Great study tips from an Oxford First

This piece on Medium is a great collection of suggestions for how to successfully study. Although written in the context of Oxford University procedures, with which I’m not familiar, the advice is generally applicable, and very timely given the recent start of the fall semester/term.

There’s lots to like here, but I was glad to see she recommends making mind maps. I remember my first encounter with this idea at school in the early 1980s, especially around the work of Tony Buzan (see, I even remember his name!) on memory, and understanding.** I still use this graphic technique to sketch out things I want to understand better. In fact it might be worthwhile introducing this to students if they don’t already know about it as a study technique.

Another great tip that resonates with me is to actively read, rather than passively read. For me this means marking the text with comments, turning down pages, cross-referencing, spilling coffee on the book etc. There is a certain physicality here that cannot be achieved with an e-reader. While I like the latter for easy reading, and appreciate its bookmarking and sharing capacity, when it comes to serious reading where I need to pay attention, I use a physical copy. This way I can make the text if not mine, then in a relationship with me. For example, when I get a manuscript to review, I print it out and put the due date on the first page. I have in the past banned highlighters for my classes for this reason when getting students to work with a reading, though these days I get them to leave comments on Canvas (which we’ve switched to from Blackboard).

This is in contrast to writing, for which I prefer, as here, an electronic means. As a lefty I have found that I write more and in more detail when taking notes on a laptop. The result is also searchable. I have sometimes used a smart pen as well, which can record the talk or lecture, but the downside of this is I need to write with a pen rather than type. Too much computer use can lead to aches in the upper arms as I get older; a not insignificant factor. I need to learn to type properly and get an ergonomic keyboard. I now prefer to take notes on a laptop when I attend talks.

Finally, she mentions an extension for your browser that can block social media but give you 5 minutes every half hour or so. This is good if like me you are easily distracted and don’t want to do a “full Elden” of eliminating social media and email from half your day. When I write I actually need a scattering of notes and sources around me, which can be tamed into as more coherent narrative as I progress. I do tend to over-write and discard, a bad habit from grad school days. Working form a good outline (sufficiently detailed) is quicker, but I do believe that the act of writing is itself creative in that you don’t know where it might take you (in early drafts especially).

One question here is “how to study” (or “revise” as she calls it). What actually is that? OK, you’ve got your browser plugin and are organized but what is studying? This comes up in the context of students who often say to me that they “studied” for the exam but didn’t do well. There’s a mismatch here of what “studying” actually is. Look at the university library with its thin bookshelves, computer terminals and “study rooms” where students can get together and “study” and I guess this might be far from what I understand as studying (revising).

Her point 4 therefore is very useful. A lot of this requires work you do yourself, and this runs against the general sentiment that students should be provided with glossaries, key questions, sample questions, word banks etc. If you don’t provide these students will be at a minimum confused and disappointed. But the point is the active process of making your own glossary, mind map and so on is that you make it your own (and thus more memorable). Studying should not only be cue cards you try to memorize (you do see these being brought into exams even by good students, and while they can be helpful, it’s a form of passivity).

Lucy McDonald also talks about care of the self and care of the body (she does yoga), which perhaps again speaks to the physicality of the process.

So in the context of the great recent pieces on the writing process, it’s good to see more on the process of successfully studying!

**One of his tips for memory was to associate it with something absurd, even rude, so for me his name became Tony Bozz-eye. Stupid, but it worked.


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