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10 Poor Study Habits

Passive reading, too many highlights, cramming the day before...

Avoid these techniques as much as possible—they will waste your time and fool you into thinking you’re learning!

  1. Passive rereading. Sitting passively and running your eyes back over a page is a waste of time unless you can prove that the material is getting into your brain by recalling the main ideas without looking at the page.
  2. Letting highlights overwhelm you. Highlighting your text can fool your mind into thinking you’re putting something in your brain, when all you’re really doing is moving your hand. A little highlighting here and there is okay—sometimes it can be helpful in flagging important points. But if you are using highlighting as a memory tool, make sure that everything you mark is also going into your brain by using the recall technique.
  3. Glancing at a problem’s solution and thinking you know how to do it. This is one of the worst errors students make while studying. Your goal is to be able to solve a problem step-by-step, without looking at the solution.
  4. Waiting until the last minute to study. Would you cram at the last minute if you were practicing for a track meet? Or just start practicing the night before a music recital? Your brain is like a muscle—it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time.
  5. Repeatedly solving similar problems that you have already mastered. If you just sit around solving the same type of problems during your practice, you’re not actually preparing for a test—it’s like preparing for a big basketball game by just practicing your free throws.
  6. Letting study sessions with friends turn into chat sessions. Checking your problem solving with friends, and quizzing one another on what you know can make learning more enjoyable, expose flaws in your thinking, and deepen your knowledge. But don’t let joint study sessions turn to fun before the work is done.
  7. Not reading the textbook before you start working on problems. Would you dive into a lake before you knew how to swim? The textbook is your swimming instructor—it guides you toward the answers. You will struggle and waste your time if you don’t bother to work through and understand the examples. Before you begin to read, however, take a quick glance over the chapter or section to get a sense of what it’s about.
  8. Not checking with your instructors or classmates to clear up points of confusion. Professors, teachers and tutors are used to students coming in for guidance—it’s our job to help you. The students we worry about are the ones who don’t ask questions. But remember you must try the problems first!
  9. Thinking you can learn effectively with constant distractions. Every tiny pull toward a text message, youtube video or conversation means you have less brain power to devote to learning. Every tug of interrupted attention pulls out tiny neural roots before they can grow.
  10. Not getting enough sleep. Your brain pieces together problem-solving techniques when you sleep, and it also practices and repeats whatever you put in your mind before you go to sleep. Prolonged fatigue allows toxins to build up in the brain that disrupt the neural connections you need to think quickly and effectively. This is most important the night before a test; a poor night’s sleep will jeopardize everything.

Adapted from A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), by Barbara Oakley, Penguin, July, 2014.