What are some errors that every student should avoid?

You may not even think that what you’re doing is wrong! It could be something you do by default or simply because you haven’t found an alternative.

Here are 5 common errors students make (and 5 easy ways to fix them):

  • Waiting until evening to start cramming for an exam
  • Cramming for an exam for hours
  • Not thinking it through
  • Going over and over your textbook and notes quietly
  • Letting distractions steal your attention

Error #1. Waiting until evening to start cramming for an exam.

It may sound like a good idea at first, or maybe you’re just used to studying deep into the night. But you know that feeling of sheer mental exhaustion that kicks in a couple of hours into your nighttime studying? That’s because your brain is becoming overwhelmed with the amount of information it’s already processed during the day. And that’s just how your circadian rhythm works. For most of us, it’s not nighttime but mornings that are optimal for doing work that requires a lot of concentration and analytical thinking. For studying, this work includes reading, doing exercises, analyzing, critical thinking, and problem solving.

How can you fix this?

  • Make the most of your circadian rhythm by studying the hardest material in the morning. The benefit is that your brain is well rested from sleep, is not yet distracted by events happening around you, and therefore can focus better on analytical tasks.
  • Schedule in a study session 2-4 hours after you wake up. For example, if you wake up at 7, your peak times are between 9 and 11 a.m. If you have classes early in the day, consider shifting your sleeping schedule so that you can wake up earlier to tuck in a study session. And if your mornings are free, extend this time until lunch to maximize your peak performing hours.

Error #2. Cramming for an exam for hours.

It’s quite a challenge to stay focused on your textbook when you’ve been sitting at your desk for hours reading through it. If anything, you’re less likely to keep your motivation up in order to continue. There’s a better way to study smarter instead of harder and longer.

How can you fix this?

  • When you’re ready to begin studying, use a timer. It will help your brain focus more effectively. Here are two ways to do it:
    • When reading or reviewing study material: Set the timer to 30 or 60 minute increments to maximize concentration; or, try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks. When the timer goes off, step away for 10–15 minutes: grab a snack, go for a quick walk, or listen to music.
    • When preparing for exams: Use your timer to simulate an exam. First, start with the review questions provided in your textbook or by your professor, or create your own based on key concepts from each chapter. Then, write the questions down on a sheet of paper in a list format. Set your timer to the Pomodoro technique to give yourself a short time to answer the questions, and go down the list until you’ve covered all of them.

Error #3. Not thinking it through.

The typical study session consists of a general plan to cover certain chapters, followed by a review and going over notes. But this doesn’t mean you got your brain on board with what you’re actually doing: working towards a specific goal.

How can you fix this?

  • Tell yourself a story! It’s not a joke – it’s a technique called building a mental model, in which we tell ourselves a story of what we expect to happen in the near future so that we can master our concentration for what we need to do. In the case of studying, it’s mentally preparing ourselves for our studying day. Here’s how it works:
    • Start your day by visualizing your success. Do this before you begin by setting aside 5–10 minutes before you get up in the morning, while you’re having breakfast, or right after breakfast as you sit with your eyes closed.
    • Think about all the steps you will take. This can include covering the chapters and exercises planned for that day, to taking the time to review the material, to writing out an outline of important concepts, to practicing exam questions and knowing the answers.
    • Anticipate which concepts you may struggle to understand and remember. This helps you prepare for problems so you don’t end up surprised because you don’t understand a part of a chapter. Brainstorm ways to resolve the problem (for example, if it happens, you will make a plan to ask a classmate, reach out to the professor, or set aside a little extra time for review).
    • Imagine a positive outcome. For example, think about finishing what you planned to do for the day and how great that will feel. Having a sense of accomplishment and celebrating small wins each day will boost your motivation and help you feel more positive about making progress towards your exams.
    • Plan to treat yourself well in the evening for all your hard work.Depending on your personal preferences, you may want to go for a long walk with a friend, or a long bike ride, or a run, then watch a fun movie or spend time with someone close to you.

Error #4. Going over and over your textbook and notes quietly.

For most students, this is the way we’ve been studying for years: we read through a chapter once, twice, three times. Then we go over our notes. And we do our exercises. All in silence. But did you know that the teaching technique (i.e. teaching what you’ve learned to someone else) is one of the most powerful memory techniques? It helps you recall and retain what you learned better and faster than just silently reading your book and notes.

How can you fix this?

  • First, get an audience: a close friend, study partner, family member, even your dog if you’re lucky to have one, or simply pretend you have a couple of invisible students.
  • Next, take a large sheet of white paper and tape it to your bedroom wall at eye level. If you’d like, get a few sheets and tape them together for a larger writing surface.
  • Then, get to work: write an outline of the most important points in the chapter you just covered, then go over the concepts aloud one by one. Make it dynamic: draw diagrams on the side and talk through a few examples.
  • Finally, summarize the key parts and highlight these sections with your marker or highlighter. This helps you recall and solidify what you’ve learned.

Error #5. Letting distractions steal your attention.

There are so many distractions that can slow you down and keep you occupied so much that you find your eyes and your focus wandering off to things that aren’t top priority. Sometimes it’s a call from a friend, or listening to the news, or checking the notifications from the apps on your phone.

How can you fix this?

  • Be more proactive at eliminating distractions around you. Here’s how to do it:
    • Check emails and social media apps 3 times a day. Spending your peak performance hours to read through social media updates, emails and news is a waste of your mental energy. A good schedule to follow is to check around lunchtime, later in the afternoon, and in the evening. You can use your short breaks between work sessions to catch up on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
    • Set your phone to Airplane mode when you need to focus without a single interruption. If it’s not possible for you to do that, then turn off the volume in your phone settings and put your phone away so that you can’t see it in front of you.
    • Set expectations with people close to you by letting them know you won’t be available in the next few hours. It sounds obvious but it isn’t; nobody will know you need your quiet time, so you do need to tell them. Let them know when you’ll reach out with a call or in person to catch up with what’s happening that day.
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