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Academics

Tips 'n Tricks for Learning

Adina Glickman


I work as an academic success coach, and so people are always asking me for tips and tricks on learning. In our high-speed, smartphone world, we tend to like shortcuts ("Isn't there an app for that?").

In response, I’m usually pretty Luddite (i.e., anti-tech). Learning is a complex process and takes time, so there are no tricks. And while tips and suggestions can be useful, it’s the support students get in building habits of mind that really helps them turn the corner in their academics.

However, I have discovered some glaring gaps and misconceptions about study skills and learning that every student should know about. To my chagrin, it turns out they can be pretty simply illustrated (though it still takes time to master them!) and to my delight, making videos to illustrate them is a super fun hobby.

For my fellow Luddites who eschew videos, here are words and sentences to describe four of the ideas I want every student to know.

1. We Learn in Layers

Any kind of higher learning is done over several passes. Students, who in high school could ace the test without ever opening the textbook, will find that a one-and-done approach to studying no longer yields success. In college, the many components of a single class all contribute an essential layer to the building of comprehension and knowledge.

Each layer is incomplete on its own which is why you need them all. You zone out in class for a minute and miss something. You read a passage and it doesn’t make sense. You review your notes and realize you left out something important. Each encounter with the material is necessary to the process of learning.

It turns out that it’s not “teaching to one’s learning style” that’s really useful, it’s learning through multiple modalities.[1] So the more combinations of reading, listening, writing, talking, thinking, doing, making and watching you can do, the more robust your learning will be.

2. Must. Review. Notes.

Notes are an essential layer of learning, and most students do take them. But not everyone looks at those notes after taking them, or looks at them weeks (or even months) later as preparation for an exam.

It’s SO important to look at those notes, and to do so within about a day of taking them. After that first 24 hours, your memory of what you learned begins to fade. If you wait a week, you’ve lost about 40%, and it continues to drop off after that.

3. Warm Up Your Brain

The brain is like a muscle, and to benefit from its strength, doing a “cognitive warmup” before an exam will help you make better use of the limited amount of time you have to do the work. If you're about to take an Econ exam, doing an Econ problem about 15 minutes before the test begins gets you thinking like an economist with the terminology and logic of an economist so that when you see that first question, your brain is already all lit up in the neural networks that connect to Econ.

4. One Calendar to Rule Them All

There’s only one you and there’s only one clock. So use one time management system, whether it’s a calendar or lists, or a collection of sticky notes on your wall.

If you lean towards maintaining multiple tools to plan and manage your time, you are creating cracks in your system. Better to integrate your lists and your sticky notes and your calendar and all of the other fragments of information that come to you via email and on Canvas or Blackboard or whatever LMS your school uses. Consolidating information about assignments, due dates and appointments into one calendar will take less time to maintain (only one place to look) and ensure that nothing gets left behind. Don’t put your “personal” stuff on the calendar and your “school” stuff on a list.

Think of these tips as being equivalent to the attention a chef pays to keeping their knives sharp. Sharp knives don’t make you a good chef — success takes time, effort, motivation and opportunity — but they are pretty essential in the entire cooking process.

View all Adina's Learning Tips n' Tricks videos here >

[1] Jaipal, Kamini. "Meaning making through multiple modalities in a biology classroom: A multimodal semiotics discourse analysis." Science education 94.1 (2010): 48–72.

Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching Group, which offers academic, life, parenting and career coaching. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at affinitycoachinggroup.com.
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