The second semester of 2019 commenced today, which brought to the forefront of my mind how I would study and prepare for the forthcoming assessments and exams. And so I thought I'd share my study strategy, and the tactics I use toward executing said strategy, which to date has resulted in a distinguished academic achievement. I suppose I should emphasise that I don't necessarily set out to achieve High Distinctions as a primary goal, but to learn the course content well—and the HD grades are an appreciated bonus. A fortunate byproduct of the whole process. But the pursuit of knowledge—a concerted effort to thoroughly synthesise the course material into a genuine, useable understanding—is the driving force. And I'd aver that this mindset is predicated on a genuine interest of the subject matter. Without it, any earnest effort would be short-lived if not entirely futile. Motivation is finite, so all (enduring) achievement is dependent on discipline, which we simply cannot produce for successive years if doing a task we don't enjoy. At least, I don't believe we're capable of such a thing but that could be a reflection of myself more than an accurate observation of humanity. Back on task, though: studying.

Despite all the rage against note-taking these days—I still do it. A lot of it. Not the robotic PA-like transcribing of dictation, but the actively engaged Cornell method, which quite handily covers all three of the scientifically proven best study techniques: (1) self-testing/assessment; (2) spaced-repetition; and (3) active recall.

I won't be detailing these effective learning methods—you can read the above-linked paper or exercise some Google-Fu—but will instead demonstrate how the Cornell Note-Taking Method actually comprises these techniques, and vaguely layout how my semester of studying progresses.

First, watch the video linked above; it's two short minutes and concisely yet comprehensively explains the Cornell method. Once you have the general idea of how it works, you'll better understand how it encompasses the trinity of effective learning techniques.

Most units are made of modules that typically take one and sometimes two weeks to cover. They're invariably interdependent, so each module builds on the previous. That said, they're also distinct pieces that can be distilled into core concepts, which can be conceptualised by a few questions and their answers. Before each lecture, take a look at the required reading; try to have it completed but at least read the end of chapter questions, if present, and the chapter headings and bold text. This gives you an idea of the core concepts the module is designed to cover, so you know where to focus your efforts and attention during the lecture; thereby providing a blueprint for your notes. Write your questions in the Q-column, and while reading the material and listening to the lecture, jot pertinent notes in the right column. After the lecture, write a synopsis in the summary box. These notes provide you with the material for future sessions of testing and active recall, which effectively practised produces spaced repetition. But also begins the process of conceptualising the big picture, and how the components all fit together—this is the crucial ingredient in actually understanding the subject matter and not just practising to ace exams. (Which is why I think assessments done well are a great means for deep immersion learning.)

Each week, before the next lecture, do some practice tests by answering the questions you wrote in the Q-column for the last module, and create flash cards for the questions most in need of improvement. This provides the material for spaced repetition that you can forward plan based on your performance in the practice tests. Most importantly, honestly assess yourself each week, and adjust your flash cards accordingly, in order to target weaknesses that will improve your test performance. Without an accurate appraisal, you won't have any quantitative metrics to measure progress.

The notes lay the foundation, and provide a map for where to focus your efforts. They create the content for testing, the results of which influence flash card content, which are not only used for active recall but to improve weekly test performances, which are based on your notes; and spaced-repetition occurs as a proxy of the whole circular process.

This is why I continue to take notes, and a whole lot of them! If you presently don't take notes or do but without any real structure, try the Cornell method for a term or two, and let me know what you think.


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