite. Never underestimate the importance of psychology in becoming an effective student.”
III. Question: How long should you study? Answer: Never more than one hour at a time without a break.
Your break needs to be only five or ten minutes long, but it’s essential. Find something you can concentrate on for just a few minutes that has nothing to do with what you’re working on. Make a phone call. Read an email (but remember the Internet can be a time-sucker; some decide to stay away completely at these sessions). Have one of those caffeinated drinks you’re allowing yourself each hour. Some students bring a novel or a newspaper so they can read a quick chapter or an article. There are students who choose a project for the day which they can work on at intervals. Disengagement helps refresh your mind.
Take your breaks even – especially – when you’re on a roll. Over the long run it will maximize your energy and retention. Some cognitive science research concludes that about 50 minutes is the optimal learning period.
source: “How to Become a Straight-A Student” by Cal Newport; Broadway Books, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-0-7679-2271-5.
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