The piece of advice from the headline is probably one that you don’t hear so often from your lecturers, teachers or parents, and you may be having doubts as you read this, but read on and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
While tutoring a Cambridge AS English Course today, I thought I’d conclude by discussing study habits with my students – I’m always interested to see differences in how people learn. And one thing I generally notice in students is that rather counter-intuitively, many high-achieving students seem to study relatively little in comparison. Coming from a competitive boys-only school, I initially believed this may have been to tactfully discourage other competitors from studying hard, a popular perception at the time, although I later found this was rarely the case. This observation seemingly contradicted the popular advice of success being solely due to hard work. So how do you explain this? Is it because they’re “born geniuses”? Or are they “genetically gifted”?
I don’t believe so. In fact, I could not disagree more with having personally been labelled as “smart” or a “genetically gifted” student for achieving high grades with relatively little study – although at the time I admittedly liked to accept it in order to serve my self-inflated ego.
However, the truth is that throughout my education, I have always asked myself how I could learn and study more in less time. I began to obsess with the idea of productivity in an ironically unproductive manner, reading all sorts of advice on how to maximise my learning. I learnt that daily exercise, sleeping well, taking regular short breaks during study and summarising notes were a few of the techniques I could apply to dramatically enhance my learning.
I was already a fan of running, but I started doing it religiously rather than just as a mere habit. I also made sure to take regular walking breaks every 40-50 minutes of study, and focussed on summarising each of my subjects’ notes to being a maximum of 5 A4 pages. I was very proud to show off all these habits of mine as a sign of my minimal study.
It is ironically this obsession with studying less, but with very high focus, which helped me to achieve good grades.
I liken this to a fascinating example from our own body; the heart – bear with me as I explain the relevance! As the heart pumps blood around the body (which represents study), it experiences resistance in the arteries and blood vessels, especially when you eat too much KFC! This resistance raises your blood pressure and can be likened to times of stressful study, where you aren’t taking breaks, exercising, or sleeping well; which happens all too often for students around exam time. The result is sadly a vicious cycle of heart failure, where the heart muscle keeps getting bigger in order to pump against this greater pressure, until the heart has become too big that it can’t pump efficiently. Likewise, we students can try study more and more hours near exams in order to fit everything in, but the fatigue hits us and our study quality goes down dramatically.
Remarkably, a surprising treatment for heart failure are a class of drugs called beta blockers, which decrease the pumping of the heart in order to rest it, which in turn improves its pumping efficiency and reduces heart failure. Exercise, study breaks and sleeping well are therefore all examples of “beta blocker drugs” for your study; they decrease your study time slightly but promise to improve your study efficiency massively, leading to far more successful study.
So to summarise, I personally think that although it’s important to have a good base-level of study, many students could potentially benefit by focussing on more effective, short bursts of study rather than long, laborious chunks, which could ultimately lead to much better grades.
As my first ever blog post, I more than welcome your feedback or opinions about this in the comments, healthy discussion is always encouraged!