Learning How to Learn

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Learning How to Learn

As a child, you learn whenever a certain thing stimulates your interest. If something captures your imagination and curiosity your attention becomes so focused on that specific thing that you can usually remem­ber or understand it almost effortlessly. But once you enter the formal educational system, you’re required to learn at least some information that you find uninteresting. Kids in grade school often report that they like school fine, but are having trouble with one area—perhaps it’s subtraction or spelling—something that they just aren’t interested in.

The amount of this uncompelling information multiplies as you continue through the higher grades. What was once an uninteresting moment or two during your grade-school day can, by the time you’re in college, mushroom into a whole list of required classes that leave you unexcited and unmoved. Not only does the sheer amount of information now become daunting, but your drive, interest, and attention tend to fade in and out. When test time rolls around, it seems as though you have a big pile of information in front of you that you’ll never, ever be able to commit to memory. And, if you’ve ever failed a test, or even just didn’t do as well as you wanted to, you may have already learned to have fearful or panicky thoughts and feelings at the mere thought of taking a test.
These are the conditions that make learning how to study a ne­cessity. By following a set of studying techniques, you can learn how to read and remember large amounts of information, even when it’s information you feel somewhat indifferent to. The study skills discussed in this chapter will help you to:
 Calm down panicky thoughts and bodily sensations

 Keep your mind on the material you’re studying, not on your emotions

 Figure out what information is important (that means the information that will actually be on the test)

 Remember the information you’ve studied

 Recall the information you’ve studied when you are actually taking the test
By mastering these study skills, you’ll be able to approach a test with a higher level of confidence. And the more confident you are, the less fear you will feel, and the better you will perform.

How to Operate Your Mind While Studying for a Test
Following are several methods that, when practiced, will help you study, learn, and remember even when you’re experiencing fear. They are designed to help you focus your attention on the material at hand and keep your body’s nervous system calm.
Take a Step Back

When your thoughts don’t want to stay on the material in front of you, every five minutes or so stop studying and see if you can track what your thoughts have been doing. This will help you develop the habit of noticing when your mind wanders off and what it is that you are thinking. Have you been preparing for the worst? Dreading the future? Are you feeling anxious or fearful? Where do you feel the fear in your body? Take just a moment to ask yourself these questions, then return your attention to your books and notes.


Whenever you notice yourself thinking thoughts unrelated to your studying, note to yourself their general content. When you do this, remove the word “I” from this labeling process. Instead of saying, “I’m thinking about how afraid I’ll be when I take this test tomorrow,” say "There’s a thought about being nervous tomorrow” or "Thinking about being nervous...".“ This will help you create a space between “yourself” and the content of your thinking. Once you’ve noticed your thought, disengage your attention from it, however compelling the content seems, and return it to the subject you’re studying.

Repeat This Process Over and Over and Over Again

Whenever you notice your attention has wandered, disengage it from your thinking and return it to your study material. Within the course of a studying session, you may have feelings such as nerv­ousness, boredom, restlessness, fear, and panic. These feelings are ex­pected and natural. They will come and go. But it is quite possible to allow your body to experience these sensations while you refocus your concentration on something else. So, whenever your emotions become distracting, notice this fact, then consciously return your attention to the subject of study.

Set Aside Worry Time

If thoughts related to a particular issue continue to resurface, make an agreement with yourself to set aside ten minutes every hour to focus on these specific thoughts. If you’re having worried thoughts, sit down and worry for ten minutes. If you’re having catastrophic thoughts, sit down and catastrophize for ten minutes. Notice any feel­ings and sensations as they occur, or as they change into different feelings and sensations. When the allotted worry time is over, disengage your attention and return to your studying. Remember, once you’ve made this agreement with yourself, be sure to keep it. You need to know that you can count on yourself.

Stop Your Thoughts

If at times you feel as though your mind is racing and thoughts are continuously interrupting your concentration, try yelling “stop.” If at all possible, yell it out loud. If not, place a rubber band around your wrist and snap it as you mentally yell the word “stop.” Then, imme­diately return your attention to your book or notes. Repeat this proce­dure as often as you need to.

Talk Yourself through the Assignment

Experiments have shown that students who study out loud retain four times more information than students who study silently. When you read or study silently, all the thoughts inside your head, regardless of their content, are equally as loud. If you study in an environment that allows you to say every word you read or write out loud, the thoughts you have about the material you’re studying will become much louder than all your other thoughts. You may want to stop at the end of each paragraph or section and, in your own words, sum­marize aloud what you have just read. Studying with your voice is the most effective technique you can use for implanting facts into your memory.

Ask for Help

If you’re working on material that you’re having difficulty with, as your frustration level rises, your thoughts will more rapidly spin off onto other things. Rather than wasting time spinning your mental wheels, ask for help—regardless of what the difficulty is. If you find the thought of asking for help intimidating, first remember that there are no stupid questions—everyone, sooner or later, needs help to un­derstand something—and then ask the least scary person you can think of to help you. You may want to approach a classmate or tutor instead of the instructor. The more often you ask for help, the more you’ll realize that no one will think you are silly and your confidence and ability to do this will grow.

Get Out of Your Head

Sometimes you get so wound up with your fears, concerns, plans, and the events in your life that your mind seems to bring up the same thoughts over and over again. Often, the best way to handle this is to get your attention out of your head and into your body. You can do this by practicing any of the exercises found later in this handout. Aerobic exercise—ac­tivity that elevates you heart rate for at least twenty minutes—is also a good way to calm down your mind.

Give Your Mind a Break

When you’re really struggling with the material and you don’t seem to be making any progress, take a break and give your mind a rest. Go for a walk, or see a movie, or prepare yourself a nice meal. As your mind focuses on other things, it will also, subconsciously, be shuffling through the subject matter, trying to make sense of it. When you return to your books and notes, you may perceive the concepts more clearly.

Figuring Out What's Important
It’s a week before your biology midterm. You’ve surveyed all the material that you covered in the past half semester—both in class and reading. There are eight long chapters in your biology text, pages of lab notes, five articles from scientific magazines, and the notes you took on a film about wildlife preservation. Your instructor has said that all this material is fair game.
You’ve done all the work, but remembering everything seems im­possible, no matter how long you study. How can you figure out exactly what questions you’ll be asked on the test? The answer is - you can’t! Well, not exactly, anyway. However, with a little preparation you can make a good, educated guess and be able to come closer to the actual questions than you ever thought possible. In order to make this edu­cated guess, you need to lay a little groundwork at the beginning of the term. Here are some suggestions:
Keep a test question section. After each class and reading as­signment, write out several possible test questions on a sheet of paper and file it in a separate section in your binder. Pretend that you are the instructor and ask yourself which information is key to the lesson you’ve just heard or studied.
Define the test. Sometime near the beginning of the term, ask the instructor to describe the test you’ll be given on the material you’re now covering. How long will it be? How many questions will be on it? What kind of questions? Essay? Multiple choice? Fill-in-the-blank? Will it be an open-book test? Can you use your notes? Calculators? And finally, ask something like, “What type of material will be cov­ered?” This question is pointed, yet vague enough to elicit whatever information about the actual content that the instructor is willing to tell you. All instructors are different. Some will practically tell you the exact questions that will be on the exam. Others won’t even discuss content. Find out how much your instructor is willing to hint at and take whatever he or she offers as very valuable information.
Pay attention to dual coverage. As a general rule, if a topic is covered in both your textbook reading and in class lectures, the odds are astronomical that this material will be on the test in some form. If a topic is covered in your lectures, but not in your reading, this tells you that the instructor thought it extremely important, and this, too, is likely to appear on a test. Material from your textbook that the in­structor doesn’t mention in class has the least likely chance of appearing on your test. (But since this isn’t always the case, be sure to edit your reading material with care.)
Save all quizzes. Store all of your quizzes or other graded ma­terial with your list of possible test questions. Often instructors use quizzes as a way of preparing you for midterm and final exams. If a question is on a quiz, there is a good chance that it will reappear on a test.
Brainstorm. Get together with a group of students and brainstorm possible questions and topics that might appear on the test. If there is any significant question or area that you haven’t considered up until now, it’s likely that someone else will bring it up in a brainstorming session.
Look at the first test as a model. The first test you take from any given instructor will be the hardest. Often instructors use the same length, structure, and type of material on their tests throughout the entire term. After you take the first test, you’ll better understand what type of information your instructor is likely to be looking for.

A Word about Cramming
Everyone’s heard that cramming is an ineffective way to prepare for a test. When you cram, you memorize a lot of information very quickly. Usually you can retain this information for, at most, a couple of days, and then much of it fades away. The neural paths in your memory haven’t been worn very deeply. Clearly, this is not the same as true learning. Anyone who has crammed for a midterm only to find that the information has completely evaporated by the time the final rolls around will attest to this.
If you are someone who hasn’t gone to class all term, taken many notes, or even looked at your textbook, then cramming for the test won’t help you at all. However, if you have attended most of your classes and have at least skimmed through your reading material, cram­ming might help you raise your grade from a C or D to a B level.
And let’s face it—sooner or later life events clash with your aca­demic needs, and everyone eventually has a test that he or she needs to cram for. With this in mind, here is the most effective way to infuse a maximum amount of information into your brain within a limited amount of time.
Step 1. Get a complete set of notes. If you’ve missed several classes, or even if you simply don’t trust your note-taking ability, ar­range to get a copy of a set of class notes, preferably from the best note taker in the class.
Step 2. Skim—don’t read—the texts. Search for main topics and supporting facts, then write these down in outline form. Pay special attention to section headings and charts, diagrams, and graphs. These convey a lot of information very quickly. Don’t get bogged down with this step. Use only about one quarter of the time you have to study to go over your text.
Step 3. Now put your books away and use only your notes for the rest of your studying—both the lecture notes and the ones you just took from your textbook Go through both sets and put a big star (or use a highlighter, or a different color of ink) beside all the information that you feel fairly certain will be on the test. Then, go through your notes a second time and mark all the information that you think could possibly be on the test in yet another color. Successful cramming de­pends on making smart choices about what to memorize. You don’t have time to memorize everything now. If you choose wisely, and are just a little lucky, you might retain the right facts long enough to get through the test.
Step 4. Start at the top of your notes again. Whenever you come to a portion that you marked as prime test material, stop and recite it, out loud, over and over again. Reciting is the quickest way you have of getting things to stick in your mind. When you think you know it, write it out. If you make mistakes when you write it, go back and recite it again. As soon as you can write it with an acceptable degree of accuracy, go on to the next material that you highlighted on your first pass through your notes. Only when you’ve recited every­thing you marked on the first pass do you start reciting the clumps of material marked on the second pass.

Remember: When you cram, you feel as though you’re under increased pressure. Your anxiety level will rise even higher than it would normally. This means that you’ll be more likely to give an incorrect answer during the test or blank out on a question completely. If you tend to experience test-taking anxiety under normal studying conditions, you should avoid cramming whenever possible.

A Study System for Text Material

The “MURDER” Study System

  1. Mood: Set a positive mood for yourself to study in. Select the appropriate time, environment, and attitude.

  1. Understand: Mark any information during your studying that you do not understand.

  1. Recall: After a portion of your studying, stop and put what you have learned into your own words.

  1. Digest: Go back to the portions of material you do not understand and, reconsider the information. Contact external expert sources (e.g., other books or an instructor) if you still cannot understand the material.

  1. Expand: In this step, ask three kinds of questions concerning the studied material:

  • If I could speak to the author, what questions would I ask or what criticism would I offer?

  • How could I apply this material to what I am interested in?

  • How could I make this information interesting and understandable to other students?

  1. Review Go over the material you’ve covered, remembering what strategies helped you understand and/or retain information so that you can continue to apply these strategies to your future studying.

Ten Tips for Terrific Test Taking

1. Come Prepared. Arrive early for tests. Bring all the materials you will need such as pencils and pens a calculator, a dictionary, and a watch.

2. Stay relaxed and confident. Don’t let yourself become anxious. Don’t talk to other students before a test; anxiety is contagious. Instead, remind yourself that you are well-prepared and are going to do well. If you feel anxious before or during a tests take several slow, deep breaths to relax.
3. Be comfortable but alert. Choose a good spot to take the test. Make sure you have enough room to work. Maintain an upright posture in your seat.
4. Preview the test. Spend 10% of your test time reading through the test carefully, marking key terms and deciding how to budget your time. Plan to do the easy questions first and the most difficult questions last. As you read the questions, jot down brief notes indicating ideas you can use later in your answers.
5. Answer the questions in a strategic order. Begin by answering the easy questions you know, then those with the highest point value. The last questions you answer should be those that are the most difficult, take the greatest amount of writing, or have the least point value.
6. When taking a multiple choice test know when to guess. First eliminate answers you know are wrong. Always guess when there is no penalty for guessing or you can eliminate options. Don’t guess if you have no basis for your choice and if you are penalized for guessing. Since your first choice is usually correct, don’t change your answers unless you are sure of the correction.
7. When taking essay tests, always think before you write. Create a brief outline for your essay by jotting down a few words to indicate ideas you want to discuss. Then number the items in your list to indicate the order in which you will discuss them.
8. When taking essay tests, always get right to the point. State your main point in the first sentence. Use your first paragraph to provide an overview of your essay. Use the rest of your essay to discuss these points in more detail. Back up your points with specific information, examples, or quotations from your readings and notes.
9. Review your test. Reserve 10% of your test time for review. Make sure you have answered all the questions. Proofread your writing for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Check your math answers for careless mistakes (e.g. misplaced decimals). Match your actual answers for math problems against quick estimates.
10. Analyze your test results. Each test can further prepare you for the next test. Decide which strategies worked best for you. Identify those that didn’t work well and replace them. Use your test to review when studying for final exams.

Relaxing in the Face of Fear
How many times has a friend or relative said to you, “You’re all wound up. You just need to relax. Go see a show or do something to take your mind off your worries”? And how many times have you gone to a show or out with friends only to find that you can’t keep your at­tention focused on the activity you’re involved in? Your mind returns over and over to the thing that is making you uptight. Do you ever manage to feel relaxed? You may erroneously decide that you are one of a rare breed who find it virtually impossible to relax. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.
Everybody has the ability to relax. And everybody can learn to relax their body, even in the face of apparently threatening circum­stances, by practicing a combination of deep breathing, muscle relaxa­tion, and visualization exercises. By relaxing the body, you will also calm down your racing mind and your fearful feelings. You can’t ex­perience fear or anxiety when your body is completely relaxed.
You may think that’s a pretty strong claim, but it’s true. In 1975, Herbert Benson described how the body changes when a person prac­tices deep relaxation. Benson observed that during what he named the “relaxation response,” the heart rate, breath rate, blood pressure, skele­tal muscle tension, metabolic rate, and oxygen consumption all de­creased. On the other hand, alpha wave frequency which is associated with relaxation, and skin resistance both increased. Every one of these physical conditions is exactly opposite to the conditions that anxiety and fear produce in the body. Deep relaxation and anxiety are physio­logical opposites.

Abdominal Breathing

If you’ve ever watched an infant breathing, you would’ve noticed that every time she breathed, she breathed from her abdomen. As you get older, and as stress from your daily life accumulates, the muscles in your body react to this stress by continuously holding on to a certain amount of tension. One set of muscles that commonly tenses in re­sponse to chronic stress are those located in the wall of the abdomen. If your abdominal muscles are tight, they will push against your dia­phragm as it extends downward to initiate each new breath. This, in turn, inhibits the amount of air you inhale. The result is a shallow breath centered high up in the chest.

The fact that you’re taking the time to read this paper suggests that you’re already familiar with shallow-chest breathing. It’s the type of breathing you do when you’re in a classroom, reading a question on a test that you don’t know the answer to, while your mind repeats over and over, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I’ll never be able to do this.” I’ll bet that the type of breaths you take when you’re in this situation are shallow and located high up in your chest. This is how you breathe when you become anxious and afraid.

Often when your breaths are high and shallow, you may feel as though you aren’t getting enough oxygen. Instead of responding to this lack of oxygen by taking deeper breaths, you may take shallow breaths more quickly. Eventually this rapid breath rate can lead to a state called hyperventilation. This means that even though you are breathing faster, the oxygen level in your body is still low because your breaths are so shallow. And, on top of that, now too much carbon dioxide starts being released from your system.

When you hyperventilate you often feel like you’re not getting enough air. You may start to feel dizzy or disoriented. Your heart may begin to beat very fast. At this point, you start to try to make sense of all these scary feelings and may come to the erroneous conclusion that you are about to have a heart attack, or that you are about to lose control altogether. These thoughts can escalate your initial sense of panic into a full-blown panic attack.
The depth or shallowness of your breathing affects your physi­ological well-being in several ways. When you breathe deeply from your abdomen, your lungs are able to expand fully, and you’re able to inhale more oxygen. This means that:

  • More carbon dioxide and other wastes are removed from your body because more oxygen reaches the bloodstream. (Your blood takes oxygen to each of your cells where it is exchanged for these waste products.)

  • More physical energy is generated because more oxygen goes to the muscles.

  • Greater clarity of mind is experienced because more oxygen reaches the brain.

Breathing from your abdomen helps you become more aware of the sensations in your body and less able to run your mind around the same thought loops that anxiety often produces. You’re able to maintain a more calm emotional state. Learning to breathe from your abdomen can produce the exact physiological changes that will help you do well on a test.

Take a moment here and pay attention to the quality of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. First lie down and close your eyes. Notice whether your breath extends low into your abdomen or stays high up in your chest. An easy way to test this is to put your hand on your abdomen (just under your rib cage) and see if your hand rises and falls with each breath. Are you breathing slowly or rapidly? Do you fill your lungs with air or do you only partially fill them? Take a few more minutes and simply feel the sensations of your breath as it enters and leaves your body.
If you think that you probably breathe shallowly a lot of the time, don’t let this worry you. With a little practice, anyone can learn to take deep, full-belly breaths in most situations.
Coping Thoughts

A large part of your test-taking fear is created by the negative thoughts that your brain is telling you about the way that you feel (the role your thoughts play in how you feel is discussed thoroughly in chapter 3). Once you are able to recognize these thoughts as the habitual babble that they really are, you will be able to respond to them with coping thoughts—true statements that counter the auto­matic negative thoughts your mind produces in a fearful situation. Using coping thoughts can help you loosen up the control your fear has over you, both in your desensitization sessions and in the class­room.

Most of your negative thoughts will be variations on one theme, regardless of what fearful or anxiety-provoking situation you are in. Often, only the details change from situation to situation. Here is an example of a common thought pattern:
Part one: I am so ________ (nervous, spacey, tired, afraid, un­prepared, and so on)
Part two: that I won’t be able to _______ (in this case it’s “do well on this test”)
Part three: and then _______ (dire consequences) will happen
Once you recognize the pattern, you don’t need to look any further for truth in the content. It’s just a habitual way of thinking. So, how to switch it off? You can accomplish this by having a few strategic coping thoughts firmly in mind when you enter the classroom.

Here are some sample coping thoughts. Choose two or three that are meaningful to you, or make up your own. Then memorize them or write them down on an index card. As you feel your anxiety start to mount when you are visualizing your threatening scene or when you are taking a test, repeat a coping thought over and over until your level of panic starts to drop Or you may want to interweave one coping thought with another. See what works best for you. If at any time these statements lose their meaning, try different ones.

Sample Coping Thoughts

I can feel anxious and think at the same time.

This is only anxiety—I've been through this before. I can practice my relaxation exercises and relax. Just breathe and relax.

Everything is going to be okay.

I can do well on this test even though I feel afraid. Take it slowly, one step at a time.

I can get through this.

I have time. I don’t need to rush.

If I stop thinking I’m scared, I won’t be scared. These thoughts seem real, but I know better. This anxiety will lessen—I can wait it out. This feeling isn’t dangerous—I’ll be all right.

Fighting this feeling isn’t going to help, so I’ll just let it pass. I can ease this anxiety by taking deep belly breaths.

If I breathe deeply, I can keep my mind on the task.

Lots of people feel this way when they take tests. I'm not the only one. All I can do is my best.

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