Help! Study Skills and Revision Techniques
Does your confidence need boosting? Could you do with some tips on how to study more effectively?
If the answers to these questions is yes, then you might fine the Study Skills Notes below helpful.
Study Skills Notes
Contents (please scroll down the page):
- Sitting your exam
- Sources of support: you
- Sources of support: "old" support systems
- Sources of support: other Students
- Sources of support: academic staff
- Self-help books (study guides)
- Organisation and time management
- Setting Priorities 1
- Setting Priorities 2
- A pattern of working
- Sleeping better
Many students coming to university find that the pace and level of academic work is higher than they have been used to. If you are among these, or would just like some reassurance, read on.
As well as the work being different, there may be the novelty of having to study without the support and encouragement of parents and teachers. There is no-one at home to say, "You ought to be in your room, doing your homework", there is no-one at lectures to say, "You're looking a bit puzzled, shall I go over that again?"
At university, everyone else seems confident and clever, coping with everything. It is really tough to admit that some support would be helpful.
Well, there is a lot of support out there. However, just as university teaching methods are different to those at school, so some of the resources that provide support will be unlike those that you are familiar with. This page will try to make it easier for you to find your way around.
Please bear in mind that this is a personal view - there will be things that will not work for you, there will be things that you do not find worth trying. Think of this page like a menu in a restaurant; you can choose those things that you like, and ignore the rest.
Sitting Your Exam:
The one thing that is NOT covered here is how to sit your actual exam. This is because it is impossible to cover all the different types of exam that are set, and it would be irresponsible to give information that could mislead you. However, if you have to have some words, you can read a few general words on the subject of sitting your exam here. It falls outside the scope of these pages to tell you how to sit your exams. There are too many different types of exam, and it could be misleading to give specific instructions. Remember that exams are a necessary evil - staff are as fond of the question setting, marking and examiners' meetings as you are of sitting the exams.
Why have them if no-one likes them? Well, without the stimulus of exams, few people would attend lectures or learn the information given them. Worse, no-one would be able to be sure that the information had, indeed, been learned. Although it is not possible to write information on how to sit a specific exam, there are things you might like to think about doing to improve your confidence and, maybe, your performance. In the run-up to your exams you can: Look at past papers - available through resource centres (libraries) or your department's intranet. Make sure that you are properly prepared - think about your study and revision strategies.
Make sure that you are as relaxed and refreshed as you can be. Join a relaxation group and/or get some exercise . Talk to academic staff if you need to clear up misunderstandings. In the examination itself you should: Read the question paper carefully - if the question is about topic "a", do not write about topic "b". Read the question paper carefully - if it asks you to answer two questions, do not answer one or three. Plan your time - do not spend too much time on one question at the expense of the rest. Answer the questions that are asked, exactly as they are asked. Try and enjoy it.
You want to study effectively, and to pass exams. To do this (and this may seem a bit strange) the most important resource that you have is you.
How come? Well:
- You are by now a very experienced student and exam passer. To get here - to Cardiff University - you have been studying and passing exams for most of your life. Not only can you do it, you can do it well.
- You need to remember that, unlike school, you have been chosen, by experienced university lecturers, to be on the course that you are taking. Of course, a cynical view might be that, say, there was no competition for your place. However, remember this - Cardiff University is a highly regarded university, with an enviable reputation for academic excellence. Can you imagine that anyone would wish to compromise that reputation by enrolling any but the best students? So, remember, you are one of those outstanding students, and you have been selected on that basis.
- Because you have been chosen, there is a qualification waiting for you. There is the expectation that, on your track record to date, you will succeed. It is not like a marathon, where only one person will win.
Yes, you can do it, but it is still difficult, you still need some support. Well, do not forget that those support systems that have worked so well for you so far still exist. Of course, some of them may not be at hand. Members of your family, teachers, or schoolfriends may be far away, back home. However, it may be useful to remind yourself that you can still keep lines of communication open. You can always visit, write, email, text or phone any or all of those people who have stood by you in the past. It can be good to get some encouraging words from people who know you and care about you.
Well, support from back home may be good, but it is not here, it is not now. Who else is there? Well, there are the other students at Cardiff that you know. They may be friends on your course, or friends doing other courses.
If they are friends doing other courses, they might not be able to give you academic support. However, if there is someone (or some people) with whom you are comfortable with, an open and honest conversation could reveal that you are actually not the only person on the planet who finds work tough or who is worried about doing coursework or exams. This may not be a breakthrough exactly, but it can be reassuring to know that your feelings are not merely not unique, they are quite common.
Friends from your own course and year can provide more than moral support - and the reassurance that it is normal to have concerns about academic work. They can also help with doing the work as well. It may take some courage to start up a study group, but people often find that, once they have broken the ice, working with others can make work less of a chore. Obviously, some kinds of study lend themselves to a collaborative approach more easily than others. A couple of people or a small group can revise by testing each other. Students may be asked to work in teams on a project or in a practical class. Some work is expressly designed to be completed alone - collaboration here can become plagiarism or even cheating (in an exam for example).
The difficult part is setting up a study group - whether this is four or so of you, or just one other person to work with. It might help to think about the following points:
Your best bet for people to work with may not necessarily be the most obvious people. Maybe you can recognise people who are clearly on top of the subject. Maybe you can recognise people who are very organised. Maybe you can recognise people whose work patterns would help you be more disciplined or organised. It is not necessarily the best move to connect up to study with the people you get on best with. You are doing this to work, not to play after all.
A good move is the direct approach - actually explain to your potential study partner that you would like to team up with them to do some work. Maybe an offer of a drink or a meal might be an added attraction. Often people reject the idea of asking someone to work with. They feel that they would seem to be a nuisance, or an embarrassment. However, anyone who is asked how they would feel if someone asked them for help with their work usually says that they would be flattered.
People from the year year above you can be useful to know. They have been there. Sometimes they have the notes. There are probably students in the year above you who have got a grasp of the subject you are struggling and they might be flattered to be asked to lend you a hand. Some departments have a "parenting" or "buddy" scheme which pairs every fresher with a second year. If you have a parent or buddy, you could think about buying them a drink, or inviting them over to watch a video or have a meal so that you can ask them about things in your course that you might have problems with.
The academic staff are all there to help you. Do you believe this? There are people who imagine that academics are remote and indifferent, and have neither the patience or the energy to deal with students. This is a totally false impression. It is true that academics are busy people; it is said that they are obliged to spend 50% of their time dealing with administrative matters, 50% of their time teaching and 50% of their time engaged in research. This is an exaggeration, but not a wild exaggeration.
Everyone has their own particular way of meeting student needs. It is up to you to discover which members of staff are best able to offer you the support you need. It is probably true that most university lecturers have been involved in the choice of the material they teach (unlike school teachers, who have to teach from a national syllabus whether they like or even understand all the subjects it contains). This means that university teachers are both interested in what they teach, as well as being very knowledgeable. In fact, in Cardiff, a lot of staff have national and international reputations as leading experts in their field. However, the significant differences between, say, school and university mean that you will have to make some rapid adjustments in getting the most out of the teaching that you are offered.
If you need academic support, how do you approach lecturers and professors? It is polite to make an appointment. Write, phone or email to set up a time and place that suits you both. Staff usually prefer this to being grabbed after lectures or being ambushed in a corridor. As well as being polite, there are some advantages in setting up a meeting. Both you and the staff member can be prepared and focussed on the specific question you are looking to have answered.
You probably think that, because you are dealing with an expert, they will be able to help you at short notice. However, if you catch someone unawares, they might not have the kind of information that you are looking for at the front of their minds. This can cause discomfort. So, by giving the staff member some notice, they can prepare to give you the best help possible.
Also, if a meeting has been set up, the member of staff will be best placed to find a time and place that will minimise interruptions, so that you can concentrate on the work in hand. There might be the opportunity to work through a specific example, or to check some additional references.
If you realise that there are several of you in the lecture who all have the same difficulty with the topic, you might ask if an additional tutorial session might be arranged. Possibly you, someone on your course or a member of staff might find a postgraduate student to run this.
There are so many books on how to study that you could spend a full three year degree studying them. Any recommendation is going to be subjective. The best way of choosing any book is to go to a big bookshop and make comparisons between all the books that they have about the subject you are interested in. Here are a few titles to start with.
The Good Study Guide by A. Northedge. £8.99 Paperback - 256 pages (1990) Open University Educational Enterprises Ltd; ISBN: 0749200448
The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell. £10.99 Paperback - 295 pages (2003) Palgrave Macmillan Press; ISBN: 1-4039-1135-5
The Arts Good Study Guide by E. Chambers, A. Northedge. £9.99. Paperback - 282 pages (1997) Open University Educational Enterprises Ltd; ISBN: 0749287454
The Sciences Good Study Guide by A. Northedge, J. Thomas, A. Lane, A. Peasgood. £11.99. Paperback - 416 pages (1997) Open University Educational Enterprises Ltd; ISBN: 0749234113
Sometimes it helps to share feelings. Sharing these feelings may take you over the worst period. Do please feel free to contact us.
The single most important factor in successful revision is organisation. Those of you who have passed exams to get to uni will know this already. However, if you are in doubt, click on the link on the left to read the example of Arnold Rimmer (of Red Dwarf fame) and the exam timetable. It really does help if you can divide the amount of work that you have to do into the time that you have got left.
One way of doing this is to use a diary or wallchart. If you can set out what you intend to do each day, in as much or as little detail as suits you, it can be reassuring to know (a) what you have to do, (b) when you have to do it and, most important that - provided you stick to your schedule - you will get it all done.
The advantage of a wallchart is that it can be in front of you, above your desk or bed, so that you can keep an eye on things. However, some people prefer a diary that they can carry around - or both!
You can easily make your own chart - an A3 size sheet of paper (or several sheets stuck together). Nothing fancy - wrapping paper or even newspaper will do. Using a black marker pen, draw seven columns for the days of the week, and divide the columns into boxes for the hours of the day. The top row of boxes will be the first hour after you get up, the bottom row the last hour before you go to bed (you do not need to make plans for the time that you are sleeping!). Resolve to have a regular time for getting up, and a regular bed time, too.
Then get a pack of multi-coloured "post-its". You will need at least three different colours. Choose one colour for your academic tasks (doing coursework, revising, reading textbooks). Choose another colour for domestic tasks and duties (cooking, ironing, shopping) and a third colour for play (watching television, going for a walk, staring out of the window). Write out all the tasks that you know that you have to do, one task per post-it and using the appropriate colour (you can have more than three categories, of course, but it is important not to get caught up in the planning). Now, fill every waking hour of every day with a post-it.
- First benefit: you will quickly find that you have enough time to do everything that you have to do, and still have time to do everything that you want to do.
- Second benefit: you can make sure (and easily see) that every day has a good mix of work and play, and that you do your self-maintenance as well.
- Third benefit: there is flexibility — if you are about to do some work and a friend invites you to the cinema, you can just exchange the "work" post-it slip for a "play" one.
However you set out your plans, make sure that you include time to eat, do your chores, relax and sleep. It seems obvious, but if you decide to try this, it is important to have a complete picture of your time. It is extraordinary how, when it comes to studying, it suddenly becomes essential to do all those boring jobs, like doing the laundry, or cleaning the cooker. This displacement activity can be contained if you can schedule times for doing your chores. Remember: time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.
It is also important not to punish yourself when you are working. If an activity is, or is felt to be, unpleasant, it is avoided. There are aspects of revision and study that might be unavoidably uncomfortable. However, there are aspects which are up to you to make significantly more relaxed, or appreciably more stressful - see the section where to work.(location) and patterns of work. When planning your time, make sure that the relaxation time includes some kind of rewards for working well. You need to decide what kinds of reward you can afford, and will make you feel good. You should include some treats, because you do deserve them.
Finding the right place - or places - to work can be key to working well. One of the learning strategies is learning by association. The more variation in externals when trying to learn, the better the chance of having some significant associations to help recall. Consider being creative when working out places that you are going to use as locations to study. Your bedroom every night? Well, if you are truly happy there, of course. Maybe you could try other locations; there are no rules, you are only limited by your imagination. Please do not think that you have to try dozens of different places, but if you feel that it might be fun spending a few hours in a fast-food restaurant, or a museum, or one of the many public or university libraries (resource centres) then give it a go.
A special word about the university libraries (resource centres); most people feel that they are bound to the library that relates to their subject. So, a law student might think that they should only be in the Law Library. Well, sometimes this is true - writing an essay, when reference books are needed, for instance. However, sometimes, when you have all the books and notes that you need with you, you are not tied to a specific location. In that case, a change of scene can be quite nice. Every library has its own character and atmosphere. So, if you are looking for quiet places to study, why not think about trying out some new libraries. Another advantage of this is that you will be unlikely to see as many friends and people that you know. This means less chance of being interrupted or distracted.
When you are in your room, make sure that - without getting into the displacement activity -everything is as comfortable as you can make it. Everyone has their own idea of comfort. To provide specific instructions on comfort would be as reasonable as dictating what television programmes you should watch. However, click here for some ideas, some things to think about that could make your environment as conducive as possible to working well.
A huge question, a major challenge is to decide what to learn. At "A" level (or equivalent) there was a precise syllabus, in which it was clearly laid out what facts you needed to know. Some of the information was cut down, (what Terry Pratchett calls, "Lies for children")
Welcome to the real world, where there is no syllabus. A story a lecturer tells is:
20 years ago, immunology was only a small, unimportant part of what was taught to medical students. So, imagine a doctor saying to a patient, "I am really sorry that I cannot help you with the fact that you are HIV positive - that was not in my syllabus when I studied medicine."
However, although it is often difficult to define a cut-off point in what, or how much to revise, there are some obvious markers:
Past papers. These will tell you the kind of question that is asked about the subjects you are studying. Past papers can sometimes be obtained on the Intranet. Find your department and then look if there are past papers filed. Failing that, contact the relevant university library (resource centre). Two warnings. The first is that you are studying real - dynamic - subjects. New information is added every day, the importance of various points changes (as do the emphases of the teaching staff). Do not imagine that the format or the content of a question paper will remain static either. The second is that guessing what will or will not be examined this year on the basis of what was asked last year is dangerous.
Lecture notes. The people who delivered your lectures will also be setting the questions about those lectures, and they will be marking them. If Dr Smith has told you facts "a" to "g", it is extremely unlikely that you will get a question on fact "h". You may not be aware of this, but exam papers are the result of a vast amount of work, usually with the teaching staff having several meetings to discuss the appropriateness of each question set, whether it is fair to set it and even the exact wording of the question (see sitting your exam).
The Intranet. Find your department and then find the module(s) that you need to know more about.
Other students. Students in the years above you have probably (but not always, beware) been through what you are going through. They may be useful sources of information about what is essential, and what is merely important.
Academic Staff. A word of warning. Many academics react to the words, "Will this come up in the exam?" in much the same way as a turkey might on being asked, "Doing anything good for Christmas?". There is a widely held belief that everything that you are taught is examinable. So, a more careful and thoughtful approach is required. What you really need to find out is what depth of understanding is expected. First, make an appointment to see the staff member. Then, make sure that you know something about the subject you need to have information on (from 1 - 3 above). Finally, you make a suggestion as to your understanding of the level of understanding required, and allow the staff member to confirm this, or to tell you that you need to know less or more than what you have suggested.
Once you have an idea of what is in your course, and the topics you need to revise, you might like to try this simple and quick exercise to help you prioritise your revision:
- For each exam, write a list of all the topics that you will be examined on in that exam.
- Against each topic write a number. Put a 1 against the topics that you are completely happy with; that, if you were asked a question on, you would get an excellent mark for your answer. Put a 2 against the topics that you are okay about; that, if you were asked a question on, you would get a reasonable mark for your answer. Put a 3 against the topics that you have no confidence with; that, if you were asked a question on, you would get a low mark for your answer.
- Having graded all your topics, begin by revising all the 3 graded topics. That is, start by revising your worst subjects, and do enough revision to turn the 3 grade into a 2 grade.
- You do not need to be a neuroscientist to work out that, after doing this minimum amount of revision, you will be able to answer every question that will come up, adequately, if not brilliantly. So, once you have done this amount of revision, you will not be able to fail the exam. Just imagine being able to walk into the examination room or hall, knowing that you will pass the exam.
- Having turned all the 3 topics into 2 topics, you can go back through the list, doing some work on the topics originally graded 2 and try to bring them up to 1.
No-one can tell you how to work most effectively. If you have patterns and ways of working that you, stay with them. To remind you, you are a university student, you have passed GCSEs, A levels and possibly more - obviously, you can do it. However, maybe you think that it has been all a fluke so far. Or perhaps you think everyone else finds it all much easier than you. Without rubbishing your opinions, it might be possible to look at other approaches to enhancing performance, and increasing self-confidence.
There are a variety of ways of doing this, and for a comprehensive range of approaches you could look at the specialist books on the subject.
However, here is something simple to think about. Studies have shown that for a lot of people, to study more that 40 minutes at a stretch is counterproductive. The number of facts that can be retained drops dramatically after 40 minutes. A revision period of 90 minutes is not much more useful than one of half the length. Knowing that, it is easy to set up a revision or work pattern which has stretches of concentrated study that last no longer than 40 minutes. After the 40 minutes, take a break that lasts for 20 minutes. At the end of the break you will be in good shape to start to work for another 40 minutes. It is obviously easier to keep up a pattern like this for several hours than working for the same length of time without interruption. More importantly, you will probably learn more and the facts might be retained for longer. Which is good news.
The break is an important event in its own right. It should be a proper break. Close your books and go for a drink, or a snack. Go for a walk, listen to some music. Do something that you enjoy, something that is a complete change from studying. Do something that feels like a treat, a reward for working well.
The problem with working - whether this is revision, writing a project or essay or preparing for a lecture, seminar or tutorial - is that it is possible to see work as an unpleasant task. So long as you feel that way about it, you will not want to do it. Looking back to work that you have done in the past, and only remembering it as a drag, a slog - boring and painful - will put you off doing any work now. Maybe this is obvious, but it is an important point. There is nothing intrinsic in work that makes it unpleasant. It is the same as, say, going for a walk in the country, or watching a video. If you have a good time you will want to do it again. If it was disagreeable, you will not. So, whether it is a walk or work, if you can make as pleasant and as comfortable as possible, you are most likely to enjoy doing it. More important, if you are left with at least some pleasant memories, you are much more liable to be able to face doing it again.
When studying or revising, the 40 minutes of serious effort, followed by an enjoyable 20 minutes break - a reward or treat for a good job done - could be a constructive pattern.
Naturally, there can be no guarantee that this will be effective for you. You can only try it, and see if you notice any difference.
A good sleeping pattern can play a major part in working effectively. Put another way, sleep deprivation can make a serious contribution to poor performance, including academic achievement.
You may be aware of this, and you may not deliberately be doing anything that results in you having less sleep than is right for you. However, you may find it useful to know that if you are doing things that leave you with less sleep than you need, you can make a difference to your performance by taking things a bit more easily.
A lot of people do try to get the right amount of sleep. They go to bed at the right time for them, but do not get off to sleep, or wake up, or have disturbed, unrefreshing sleep patterns. If this is your experience, you may like to think about the following techniques and tips that could give you longer, better quality sleep.
Remember, this is not advice, it is information. You do not have to try all these things. In fact you do not need to try any. It is like a restaurant menu - options for you to choose form, nothing more.
Try to go to bed at about the same time every night.
Try to work towards going to bed by establishing a bedtime routine. For example, decide to be in bed by 11 p.m. So, start your routine at 9.30 p.m. You may have a herbal tea or a hot milky drink, then have bath and finally listen to some relaxing music before going to bed.
Try to avoid nicotine and caffeine. Caffeine can build up to quite high levels if you drink tea or coffee throughout the day. Switch to decaf, to herbal tea or (especially last thing) a hot milky drink - Ovaltine Horlicks or hot milk and honey are examples. Health food shops and Boots the chemists may have suggestions for herbal drinks that have sedative properties.
Try aromatherapy. Lavender oil - as a drop on your pillow, or in an oil vaporiser - is said to induce calm. Health food shops and Boots the chemists may have more suggestions.
Try homeopathy. Health food shops and Boots the chemists carry a wide range of homeopathic remedies that may be useful to assist relaxation and restful unbroken sleep.
Some people find that sitting in a room with a candle burning is restful - remember to extinguish it before going to sleep.
Music can be relaxing - though probably not Reef, Gomez or Travis. Try something classical; some people recommend Mozart, especially the double piano concerto. Non-music can be effective. Tapes and CDs of forest or beach sounds can have a calming effect.
You can also buy relaxation tapes, or learn relaxation exercises. You can work through something before you go to bed, or once you are in bed.
Using earplugs are a cheap and effective way of eliminating a lot of the noises that might disturb light sleepers. They do take getting used to, but some people say that it is worth it. A question: if a light sleeper can go to sleep with the light on, can a hard sleeper go to sleep with the window open?
Make sure that your room is a good, safe and comfortable place to be. You can improve the atmosphere visually by changing the curtains - increasing their density, if you get woken up by the light outside - or by pictures and posters on the wall. Plants - real pot plants or fake or dried flowers are ways of improving the atmosphere. Don't be ashamed of having your teddy or security blanket. It is more important that you are comfortable than what people might think. Buy a warmer duvet, invest in an electric blanket or even a hot water bottle.
Try reading something unexciting and not emotionally involving before going to sleep. Do not try to read anything related to your academic studies.
Try and wake up at the same time each day - whether you need to go to lectures or not.
Additional information: The team provides members of the university community with an opportunity to confidentially examine issues which prevent them from maximising their full potential and to explore options for change.