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Effective Learning, Workable Habits

September, 2012
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celest-1Everyone has an opinion on how to be a better student. You are bombarded with tips and advice, but more often than not you hear it and think ‘nobody actually does that’, and maybe you’re right. I’ve been there. Remember this as you read: I was in your position, and I got into these habits and graduated successfully. “Habits” is the word you want to remember, as those are important.

Keep a diary/planner/whatever you want to call it. I like the good, old-fashioned pen and paper kind, but if you’re a technology person, use an app for it.

Use it. Write everything down. Everything - homework, meetings, afterschool stuff, deadlines, class tests, what to bring, holidays – all of it. If you don’t use it, you don’t use it, but you’ve got it there in case you do. It seems obvious, but most people don’t use one and once you get into the habit it makes your life a million times easier, particularly if you’ve got lots of extracurricular activities going on. The hardest part is getting into the habit itself, because at the end of class your teacher tells you the homework and you can’t be bothered to take your diary out of your bag to write it down – you’ll just remember it. But then you forget, like I did. When I walked into class, I pulled my diary out of my bag with my pencil case and books and just left it on the corner of my table, so it was there when I needed it.

Having everything in one place also makes it really easy to stay organized. You just take a look at your week and manage your time around what you have to do and the time you have to do it. Like if you’ve got an essay due on Friday, but you know you’ve got volleyball practice on Wednesday night and a game on Thursday (as I often did), you want to get it done beforehand so you’re not up all night the day before it’s due. That and you can enjoy the satisfaction of going “oh, you haven’t don’t it yet?? I finished it on Tuesday and handed it in early, just wanted to get it out of the way,” while your friends are all inevitably in a panic trying to get it done at the last minute.

Also, the feeling of crossing things out (I prefer red pen, for the finality of it, but that’s up to you) or checking things off is so good, and you watch the list of things you have to do physically get shorter.

Do work earlier rather than later and find a way to get started. I know you hear that a lot, but I’m offering very specific advice.

The vast majority of us can’t bring ourselves to get to work straight after we get back from school. Starting work is probably the hardest part. Again, forming habits is the way to go. And I know you’re sick of hearing ‘study habits’ being thrown around, but hear me out. Start getting into the habit BEFORE you need it. The start of the school year is perfect for this (that means now). You don’t have too much work just yet, so sitting down and getting it done in an hour or so when you get home is easy and then you’ll realise how much better doing other stuff is after you’ve finished your homework, as opposed to having it hanging over your head, unfinished.

It depends on the work you have, but often starting with the shorter, daily homework is a good way to ease in. Nobody wants to get home and have to write an essay or lab report straight away.  I, personally, would start with 抄写, worksheets or math exercises - the kind of homework that is due the next day and doesn’t require huge amounts of time or imagination, and then you can cross them off your list and it looks shorter already. Finally finishing an essay and then realising you still have to do the small stuff isn’t fun anyways, so you might as well.

Just with those two habits, I found time management problems pretty much solved themselves. Actually, quite a few problems solved themselves.

Do extracurricular activities – sports, arts, clubs, and volunteering. Go for it.

celest-3They are fun and most of the clichés are true. You meet people and make friends. For instance, you might meet students in years above you who can help you out or give you advice. And, as I’m sure you are incessantly told, universities love ‘well-rounded applicants’. Each different thing you try has its own advantages, like sports help with social skills: teamwork, leadership, communication. Volunteering can be a lot like work experience (in a place where it can be difficult to get real work experience) where you gain managerial skills and problem-solving.

If you are already struggling with the workload then just focus on that, but I also found that doing extracurricular activities helped me to get work done. It’s a bit of a paradox, but the thing about doing sports, for example, is that you have less time to do the same amount of work so as soon as you get home you do it because you’re worried you won’t have time to finish it all.

It’s also good to have a change and a bit of respite between school and doing homework. It can get a little monotonous otherwise. If you’ve spent a couple of hours after school playing basketball or singing in a choir or at a student council meeting, it’ll be easier to switch back to work because you’ve been doing something completely different for a while.

Another advantage is you get CAS hours. By the way, IB students, you want to get into the habit of logging them regularly. I did, and now it’s very helpful as I’m doing my university applications. That’s another thing the diary is good for: keeping track of CAS hours.

Figure out how you learn and study best.

Different people learn in different ways. When I study, I take notes on what I need to know alongside the syllabus. I compile everything I need to remember from different sources – textbooks, notebooks, handouts – and put it all in one notebook as clearly and concisely as I can. Essentially, to remember it I need to write it down. For some people, hearing it works better, or reading it repeatedly.

I also work better alone. People distract me, I can’t have music on and give it my full attention at the same time, and just using one colour pen makes mind go numb after a while. I don’t know this magically, it took time to figure out. You could try to do the same thing and it might work, but it might not. Try different things and talk to people who already know to get ideas. Again, you want to try it before you actually need it so that by the time you really need it (think end-of-year exams) you know how to study effectively.

In the end, these are all things that will help your whole life, not just in school. Forming good habits is such a useful tool, and once you teach yourself how to get into the habit of doing things it makes so many aspects of your life easier. It’ s a terrible thought but school will only get more difficult, so if you make the effort now your habits will become more and more useful as time passes. In a few years you might just find yourself writing an article giving advice to students on forming good habits. Good luck!


By Celest Dines,

Class of 2012, Yew Chung International School of Shanghai

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