Teaching How to Study

In my work as a tutor, there is literally no more important skill I teach than how to study. Students come to me for help on the GMAT, the GRE, and the LSAT, which are all difficult exams.

Students are right in that they need the strategies to solve the questions on these exams. But what they’re missing is that they also never learned how to study in the first place.

Core concepts in how to study:

  1. Try to master a question before trying to memorize an equation.
  2. Optimize fluency of a process before speeding up your work
  3. Use error logs and spaced repetition to improve, instead of grinding through random problems

The first concept is “Mastery before memorization”. Students don’t understand that memorizing something before being able to use it makes both processes much more difficult. For instance, many students try to memorize lists of equations and mathematical facts for the GRE and GMAT.

They do not realize that they should put the equations into practice first, then learn how the equation functions within the problem, then memorize the equation. Going backwards is like learning English by memorizing a dictionary.

The second concept is “fluency before speed”. The exams I teach, like most exams, are timed. Students need to do questions quickly while withstanding the pressure of the clock.

Understandably, most students focus their studying around that. What they don’t realize (and what I then have to teach them), is that speed comes with fluency.  Once a student is fluent with techniques, they can speed them up easily, in the same way that a fluent speaker of English can choose the speed they talk at.

The third core concept is how to achieve both mastery and fluency. That’s dependent on spaced repetition. Mastery comes from using something over and over again in different forms, like how people learn to ride a bike by simply trying it over and over again.

Fluency comes from memorizing and becoming comfortable with multiple different forms of the same concept, like how an English speaker can easily understand the same sentence phrased in two different ways: “Would you mind if I took a seat?” vs. “I’m going to take a seat, if you wouldn’t mind.”

With mastery and fluency through spaced repetition, a student’s studying allows them to not only learn the material, but generalize their learning to the next question that they’ll see.

Teaching How to Study for a Standardized Test

Studying for a standardized test requires all the concepts I’ve mentioned. In fact, you’ll find these same concepts in my articles about how to study for the MCAT, the GRE,  and the LSAT. Studying always requires focus on mastery before memorization, fluency before speed, and spaced repetition to achieve both.

The biggest problem people have with standardized tests, though, is that there’s a lot of propaganda around them spread by both the test-makers and the test-prep companies. For a long time, the test makers pretended that it was impossible to study for their tests. They claimed it was simply a test of all the knowledge a student learned throughout their time in school.

More recently, the test makers have changed their tune, and pretended that the only thing to learn about standardized tests is the content. Or, more specifically, they’ve confused content with process: witness how Khan Academy has partnered with the SAT, LSAT, and MCAT (not a bad thing, but video lectures aren’t close to being enough to learn an exam).

Unfortunately, this dovetails with the interests of the test-prep companies, who also prefer teaching content, or at least disguising process as content. It’s way easier to sell, because then all that is needed is to provide videos or books to the student.

Or, in other words, the test makers and and the test-prep companies focus on memorization, neglecting to teach students to learn how to actually solve a novel problem.

Key concepts in studying for a standardized test

  1. No matter how difficult a question appears, it is designed to be solvable. In fact, the entire exam is solvable.
  2. Your score is based on the questions you get right. Therefore, the single most important thing for you to master is getting questions right.
  3. There are materials out there to help you learn how to to do the questions.
  4. All questions on the exam are based around a limited set of topics.

These facts, though obvious, are central to a student’s studying. First, no standardized test or standardized test question is impossible for any student. Every test and every question is solvable.

If it looks impossible, you simply have not encountered that type of question before, so you have not had the chance to master the question. Or, it’s possible it’s a disguised version of a question you have encountered before, which means you need to increase your fluency in that process. If the question was impossible, it would not be on the exam.

Second, in order to study for the exam, you need access to a lot of high-quality questions (with answers and, preferably, answer explanations). That’s the single most important investment for the exam, as studying the questions through spaced repetition is what will lead to mastery and fluency of the questions.

The questions on an exam all fall within certain topics and types. That’s how they make the test solvable. If your pool of questions represents all the topics and types of questions, then you can master the exam.

Third, all studying is based, in the end, around getting questions right. A student will need to memorize some things in order to do well on the standardized test, but the purpose of memorizing this content is to get questions right. A student should not study more than that, or worry about studying more than that.

Finally, because there are a limited number of topics, mastery and fluency in one question allows a student to learn how to do the next question. This process is accelerated if a student is asked to actively reflect on how the lessons from one question can be applied to other questions.

Steps 2, 3, and 4 can all be made much easier with the proper use of spaced repetition through an error log and flashcards.

Teaching How to Study from a Textbook

Sometimes, as a tutor, I feel like other tutors and teachers are afraid of textbooks. They think textbooks are going to take their jobs. In college, I used to have professors who would force their students to buy a textbook, then give lectures that had nothing to do with the textbook, and then give an exam based on a confusing amalgamation of the two.

It was some sort of dysfunctional relationship: my professors felt like their class needed to be a textbook to be official, but they simultaneously feared that the class would listen to the textbook instead of them.

I come at the problem a different way. A textbook is a tool. A good teacher can show their students how to use a textbook as a tool effectively. A bad teacher cannot.

If a teacher can be replaced by a textbook, they should be, because they’re missing something crucial in learning how to teach.

Key Concepts in Studying from a Textbook

1. Make the student figure out what their goal is. It needs to be specific, because memorizing every word in a textbook is a waste of time. What specific skills or content do they need to learn from the textbook that they don’t already know?

2. Teach the students how to track their progress towards their goal. Students need short-term, medium-term, and ultimate checks on their progress. Each day, they should be able to tell whether they’ve made progress on their goal.

Preferably, that would be with the questions the textbook provides: the daily questions for short-term progress, the quizzes and tests for medium-term progress, and some sort of final exam as an ultimate check. If there aren’t suitable questions or quizzes in the textbooks, though, the student needs different sort of checks.

3. Motivate the student to both work hard and be reflective about their progress. Depending on the student, it is possible that they will get discouraged and stop doing the required work.

Alternatively, it is possible that the students will simply power through the textbook, without thinking about their progress towards their ultimate goal. It is a teacher or tutor’s responsibility to make sure that the student is achieving mastery and fluency in the concepts and problems: using an error log for the problems, and flashcards for the content.

Of course, it’s possible to just avoid the textbook altogether by spoon feeding the content to the students. That’s a waste of time, though, and a waste of the teacher’s potential.

A good teacher cannot make a student learn, any more than a student can learn by sitting near a textbook. But if the teacher works with the student to learn through the textbook, then the student will learn at a far faster rate and in greater depth than they would working through the textbook alone.

Teaching How to Study from Lectures or PowerPoint Slides

Studying from lectures or PowerPoint slides is frustrating. Quite frankly, most educators do not use lectures or PowerPoint slides well, which makes studying from them a pain.

A lecture or a PowerPoint slide is a slow method of delivering information. Unlike a book, there’s no going back with lectures or slides to understand unless the lecture is recorded. Even if it is recorded, listening to something is slower than reading for most, and lectures or PowerPoint slides tend to contain less information.

As a teacher, if you are the one giving the PowerPoint lectures, you need to structure them in a way that makes it easy for students to learn from them. But that’s a topic for another time.

Key Concepts in Studying from a Lecture or PowerPoint Slides

1. Make the student figure out what their goal is. in attending the lecture A lecture will present a lot of different facts and information. A good lecturer will make it clear what is necessary information and what is not.

Still, a student needs to come into the lecture with an idea of what they need to get out of it (preferably through already doing questions or quizzes). It’s impossible to take notes on a lecture without knowing what you want to learn from the lecture.

2. Teach the students how to track their progress towards their goal. There needs to be short-term, medium-term, and ultimate checks on whether they’re learning what they’ve needed.

Preferably, they will have homework for each lecture, quizzes for a group of lectures, and an exam for the entire section of lectures. Students need to make sure that the homework, quizzes, and exams reflect their learning. If it does not, they need to change something to achieve better mastery and fluency.

2. Motivate the student to both work hard and be reflective about their progress. In college, quite frankly, I spent a lot of time in lectures zoning out or playing games on my laptop. I was not motivated to listen to the lectures or take notes, because they seemed to have no bearing on my learning.

Even when I paid attention to the lectures, I was never reflective about how the information I learned was related to what I had learned before, or my overall progress in the class. An engaged teacher or tutor makes a student motivated, and open-ended questions can foster reflection.

Most students waste their time in lectures, and, as a result, lecturers tend to waste their time giving them. Some of that is the lecture’s fault, but some of that can be traced to the fact that students tend not to know how to study or learn from lectures.

They come in without any idea of what they need to know or how they can tell if they’ve learned what they need, and then lose motivation to even pay attention to the lectures.