Resources for help with your studying and working habits:
There will be many first things that I will mention here, so right off the bat I want to acknowledge that I know there can only be one first thing to do, but I rate many of these as equal so I find it hard to tell which comes first. And at the end of the day you should pick which is more important to you and go with that.
First lesson: Work smarter, not harder.
Not all hours are created equal. For example: An hour before an exam, is not the same as an hour a week before the exam.
Find your best working style, learn yourself, learn what you do best and how you do it best. This will require some effort on your own behalf. You will have to think about yourself and ask yourself important questions about your behavior. Some things to consider:
some people are morning people, they get the most work done before 9 AM
some people are night people, they work best when it is dark outside and everyone is sleeping
some people work with groups, some prefer to work alone
some like to draw, others like to write, and others like to talk, while other like to watch and listen
there are several types of intelligence, which are your strongest forms?
almost everyone works best when they have a deadline, give yourself meaningful deadlines
Getting Things Done
This is a technique that was developed by David Allen. He has a book by the same name. I made a 6 minute video introduction for a class at MIT, you can save the slides from here. There are several take home message; here are two to consider:
First: decide what needs to be done as soon as it comes into your life. If you can do it in under 2 minutes, do it now. If you need more time, then develop a protocol that you can use so you can remember when to do it.
Second: Do a weekly review, read over your notes at the end of every week. Tie up your loose ends, re-read hard concepts from your class notes. Read over the homework assignments for next week, and take some notes about anything you don’t yet understand (when you are in lectures you will hear about these things and you will realize they are important to remember because they are part of your homework)
Consider reading the book and applying the method to your life. Everyone I have suggested it to do, have all started using it immediately and said something along the lines of: "this is exactly what I needed now to help me get everything under control."
Learning styles and habits
There are many styles of learning, and I only know of a few in detail because they suited me best. If my list doesn’t work for you, then consider looking for others.
Named after Richard Feynman, a famous, and funny physicist who was also a very clever man.
He believed he could learn anything about any subject, as long as it was described to him in simple English, without using terms/words that he didn’t know. And I think this is quite true, if you can spend time with someone who knows what they are talking about, you can ask them many questions and learn from them, as long as they talk to you in a way that is simple to follow, like in a conversation, you can understand what they are saying.
So, how to apply this to learning a subject at school? Well, if you are not clear about the details of a certain topic, write down the questions that would help you understand the topic. For example: I am unclear about how angular velocity is related to angular acceleration, what makes them different from each other? Or, what makes them the same as each other? Keep asking the questions to yourself, writing them all down.
TIP: knowing and asking the question can be the biggest step to learning. When you can identify what you don’t know, it is much easier to learn it. If you don’t know what you don’t know, it is very hard to learn about it. SO, don’t be afraid to take a fresh sheet of paper to write the questions that you have about any subject. No question is too big or too small. Keep asking the questions until you find a question that you can answer, and then slowly you will start to answer all the questions that you have, and eventually you will have learned a whole lot of stuff. This is the Feynman method in a nutshell.
What to remember? What material is important?
When you are reading a new subject everything can be so new you don’t know what to focus on, so you can immediately become lost. Here are five things to think about: names, dates, technical terms/words, equations and formulae, homework questions.
Names and Dates: If a person is mentioned, it is because they made a strong contribution to the subject, learn something about that person. When you learn something about them, it will help you understand the subject a little more because it gives you some context. As for learning about dates, this is like learning about the people, it is about the history of the subject. Personally I love to learn about the history of a subject, it always helps me have some context for what I am learning now, in 2015, compared to what people were thinking 200 years ago for example. There is usually a good reason why your course is structured the way it is, why it teaches the things that it teaches. Most likely the content of your course is tried and tested, it has been in use for so long that people have decided it works the best. It is an accumulation of hundreds of years of trial and error, and now it is taught the way you are learning it. To help you understand the subject it can help to know how different the past was. This will eventually help you look forward to the future also, when you become a master of your subject, you can look forward, and avoid the mistakes of the past, hopefully.
Technical words/Terms: I have heard that up to 80% of a subject is based on specific words. Words have meaning, and technical words have very specific meaning. If you want to be understood, you need to learn to speak the language from your discipline. Different disciplines use different words that are often specific to that subject. So get used to learning lots of new words. At the start of your studies this is very daunting, because almost every word could be a new word, and it will seem like too many new words. But as soon as you write them down, and put them on a special sheet of paper, you can make your own dictionary, and eventually all the words will have meaning to you too. And you can get busy with the real work.
Equations and Formulae: these are often extremely important. You know the saying that a picture can say a thousand words, a formula is a picture, no, it forms a picture. A formulae is more powerful and says much more than a picture. In your mind it can make a whole movie. A formula describes a whole scene, it describes what happens before, during and after a physical change. Learn to interpret formulae. Learn what the graph will look like, what are the boundaries and limits, does it describe a line, a parabola, or a circle? All of these are just examples of what a formulae might describe, really the list is quite endless. If you want further help understanding some basic functions I suggest you check out 'OCW Big Picture Calculus'.
Homework questions: Be deliberate about what you learn and remember, save yourself time and energy. For example, if you have homework to do, you already have the homework questions, so read through them. When in class/lecture, or reading through the textbook, if you see something related to your homework assignment, make a note, put a small mark on your page to remind you where it is. When you are doing your homework, go back to that mark, now you don’t have to read from the beginning again, because you have helped yourself by leaving that mark on your notes. This can save lots of time!!!
Learn it like you are teaching it
This is one of the fastest ways to learning anything. When you are expected to teach something, your mind really works a little harder to understand material you are studying. This was probably one of the first tricks that I ever employed in my life, it sort of happened naturally, that if I thought I was going to teach the material I found I learned it better. While I was studying I would imagine discussing this at a class, or with my family during meal time. I would imagine me trying to convey the meaning to them in a way that they would understand it. I would do it in a way that was like a conversation. I would think of examples, or analogies that I could use to help them think about it and learn it. I would make up stories about how it was first discovered or how it is important in everyday life. But always, I would seem them beside me, in front of me, listening to me, asking me questions, probing me and challenging me, and I would respond to that challenge and learn more if I couldn’t. It’s a simple mind game, but in my experience I think it works. And thankfully I did this because later I did become a teacher.
Break things down into manageable chunks
This is a very useful habit that can be done two ways:
- Break up topics/projects/tasks
- Break up your time into chunks
Projects/Work load: Break things down into smaller parts, then work on those smaller parts, and eventually you will have completed the entire spectrum of materials you need to do. It can be daunting to look at a large packet of work, so making it into smaller chunks can make things much easier for your brain to sort through, and it can calm your nerves. A good friend of mine has this saying: “anything that needs to get done, will get done.” Even if you don’t know yet how you will find the time to do it all, you can get it done eventually, so break it down, work on the smaller parts, and soon you will be much further along.
Time: Just knowing you have 8 hours of work ahead of you can be enough to slow you down. Take it one step at a time. I use a system of 25 minutes of work, 3 minutes of break, do this on and off for about 5 sessions, then take a longer break. It is quite amazing how much you can get done if you push yourself for just 25 minutes. I use an app called Pomodoro, it is free to use. But you could just use a timer or alarm if you prefer.
The world is not black and white or blue and white, so your notes don’t need to be neither. Use colors, our brains can handle much more information than we give it when we just write with monotone color. We can see large pictures and put lots of information together all the time that you walk around. Put some color in your notes, be creative.
Draw (Mind Maps/Spider Graphs)
"a picture is worth a thousand words"
There are many ways to draw notes and put ideas together in graphic format. My favorite and most commonly used method is Mind Maps. This technique was created by Tony Buzzan. It puts lots of information into a pattern that is mapped around a central theme.
They can take time to make, but they are worth it in my opinion. Because when you spend time making it, you are learning it, and making it more clear in your mind. When you are mapping it out, you are thinking about how it all relates together. When reviewing material you are looking at pictures, each one unique, this greatly helps to remember the material. As a comparison, take a sheet of text that you have written, how easy is it review the material? You have to read through the blocks of text, this takes more time and energy compared with looking at a unique picture. Additionally, the process of making mind maps employs both the left and right side of your brain which can be advantageous.
Check out the gallery to see some examples.
Another option to see how things are related is to use spider graphs, these can also be very good for reviewing a topic because it forces you to realize and create connections between all the information you have in your head.
There are plenty of other visualization techniques, feel free to find others that suit you or just make one up.
Papers/Literature (how to them read fast)
You will probably get to read hundreds of journal articles during a PhD, thanks to a friend of mine, Eoghan, I learned to read through them much faster. If you want you can read them in this order, and at any step you can decide that you are done with the paper and move on to the next one, without having to read the entire text. Read them in this order:
- Title, Abstract: From the title do you think this paper is even going to be any good for you? When you have read the abstract you should have a good idea whether there is any useful information in there for you. If there is not, then you can probably move on to the next paper.
- Figures/Tables: have a quick skim of the figures, are they interesting to you? do they hold important information? If they do then you can be assured that some of the paper will be interesting to you, if they do not, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of the paper.
- Experimental: What science was done, and how was it done? After a while you will become very familiar with the many ways that things can be done, what codes were used, what programs were used, what building constants were used etc. They are like recipes, and after a while you can judge a good or interesting recipe from any other. So, read the experimental section to see what was done and how.
- Results: what results did they get, how does this compare with the experimental (recipe), would you expect those results? etc
- Conclusions: Go to the conclusions, because now you know what was found and how it was found would you agree with the conclusions, or would have made different conclusions?
- Discussion: This will give all the reasons why the authors got to their conclusion, and you might notice that they skipped over something, or you might notice that they covered something that you hadn’t thought of previously.
- Introduction: Yes, I read this last, if I even read it at all. After about 10 papers on the same topic you will soon realize the introduction is pretty much the same everywhere, and not worth your time to read unless it is written with beautiful writing.
By following these steps, I can scan lots of papers and filter out what I need and what I don't. I see if there is anything important for me to sit down and read carefully.
Note: When you start out in research, or a new subject area, you will need to read a lot to understand what is the current state of the art. You will be easily overwhelmed if you try to read each paper from one end to the other. Using these steps will help you decide whether the paper is worth reading from end to end.
I hope this helps. I will post more as time goes by. Feel free to let me know if these work for you, or you have other suggestions.