The White Carpet Theory of Learning (#78)

My theory is that learning is immensely improved when we focus on one thing at a time. While we love to say we can multitask, it really isn’t possible given the way our brains work. Instead, we shift our focus back and forth, losing concentration, time, and effectiveness with each change.

Students will say that they can’t focus on only one thing at a time. They have grown up with personal technology, active social lives, and heavily scheduled activities, and doing only one thing at a time seems too slow, as if they were driving 20 miles per hour on the highway.

When they are studying, they glance at their phones for incoming texts, keep Facebook on their computer screens, and have music playing. “It’s how I do it,” they say. Then they complain about how much time it takes to study, yet they don’t remember what they read.

My white carpet theory is this: Remember the last time you were at someone’s house, carrying a plate of food. Picture their white carpeting, and the slow motion of your food sliding off your plate, tumbling through the air, droplets of gravy or butter sauce, chunks of vegetables, and slices of rare meat falling, falling toward the floor. It seemed like minutes, yet you couldn’t move fast enough to catch anything and avoid the stains developing and spreading.

Can you remember every drop, every piece, every color and texture of your food being attracted as if magnetized by that carpet? Of course. And you remember each person who was there to witness the accident. And exactly where you were standing. And how you felt.

So if you can remember all those details of something that took only seconds of your attention, why can’t you do the same with studying?

Instead of trying to study for an hour, set an alarm for ten minutes. Or even five. Then use this same power of concentration to focus solely on your work, picturing each thought of the text in your mind. As soon as the alarm sounds, stop studying and walk away.

A few moments later, test yourself to see whether you remember more of what you read.

Repeat as necessary.

You can do it!


Student Success Strategy #76: Finals!

How do you study for finals?  Consider these four students:

Adam crams the night before a final exam, sometimes using energy drinks or coffee to stay up most of the night.  He hasn’t fallen asleep and missed any finals yet, but that’s one of his worries.  He keeps three alarm clocks set for an hour before the test so he can be sure to get to the classroom in time.

Bailey talks a lot about studying, but by the time the final comes, she reads a few notes and skims through her books, then figures that if she doesn’t know it by then, that nothing will help at that late time.  She goes into the final with an attitude of doing the best she can without good studying, and promising to do better next semester.

Cory sets aside time every day during finals week to focus just on one class.  He knows his friends are out having more fun than he is, but he spends at least three hours the day before his exam to prepare.  He feels good walking into the exam, but has a nagging feeling that he’s missed something important.

Dana spends one hour each week on each of her classes, beyond any assignments, to go over all her notes, improve them when she can, and write a few questions that would seem to be something that could show up on the final.  By the time finals week comes, she reads through her notes, spends about an hour a day on each class until that final is done, adding one extra hour sometimes for an especially stressful class, and thinks she is fairly well prepared.

Who gets the best finals grades?  Who feels the best during the break between semesters?

Which strategy do you use, or do you have something else that works for you?

Student Success Strategy #76:  Think of preparing for final exams as an obligation.  Pay a little at a time through the semester, or pay during finals week.  In either case, you pay.  But what you earn – and learn – from your payment is up to you.

Student Success Strategy #74: Gearing up for Finals!

The semester is about two-thirds done by now, and you are feeling the post-midterm slump.  You have lost some of your motivation and excitement from classes, even those within your areas of interest.  Don’t stop now!

Even if you are happy with your progress throughout the semester, and your grades so far, you need to find a way to gear up for finals.

This is a great time to refine your study habits.

Have you been keeping up with all your assignments?  Make it a goal to finish those in the next few weeks two days early, and use the two extra days to review material from the first weeks of class.

Have you been taking great notes?  After reviewing them in the evening after your class, take an extra ten minutes to review notes from the beginning of the semester, going through two or three class periods of notes each night.

Have you been studying alone?  Make arrangements for a session or two with a friend in the class, and see whether your early notes can be combined for even greater understanding.  Then discuss what is left of the semester and how to keep each other on track.

Having a study partner, whether you actually study together or just check in with each other, can help you maintain progress throughout the semester.  A simple question – “Did you finish your work yesterday?” – can remind you that even a single day lost may make a difference.  Letting each other know what you need to do, and including an early review of material long past, can set you up for easier times near finals week.

Learning, and remembering what you have learned, is easier with frequent repetition and review rather than cramming.  Start now, and you won’t have to stress over the approach of final exams.

Student Success Strategy #74:  Gear up for finals.  Do it early.  Do it easy.  

Student Success Strategy #67: Doodles

What do your handwritten notes look like?  Are there squiggles, stars, or other non-text doodles in the margins?  Why not make them fun AND useful?

Instead of random doodling, draw a quick picture of something that would remind you of the main points in your notes?  Sure, it’s easy if you need to label parts of a cell, but be creative.  Is there a quick picture you could draw next to the main points you need to remember.

How many times have you “looked” inside your brain and seen the page where information appears, and you know exactly where on that page the information you need is written?  Adding a small picture will make it more easily spotted in your brain.

Even a star, an underline, or a colored highlighter will help, but if you can add a picture with meaning, your brain will make a stronger association and will be more likely to recall the information when you are under the stress of a test.

Try it!  You know you are doodling anyway.

Student Success Strategy #67:  Make doodling a study strategy to remember important material more easily.

Student Success Strategy #53: Dictionary? Textbook?

Once upon a time, freshmen entering college were advised to purchase and bring a college-level dictionary to school.  It was a hardback book, hundreds of pages long, with tiny printing.  Students often used it more for a door stop than an educational resource, but it became important while reading textbooks before tests.  All those terms that you could skip while skimming suddenly became important to understand.

Today, textbooks almost always have glossaries either in the back of the book, or within each chapter.

Success in college comes from understanding the materials you are using.  This means more than skimming, and it should mean that you can use and define the terms in each discipline or field.

Just like the word “strike” is bad for a baseball player at bat but good for a bowler, you may find that each subject has it’s own set of terms that may mean different things within that class.

A dictionary might help you with this, but the glossary in your textbooks will be most useful.  If you are taking notes on your text or in lectures, it’s a good idea to define these terms prominently.

The Cornell method of note taking is especially good for this, as there is a space at the bottom for extra comments, translations, or summaries.  Flashcards are also great for learning unfamiliar terms.

Student Success Strategy #53:  Dictionary?  Textbook?  Learn the correct terms as they apply to the specific class.  

Student Success Strategy #34: The Library

Tiffany had a research paper to write on a subject of her choosing in family sociology.  It was due in four weeks, so there was plenty of time to figure it out.  No need to consider the topic yet – this weekend was a football game and a party.

The new week started, and Tiffany had a quiz in History and a speech for her Communications class.  No need to start the paper when she had to focus on those other assignments.

The following weekend, she decided to go home to see her high school friends.

Week two began, and her professor reminded the class that the paper should have at least five citations from scholarly journals, a clear thesis statement, and be written in APA format, whatever that meant.  Tiffany knew she was smart enough to figure it out, and she was tired from her weekend at home.

In class on Thursday, the professor asked if there were any questions about their research paper, and offered extra office hours both after class and during the day on Friday.  Tiffany was busy packing up and didn’t take any notes on when the professor would be available.

On Sunday evening, Tiffany read over her assignments for the week to be sure she wasn’t forgetting anything.  Another quiz in History, reading for her Communications class, a few chapters and problems in her Algebra class, and two more chapters in Sociology.

You know how this goes.  One day you are on top of everything, and suddenly you have only two or three days to finish a project you haven’t even begun thinking about.

It’s time to panic!  Your other option – a much better one – is to go to the library and ask to meet with a librarian.

Did you know that librarians can help you narrow down a topic based on the requirements of your assignment?  They can help direct you to appropriate databases to find scholarly journal articles, and can teach you to determine the right keywords and search terms?  They can show you the easiest and most efficient way to find exactly what you need for research papers.

Don’t want to travel to the library?  Most college libraries have a method of contacting librarians online or on the phone.  Many college libraries have research guides to help you even when the library is closed.  These can be found on the library website or within the library in the research section.

Librarians don’t just catalog books and tell you to be quiet.  They are research experts, and they can be your best resource for academic assignments.   Don’t overlook this exceptional resource!

Student Success Strategy #34:  The library – and librarians – are one of your best resources for success.

Student Success Strategy #32: Office Hours Part II

Do you have a test coming up soon?  If your professor doesn’t give a study guide or go over exactly what will be on the test, go to office hours.

First, read the syllabus!  Find out what you already know about the test, then formulate questions that will clarify your knowledge.

Ask for advice.  “If I study chapters 3 and 4 plus the notes from class, will that cover what is on the test?”  “Will information from our guest speaker be covered?”

Don’t just ask what will be on the test, although that may get you some information.  Show that you are a better student, and go in with a tentative study plan that you and the professor can review and revise.  You’ll have a  head start on a format for your studying, and will not only impress your professor, but can make notes on it as you speak.  Your professor will see that you plan ahead, critically think about the class, and want to do well.

You can ask the format of the test.  What kinds of questions will there be?  Multiple choice?  True-false?  Essay?  Matching?  Short Answer?  Ask for the professor’s ideas on what is expected from the essay or short answer.  Are the matching questions one-for-one matches, or could there be some duplicate answers, or some not used at all?

Student Success Strategy #32:  Use office hours to prepare for tests.