Summer reflections on studying well

I start off every semester pumped up and ready to learn. I am always convinced that the amount of energy I have at the beginning will last me all semester. I came into my first year excited and ambitious: I was going to be a double major and get involved in a wide array of activities, convinced that once internship offers started flowing in, I would be successful and everyone who underestimated me could eat it. The path to success was simple — it was just a matter of stamina. Yet here I am, quitting my summer job at a cafe that has done nothing for me professionally, involved in nothing and not particularly shining in my academics.

It’s times like these — when we find ourselves in a rut — that something must change. The first step to being productive is making a plan, which is what I did. It was a January, it was a new semester, and it was another chance to do things right. I had a plan for academic success. With my mind and the blank pages of my notebooks still fresh and clean, I decided how to use them: textbook notes on “odd” pages, and lecture notes on the “even” pages.

In my mind, I could see full pages of beautiful notes — blocks of information neatly stacked on top of one another, like the moment in Tetris when the long piece falls into place, before it clears out the whole block. I organized my notebooks with colored tabs of varying sizes, highlighters and sticky notes to write on and place next to the book text. I imagined a giant sticky-note rainbow on the side of my textbook and that I would be able to predict all the information between each tab. I had Wite-Out — Wite-Out. I was going to ace this semester. I couldn’t imagine someone this organized doing poorly in school.

After the first week, the lecture notes were longer than my book notes, and the information no longer matched up. By the second week, homework and problem sets from other classes started taking up most of my time. Reading the textbook became a luxury. By the third week, my  weekly summaries became time consuming, as I had review notes from the weeks prior. A couple of months into the semester, I was once again falling into the old habits of cramming and taking disorganized notes. I was just trying to keep my head above water. Then I got lazy.

Perhaps I would have done better in class if I were a little more disciplined or had made more study guides — no, I definitely would have done better. Although I still passed my classes, purely reviewing information did not help me understand concepts. Some things stick with you for the whole semester after a few rounds of practice problems, and some just slip from your mind each week.

Rewriting my notes without practicing concepts failed me simply because it was not the right method. I thought about this and tried to look at the way my study strategies affected my mind. I analyzed the way I stacked papers on my desk and how I sorted the items in my drawers. Did I remember the hues of the stapler and the ruler and organize everything based on color? Am I a visual learner or a methodical learner? Staring at the surface of my desk, it was a complete mess. I found old quizzes I didn’t remember taking and problem sets I didn’t remember finishing. I would have justified the hurricane of papers by blaming my cat or my rats, if I still had them.

I sat down and tried to figure out what I saw or felt when I recalled information, such as the graphs I drew next to words in my notebooks. The memories were more vivid when the graphics were in color. I knew which pages they were on and around which sections. Once I began on this memory train, I could trace back the information that was covered in my notes.

Needless to say, I’ve put the Wite-Out away. The next step might be to organize my own mind, train it to behave in an organized way or find a method that works for me. Perhaps next time, I should try to draw more visual interpretations and toss the sticky notes. Either way, it still comes down to stamina: I needed to keep it up and practice.

Contact Crystal Zhong at [email protected].

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