How to Get More
Out of Your Study Time

Robert M. Thornton
University of California, Davis
1987, revised 1997


Are you spending all the time you can afford at study, and still not doing well? Do you forget information within a week or two after you've learned it? Do you feel good about your knowledge before an exam and still get poor scores? If so, you may need to change your study methods.

The mind is a powerful tool, but it has limitations. With a trillion nerve cells, the brain can store more information than the largest computer, yet we often lose memories. Our creative capacity far outstrips anything a computer can do, and we pay for it with the all-too-human tendency to make errors. Our mental pictures are phenomenal, and so is our ability to confuse imagination with reality. Under stress, emotions and reflexes flood the system with fight-or-flight responses.

In the words of a Star Trek android, "Humans are defective. They cannot be programmed." If we could be programmed, learning would be as easy as sleeping, and we would probably lose the creativity that sets humans apart from computers. The mind must have room for error in order to create. Our task is to remain creative while we find ways to minimize errors.

The following pages offer some useful strategies. Read them in any order you like.


General Study Strategies
Tips On Reading
Memory Tricks
Study Groups
On Hating A Subject
Trouble with Instruction


Concentration is essential for learning and problem-solving. Most people have brief moments of intense concentration, spaced between much longer phases where attention is divided and variable. You may double or triple your performance by increasing your concentration. The key is to eliminate as many distractions as possible, so that your attention and mental energy stay on the learning task for longer periods.

Values and study plans

The learning process competes for attention with other activities that you value. Unconscious parts of the mind allocate energy according to your values, and will shut off the power if you spend more time than a subject is worth. Advice:

1. Check your values..  List your activities and estimate the time you can give to each. Be realistic! If you don't set conscious boundaries, or if your estimates are outrageous, the unconscious mind will set its own limits, and will tug at your attention as you study.

2. Adopt a regular study plan. The unconscious mind depends on habit as a baseline for judging when to send its time warnings. It may be hard to follow a plan at first; habits never form overnight. But persistence pays.

3. Include play time in your plans. Play is the wellspring of creativity, and it will not be denied. If you suppress it too strongly, that side of your mind will attack with boredom, sleepiness, daydreaming, confusion, fear, and loneliness--all the traits of a fretful child. In addition, your creativity will drop radically. These symptoms mean that you need to negotiate a better balance between work and play.

4. At the start of each study session, tell yourself when the next free time will begin. Say it aloud, if you aren't too self-conscious. The mind believes what it hears more than it believes what you think. Stick to your plan, adjusting from time to time according to your experience.

5. Time your studies. Keep an informal log and note when you shift from one study area to another. Make a tally at the end of every week and compare it with your study plan. If the two don't match, adjust the plan and your value listings to match reality. This helps to shift the control of energy to the conscious mind, so that you get fewer warnings from the unconscious.

6. Rate your concentration on a scale of 10, and note it in your time log whenever you leave a study topic. Low ratings can be a sign of costly, unresolved value conflicts. In your value list and study plan, reduce the time allocated to any topic that rates low. Watch the concentration ratings from week to week: if they rise, you're on the right track. If they fall, you've done something wrong.

7. See the section on Attitudes if your concentration problems don't improve.

Diet, exercise, and concentration

The body fuels the brain and removes its wastes. You may be rightfully proud of your ability to work all night on coffee and potato chips, but you are likely to achieve more with a balanced regime. This may require a change of habits, which is always a pain. But persistence and patience will pay off. In particular,

1. Avoid crash diets. Starvation activates an emergency system that slows your metabolism to save energy. This robs you of the energy needed for study. If you nibble, look into health foods. To lose weight, try a balanced diet and exercise.

2. Avoid junk foods. This means, generally, foods that are rich in fat, salt, or refined sugar. At least in children, junk foods have been linked to poor concentration and short attention span. Statistics also show that people who avoid fatty and salty foods tend to live longer, with fewer heart attacks and strokes.

3. Get regular exercise: tennis, running, walking, swimming, soccer. A neglected motor system sends subtle, nagging signals to the brain, affecting your concentration much as if a child were continually tugging at your sleeve.

4. Get enough sleep. The brain uses sleep time to process the day's experiences. Also, creativity works during sleep time. The brain compensates for inadequate sleep with shorter attention span, lowered creativity, reduced memory capacity, more rigid viewpoints, and irritability. There is no absolute rule about the amount of sleep a person needs, but 8 hours a night is a good baseline. Adjust your hours from there.

Noise pollution

Kurt Vonnegut wrote of a future time when brainy people wear earphones that broadcast noise at random intervals. This reduces their intellect to the average, in the interests of democracy. It would probably work, for noise pollution is one of the worst causes of distraction. Even if you are proud of your ability to concentrate in noisy places, you'll do better in quiet surroundings. Try these remedies for noise pollution:

1. Set up quiet times, when your noisy roommates agree to go elsewhere or be silent.

2. Find a lounge, or study in the library.

3. Get up early in the morning, before anyone else is about. Night-owls can study after everyone else is in bed, but beware of exhaustion.

4. Avoid music during study time. There are times when music can help to screen out distracting conversations, and some people seem to be put off by genuine silence. But most of us do better without the music. Usually, the need for music is a sign that you aren't ready to concentrate on your work.

Social life

You can't study if you read the same line over and over as you dwell on last night's date. The pull of human relationships can derail the best study plans. If this often happens to you,

1. Have your heavy dates on Friday or Saturday so the mind has a day or two to digest the impact before Monday's classes. Let school have Sunday night through Thursday night.

2. Resolve your conflicts. The mind places top priority on conflicts with people.

Intractable cases

If all signs are GO and you still can't concentrate, you may have either an organic or a psychological problem that needs attention.

1. Get a dyslexia test.  Dyslexia is an organic learning disability that occurs in a small percentage of college students (including some who get good grades). The campus Disability Resource Center may offer such tests.

2. See the section on Attitudes at the end of this document.


Successful students vary in their study patterns, but there are some methods that the majority instinctively use. They are listed below as eleven rules of study.


1. Practice the skills you need for exams.

Exam stress clouds your vision, closes down your imagination, reduces your flexibility. You end up doing things you've practiced most often. So it makes sense to practice all the skills you'll need on the exams, until they are second nature.

You may have to wait for the first exam or assignment to know which skills you'll need. If old exams or problem sets are available, analyze them for skill requirements. The list may include:

2. Look for Connections.

Many students pack away information as they would put eggs in a carton: each item is carefully placed in its own isolated compartment. This is the hardest, least productive way to learn. Instead, try to build as many connections as you can between the pieces of information you receive. This is important for at least three reasons:

Learning is easiest if you integrate the facts into a framework as you go. Learning a new fact becomes mostly a matter of finding where it fits into your framework of ideas. Memorizing and cram sessions become relics of the past.

You recall information more easily if your facts are stored in a system of ideas. Each piece of information reinforces and supports all the rest. You build a cross-filing system in memory when you look for connections between ideas.

Problem-solving depends on your ability to string ideas together in new combinations. Practice in finding connections can help. Solving problems in a complex field can be like finding your way home after parachuting into a wilderness. It helps to have been over the ground before, so that you have some landmarks and trail markers.

If you don't know how to tie facts together, here are some useful methods:

a. The bridging game

Write each new term on a small slip of paper: for example, "membrane," "enzyme," "natural selection." Put all the slips in a box, mix them up, and draw out two of them at random. Then try to build a bridge of ideas between the two terms.

For example, suppose you draw membrane and natural selection. You might say "membranes control the transfer of molecules in and out of cells. Transport proteins in the membranes are the controlling agents. Organisms with better proteins are more likely to survive and reproduce than organisms with inferior proteins. The difference in reproduction is natural selection."

The bridge you build will use facts and ideas that you have learned but may never have connected before. Bridge-building is hard at first, but it quickly gets easier with practice. This exercise will leave your memories much better connected than before, without extra memorizing work.

Save all the slips of paper as the course moves along, and use them all when you play the bridging game.

Variations: try bridge-building in a group. One way is to take turns drawing from the box. Or you can forget about the slips of paper, and let members of the group propose pairs of terms. Or use the index in your textbook as a source of terms. The person who has just worked out a bridge can make up the next person's task. The group method is especially useful because, as your friends listen to your efforts, they may detect thinking and knowledge errors that you didn't notice.

b. Mapping

Clear off a table or a large square of floor. Lay out all your slips of paper, with a term written on each. Then try to place the slips on the table so that two slips are close together if they are closely related; far apart if they are unrelated. There is no perfect way to proceed, and no single right layout. But you will learn a great deal as you make your decisions. The map of ideas that you produce will leave traces in your memory, in the form of connections between ideas.

c. Diagramming

Reduce your lecture notes to an outline or diagram. This is the same idea as the proceeding one, but it uses pencil and paper instead of slips. Disadvantage: it's slower because you keep having to erase and start over. Advantages: you get a permanent record and the muscle effort will help to burn the information into your memory.

3. Look for Functional Relationships.

Scholars spend most of their time trying to figure out the answers to "how" and "why' questions. How does the heart work? Why didn't Hitler attack the British at Dunkirk? And so on. When asking these questions, one is looking for functional relationships. Think in terms of functional relationships as much as you can. This will help you to understand the subject more deeply, and will also help to tie the facts together.

4. Question and Guess.

Curiosity is the best drive for learning; it brings the rational and creative minds together. For that reason, the strongest memories relate to ideas that you produced for yourself. Besides, it's more fun to learn what others think when you already have your own ideas.

Most students wrongly think they don't know enough to ask good questions or make good guesses. The truth is that questioning and guessing are most productive when you know the least about a subject. Professional scholars enjoy tackling a new field where nobody knows much and the answers are still anybody's guess. Whether your ideas are good or not, questioning and guessing pay off in deeper, better-connected knowledge of the field.

A good rule about any question is to think first; ask later. Don't consult the book, a friend, or the instructor until you've let your own mind wrestle with the question. But don't forget to check your thinking later: testing is the difference between scholarship and fiction. And when you tell others what you've guessed, always start with the magic word maybe.

Is it hard to think of questions? Many courses move too fast for you to develop questions about the material. Here are some ways to get ideas flowing.

a. Do something creative. Questioning is a basic part of creativity, so any creative activity will help to open up the flow of questions. You might enroll in an art or writing class, take up interpretive dancing or a musical instrument. Look at the newspaper headlines and imagine what the story beneath the headline might say. Look at photos in a magazine; imagine what the people would look like in different apparel.

b. Make mental pictures as you learn. Put a mental question mark on any part of the picture that is vague and unclear. Then express the difficulty as a sharp, clear question.

c. Use humor. The essence of humor is imagination. Spend some time with people who make you laugh. Be a little ridiculous and outrageous. This can be fun in political discussions, where you can take the most extreme position possible.

d. Do some teaching. This will force you to anticipate and work with student questions and trouble spots. Often the questions have no established answers, so you must fill in with scraps of information that are glued together by reasonable guesses.

5. Notice Priorities.

  In anything you study, some things are more important than others. They are high-priority items. Identify them and build your studies around them. They tend to be the focus of exam problems, and they provide anchors for organizing your knowledge.  Here are some tricks:

a. Notice topic headings.  Each heading announces the main point or central idea of the following material.  Also, spend a little time examining the sequence of headings.  This can reveal logical connections and can show which ideas are most fundamental.

b. Notice where the instructor or text spends the most time or space. As they say in business, time is money. Anything that gets much time or space probably contains material of unusual value. Look it over and ask yourself what the value may be. If you can't decide, talk to an instructor.

c. Favor main concepts over examples. For instance, in political science the concept "power corrupts" is more significant than the details of any particular dictator's regime.  Whenever you meet an example, ask what it illustrates.

6. Vary your point of view.

Look at each new topic from as many angles as you can, just as a child will examine a new toy to discover its openings, its sounds, its taste, its uses. A single point of view can be misleading, like the impression you get from a movie set. In addition, the habit of varying your point of view can vastly improve your skill at solving problems. The first step in solving a problem is to find a productive approach, and that means looking at the problem from all sides. Hints for building skill:

a. Use more than one textbook. Comparison reading will give perspective, and will help you to catch errors.

b. Include bridging exercises in your studies, as mentioned above. Ask yourself how a selected concept relates to another concept that you have randomly drawn from your previous studies. This forces you to consider the new topic from varied perspectives.

c. Include problems in your studies. Problem-solving usually involves working with familiar ideas in new combinations.

d. Answer the following questions in relation to each new idea that you encounter:

Some of these questions may not fit a particular topic, and you may add questions to the list. The point is to see the new subject against its natural background, from as many angles as possible.


7. Talk and write a lot.

Learning is a loop process. You listen and watch, try it yourself, listen to your instructor's comments, try again, and so on. Omitting part of the loop wrecks the learning process. It's easy to gloss over rough spots in your knowledge when you merely think about the material, but rough spots become obvious when you express your ideas to someone else. Also, you remember better if you speak or write than if you just think

Do you shy away from performing because you don't want to appear foolish? Remember that every false word is an error you'll never make again. Other students would make the same errors if they spoke up, and they will envy your courage. Scholarship is a trial-and-error process, and it's no disgrace to be wrong.

If you're like most people, you haven't had enough opportunity to perform, and your efforts haven't received enough corrective attention. Big classes and lazy instructors are part of the problem, but it's also partly your own doing. Take matters into your own hands. Try the following:

a. Speak out in study groups.

b. Solve problems in your study group, rather than simply talking about lecture notes. Your group will profit by making up its own problems, but problems from the textbook, instructor, and old exams are good too. The best problems describe a situation, give clues, and ask you to figure out why the situation happened. Avoid problems that merely ask you to recite what you know.

c. Listen when others comment on your performance. Don't be lulled by praise from those who aren't as good as you are. Spend some time with persons whose judgment you respect.

d. Write answers to problems and submit them for grading, even if they aren't for credit. Don't just read over the problems and the instructor's answers.

8. Notice Levels of Abstraction.

Do all facts and ideas seem pretty much equal? In reality, they come in various degrees of abstraction. To build a network of ideas, you'll have to arrange your information in a stack of levels--a hierarchy.

To build a hierarchy, sort the ideas into categories and examples or illustrations. The words automobile. coupe, sedan, truck, vehicle, bicycle, station wagon can be sorted as:

Vehicle is a category that includes all the other terms. To say it differently, all the other terms are examples of vehicles. Automobile is a category that includes van, sedan, and station wagon. In diagrams, the higher categories--the more abstract terms--occur at higher levels. If you find this difficult, practice:

a. Start with familiar topics: household objects, family members, objects used in sports. List all the words you can think of in the area you've chosen. Then sort them into categories and examples. When you find it easy, do the same with the terms you learn in courses.

b. Examine the textbook's table of contents.  It's a hierarchy.

c. Analyze textbook passages. Go through a section, listing the terms you meet. Then put them in a hierarchy diagram. See if the text has pattern (Does each paragraph start with an abstract idea, followed by examples?)

9. Use Mental Pictures.

Most people think in pictures as well as words, but many students set their picturing ability aside in school and rely on words alone. This may work in mathematics and philosophy, but it's a disaster in biology and history. Pictures aid both memory and understanding; they link many ideas together. Good thinkers use pictures to detect weak spots in their ideas; the weak areas show up as fuzzy and vague pictures. To build picturing skills:

a. Start with the familiar. Picture your room or the events that happened on your last night out. To clear the mind's eye, relax and gaze into the distance. Most people are good at this. If you're not, you may be one of the rare people who can't make mental pictures.

b. Make a picture to fit each concept that you learn. Think in color and motion.

c. Remodel the pictures that come from the text or instructor. Imagine how each would look from the back side. Eliminate the frills and accidental parts; make the basic parts visible.

10. Watch yourself at work.

Keep a corner of your mind clear for watching yourself. This promotes growth by showing strengths that deserve a reward, and areas that need improvement. Feelings need special attention, because they relate to value judgments and creativity. Feelings tell when you've written enough on an exam question, and when you're on the right track in a problem. Curiosity and excitement indicate that the creative faculty is pouring energy into an area, implying value. Resistance indicates the opposite. Uneasy feelings warn of weak ideas, logical flaws, gaps in knowledge, missed possibilities, and more.

Most of us pay attention only to the strongest feelings. The unheard lesser feelings offer a wealth of guidance in creative work and thinking. Practice will sharpen your perceptions:

a. Kinesthetic exercise: Lie on your back in a comfortable position, with eyes closed. Move the focus of your attention to each part of your body, feeling the skin sensation there.

b. Watch without judging. In a competitive activity such as a sport or game, keep an inner eye on the sensations from the throat to the pit of the stomach. Don't interpret; just notice. Don't put names on your sensations; just notice how they feel. Don't try to figure out why they happen; just notice them.  Interpretations replace the feelings with ideas.

c. Relive exam experiences. As soon as possible after an exam, go over the paper and recall places where feelings affected your response. Look for places where you left out part of the answer because a voice told you too soon that you'd written enough. Look for places where you had misgivings or you felt something click. Correlate feelings with scores, to clarify the way feelings can be used.

11. Space your studies.

The brain stores a vast amount of information, and ideas are easily lost if they come to attention just once. To keep an idea near the surface, you must lift it to the conscious level at intervals, creating new links with more recent information. The cram-for-exam approach does not allow this vital linking, so you soon lose what you've learned. The cure is to study at regular intervals, allowing repetition. As a side benefit, you will get more out of lectures if you study regularly. Three tips:

a. Review before class meetings.

b. Analyze lecture notes on the day of the lecture. Fit new information into your system of ideas, and look for connections with past material.

c. Do weekly reviews. Once a week, skim through earlier parts of the course to refresh your memory and seek connections.


Many troubles in studying and problem-solving hinge on poor reading patterns. This can apply to good readers as well as those who find reading a chore. Warning signs and advice:

Physical problems

Sleepiness and headaches can result from health or lighting problems, but they can also result from poor textbooks or inner conflicts. Try the following:

a. Check the lighting. It's tiring to peer through the gloom. Change light bulbs until you can read with no strain. Reposition the light so the pages don't have shadows or glare

b. Get enough rest and food. We've been over this before.

c. Have your vision checked, and get it corrected if need be. If possible, get a check for visual dyslexia, too. Some people have tracking problems that cause reading errors.

d. Try a different text. Tell the instructor you are having trouble with it. and ask for a recommendation. You may be able to borrow a different text from the library or a friend.

e. See the section on Attitudes if none of the above seem to help.

Misreading and overlooking key words

If you miss key words as you read, you may completely misinterpret texts and exam questions. Sometimes a word simply doesn't register; in other cases you see the word but misread it. Such errors can result from impatience, preconceptions, inattention, and other causes. Hints:

a. Focus your attention before you read.

b. Underline or highlight key words. Do this both in your text readings and in exams.

c. Check your skill.  Ask everyone in your study group to read the same problem or text passage, listing the key words. Then compare notes. If you are among the less skilled members, practice will help.

d. If the problem is serious, have a dyslexia test.

Missing the Point

Most passages contain a mixture of important and trivial information. Good readers easily pick out the important parts, and even pick up extra information by "reading between the lines." If you often misunderstand, try these methods. You might be slow at first, but practice makes it effortless.

a. Read in two stages. Read it first like a novel, to get the general picture rather than details. Then read it again, slowly, looking for the details listed below.

b. Mark the central ideas. Distinguish them clearly from examples and human interest items that are just fillers.

c. Build a sharp, colorful mental picture as you read. This may be impossible in mathematics and philosophy, but it's essential in biology. Place a question mark on any part of the text that you can't picture. It needs further study.

d. Mark ambiguous or vague spots. You may have done this in (2), but we mention it again because some people ignore anything that is said about mental pictures, and vague spots are too important to miss.

Clear up vague and ambiguous areas immediately. The rush of work will bury trouble spots that you leave for later. Buried ambiguities will haunt you later by weakening your system of ideas.


Memory work has two phases: storing and recalling. The storing process seems to require no work at all; sensory information automatically goes into the memory and stays there permanently. The effort you spend in memorizing is concerned with setting up conditions so that you can recall what you have stored.

To recall information, you send a cue to the memory. A photo can be a cue that calls up a friend's name, along with other memories. The name is also a cue, recalling the face, and so on.

By attaching two or more cues to the same item, you build up cross-references that let you get to a group of facts from several starting points. For instance, either a name or a photo can lead you to memories of a given friend. Cross-references are useful in three ways:

The main task in memory work, then, is setting up a cross-referenced system of cues. Some tips:
1. Understand first: then memorize.

Many students memorize definitions without understanding. This is the hard way, and it leads to short-lived memories that you can't use. The attempt to understand may be all the memorizing you need. Understanding consists mainly in seeing how a new idea connects with other information. With understanding, many ideas lock together like logs in a raft, so that each one recalls the others.

2. Use cues you may meet when you need the memory.

For example, if you are studying the heart, be sure that words like blood, veins, pressure, circulation, and oxygen will make you think of the heart and its properties. These words often come up in problems that involve the heart.

3. Solve problems.

Well-chosen homework or old exam problems bring together facts and concepts in realistic, natural, functional groups. As you think through a problem, the ideas all become cues for one another. In this way, problem-solving takes the place of tedious memorizing.

4. Use pictures and diagrams.

Make diagrams to summarize the information you're been learning. If pictures are available, study them. Now and then, relax and let your mind's eye roam over the field of study, building colorful, vivid pictures. Drawing and visualizing pictures can help in several ways:

5. Supplement flash cards

Some students write every new term on a card, and write its definition on the reverse side. With drill, each side of the card becomes a cue for the information on the opposite side. Unfortunately, flash cards take the facts out of context and limit the formation of cross-references. If you use flash cards, supplement the drill with an exercise that builds more connections. For example, use them in the bridging and mapping games mentioned earlier.

6. Memorizing names and lists.

Some information is hard to remember because it has no inner structure to support cross-references. You meet this problem in learning names or dates. Here are some ways to aid memory with artificial connections: 

a. Use first-letter rhymes. To learn the sequence of spinal nerves, biologists memorize the rhyme "On old Olympus' towering tops, a fat ancient German viewed some hops." Each word in the rhyme starts with the first letter of a spinal nerve, and the inner logic of the rhyme keeps them in the right order.

b. Couple words with pictures. Names can sometimes be remembered by coupling pictures to the syllables. To remember 'Winfield," you could picture a battle in a cornfield. This works best if your picture also hints at Winfield's claim to fame. If he discovered a new way to preserve foods, your battlefield might include a cookwagon. Finding good pictures can be a tough challenge. By the time you've figured it out, you may have dwelt on the name so long that you don't need the picture after all.

c. Word-roots. In law and biology, many terms are built from Latin or Greek words that have good pictorial meanings. If you meet words from another language, find our what they mean. In biology, a snail is called a gastropod The particle gastro- means "stomach" and -pod means "foot," so snails are literally "stomach-foots" (they glide along on their stomachs). If you know this, it's easier to understand snails and to remember their name.


In large classes where instructors are spread thin, a good study group can be the best part of education. Study groups offer moral support, error correction, and models for learning strategies. On the other hand, a poor group can intimidate shy members and reinforce errors. Answer these questions to see how your group measures up:

If you said "no" to any question, the group can be improved. Hints:

a. Find and fix the weak link. You might have a dominator who talks too much, a party-type who always fools around, a leaner who skips class, a sarcastic person who makes others feel inferior. In tactful terms, show the offender what's wrong. Be firm; your education is more important than the passing association with a person who doesn't care enough to cooperate.

b. Recruit new members. A low-scoring group could profit by adding a smart or creative person. By watching how the new member works, you may learn valuable thinking skills. If you're a high-scorer and are recruited, you may benefit because teaching deepens understanding.

c. Join a different group. If the problems are too severe. you might be better off studying alone or forming another group with different members.


You won't build a career around a hated subject, so the best bet is settle for a mediocre grade and put your energy into other courses. If you must go for high marks, try to change your attitude. Hints:

a. Decide that you want to be sold on the subject. Any other attitude will defeat you.

b. Find out why others like it. Talk to a friend who likes it, or a professor or teaching assistant who has chosen this subject for a career.

c. Argue in favor of the subject, in a bull session with friends. Arguing the "pro" side tends to build a kind of patriotic feeling toward the subject.

d. Use the library. Flip through some books on the subject, looking for an angle that catches your interest. Dislike can arise from the instructor's approach to it. For instance, if you are practical and your instructor is theoretical, the class may miss your interests. Popularized books are especially useful; they are written to capture the interests of many people.


Some courses are poorly designed and taught. To get improvements, you must talk with the instructor. Here are some ways to increase the chance of getting action.

a. Talk with a neutral party first. Choose someone who has a level head and understands the system. Try your academic advisor, a faculty member you respect, or a friend who likes the subject of the course.

b. Talk with the person who is the source of the problem. If that fails, go to higher levels, such as the department chair, a dean, or a grievance committee.

c. Be courteous and friendly. A belligerent attitude closes doors.

d. Plan your approach so the instructor won't take a rigid stand. Like all people, teachers find it hard to reverse their stand.

e. Begin with questions rather than accusations. If you don't like the examination system, you might say "I think I understand the material, but I'm finding your exams quite a challenge. Can you suggest anything to improve my work?" The questioning approach has several advantages:

f. Be prepared to offer a constructive suggestion, rather than just criticisms. Instructors usually do the best they can imagine, so you're more likely to get things changed if you can offer an alternative.

g. Find the instructor's point of view and try it on for size. You have nothing to lose; an open mind cannot be poisoned, and people are more willing to change when they feel as if they have been heard. Be a good listener.


Sleep and Daydreams in Lecture

Do you doze off or daydream in class? If so, here are some tips:

a. Get enough rest and good food. Inadequate rest and poor nutrition raise the need for sleep to a high priority. On a starvation diet, your body automatically shifts into an energy-saving mode that can make you sleepy.

b. Sit near the front of class. This has several advantages:

c. Ask questions during lecture. You will be especially alert from the time you start looking for a question until about ten minutes after your question.

d. Get to know the instructor. Visit office hours. People are more interesting if you know them better.

e. Ask the instructor to change.  Several factors can make lectures boring. The lectures may be:

If any of these flaws apply, you can do the world a service by courteously bringing them to the instructor's attention. Yes, the instructor will find it a little painful. But if you are tactful, you will be thanked in the end.

f. Change your lunch hour. The body goes into a drowsy mode after a meal. Eat just before your most interesting class, not before the most boring one.

Fast Lectures

Unfortunately, too-fast lectures are hard to avoid in survey courses. Here are some tricks to help with the problem.

a. Ask the instructor to slow down. This is easiest if you sit far back, where you can remain anonymous. You can try it in office hours, too. However, don't expect the instructor to reform for very long. You're fighting against years of habit.

b. Read a little about the day's topic before lecture. Even a quick scan will reduce the number of unfamiliar ideas.

c. Keep up with your studies. After each lecture, study its content and connect it with past material so that you understand it. Most lecturers build a story from day to day, and you will soon lose the thread if you don't keep up.

d. Use a tape recorder. If you can't afford one, see if the college has a loan center that will lend you a recorder. The tape can help you to sort out and recover parts of the lecture that went by too fast or that caught you napping.

e. Share lecture notes with friends. Others may have caught points that you missed, or may simply understand the material better

f. Ask questions during lecture. This slows the pace, and it speeds up your mind for a few minutes.

g. Sit near the front and be expressive. Nodding heads or frowns catch the lecturer's eye, and can lead to a change of pace. Speakers generally use expressive individuals in the audience as guides. Why not be one of them?

h. Meet the instructor. You may see mannerisms that can guide attention in lectures.

i. Use office hours to supplement lectures. Many instructors work best with individuals and small groups.


Obscure Goals and Standards

The best students seem to have a sixth sense that tells them exactly what an instructor wants. If you don't find it so easy, try the following.

a. See if the course syllabus discusses goals. You may find lists of ideas and skills that you are expected to master. If your instructor doesn't use them, ask why not, and suggest their use.

b. Use old exams and problem sets: they emphasize skills and ideas that the instructor values.


You have a grudge

Don't nurse a grudge; it will drain energy and block learning. Grievances call for immediate action. Tell the instructor how you feel, using tact to avoid a hostile confrontation.

Huge Classes

Being known as an individual, and being part of a group, can help greatly to keep your morale high. This is almost a "must" in courses that seem dry, hard, or irrelevant. If the class is so large that you feel anonymous, try these remedies:

a. Join a study group. If you don't know of any, advertise by posting a note near the classroom, or ask the instructor to announce that some of the students want to form study groups, and those who are interested may gather after class to arrange meetings. If the class has e-mail, use it to reruit a study group. If the class doesn't have a mailing list, ask the instructor to set up a list.

b. Meet a few people in the class. This may mean being more forward than usual. Be interested in others; watch for openings; smile at times; ask questions.

c. Use your instructors office hours. The first visit may be awkward, but in most courses the number of students who visit office hours is small, so after a few visits the instructor will know your face. Come with questions. You'll earn respect if you try to figure out the answers for yourself before you come in; few students do so. Whether you get the right answer is much less important than the mere fact that you try.


Attitudes control the flow of mental energy. This is the principle behind the power of positive thinking. Most of us are self-limiting; we think we've reached the limit of endurance when we have barely begun to tap the potential. Thus, a change of attitude can be the most powerful way to improve your learning. Consider the following.



Have you lost heart because your best efforts result in mediocre grades? If so, your first problem is to regain your morale. When you lose heart, the unconscious mind diverts energy to more profitable activities. To build morale and regain your energy,

a. Get some humor into your life.  Humor has always been the best way to escape from a tailspin. Visit a funny friend or go to a comedy film.

b. Relax. Tension makes the mind rigid and promotes failure. Take some time off and do something that doesn't count. Go white-water rafting, visit the folks at home, read a junk novel. Whatever makes you easy.

c. Do something in which you excel. Success builds morale. Take a course in a field where you have natural talent, or join a club that is devoted to some special interest of yours.

d. Remember your past success. This will help to balance your view by showing that you are not all bad.

e. Isolate the failures. Scan your record and look for a pattern in your failures. Find the areas where you have done the best and worst. The perspective will isolate the difficulty, confining it within a field of study. The effort will also help by giving the problem to your analytical mind, which is less subject to demoralization.

f. Talk to friends about the problem. Since primitive times, humans have used group activity as a way to get the energy flowing. That's what war dances and pep rallies are all about. The energy-controlling part of the unconscious mind responds automatically to the group activity.

g. See a psychologist at the counseling center. One of their main jobs is to help people regain their morale.


Doubts About College

College is hard work, and you won't succeed if your heart is not in it. There are other roads to success in life.

a. Take a vocational test. College prepares people for mental work. If you prefer movement over ideas, you may be happier in a vocation that is passed down from master to apprentice, such as making fine furniture or fine wines. Go to the career guidance center, where you can take a battery of tests to clarify your life path. The dean's office can show you the way.

b. Postpone college; taste the world outside. Get a job or travel. Most colleges will let you take a leave for a year or two without losing your place in school. You might never decide to return. But if you do come back it will be your own mature choice.


The Wrong Major

If you don't like your major courses or you can't get high grades in them, you may be in the wrong major. If in doubt, try the following:

a. Don't be afraid to change majors. Most students change two or three times before they are through with college.

b. Use the library. Wander through the stacks. If you find yourself lingering at a particular section, you may have found your natural field of study.

c. Talk to your major advisor. If you don't have one, ask the dean's office for advice.

d. Use the career guidance center. Don't be a slave to the dreams of childhood. Good tests are available to clarify your interests.