Friday, October 10, 2014

Study Tips: Ten Thoughts on Optimizing the Academic Life

This week I’m giving a talk on cultivating ‘disciplined curiosity,’ which makes a case from the book of Daniel that studying hard, even when the work is tedious or dull, can be part of Jesus following, God loving, faithfulness.  






It may or may not have included a clip from everyone's favorite song about Ashurbanipal.

The talk focused on the ‘why’, of taking studies seriously, but did not expand on the ‘how’.    One of our UCD professor friends took on that question with a study skills seminar that followed the talk the next day.  

I am not qualified to teach a seminar like that.  I have no formal training on pedagogy.   

But I have studied a lot, so I thought I’d pass along the results of my anecdotal experience.
 
Here are my thoughts on how to discipline curiosity and thrive academically in undergrad:


1.  Understand the Concept of Flow and the Value of Momentum.



Momentum is the currency of all creative work.  Whether you are writing a paper, or solving a problem set, or generating a lab report, or learning a language, 90, consecutive, undistracted minutes are much more valuable than 90 minutes interspersed with 30, or 60, or 90 minutes of ‘study breaks.’  

Creativity isn’t magical or mysterious.  Our brains are wonderful and even mystical organs, but they can be trained.  Creativity inhabits a mental space psychologists call ‘flow.’ The key to productivity in and after college is to learn how to create and sustain flow.


2. Create Sustained Undistracted Time Windows


The environment for flow is a substantial, but tractable, block of undistracted time.[1]  I think for most people it generally works best if it is in a regular, predictable time and space.   

Predictability and structure may seem like the opposite of the conditions for creativity, but creativity is a discipline not an emotion.  

 If you learn to create a habitat for creativity, it will become a regular companion.  Buy a timer,[2] set it for 60 minutes at first, then 90, then 120 and, don’t go online or check e-mail.   See if you don’t learn to create and sustain momentum.


3. Track Your Time and Budget Your Hours


How many hours a week do you study?  If you don’t know the answer to that question ±3 hours you are probably working reactively rather than proactively.  Time is a commodity, and if you are going to spend it wisely, you need to budget it.  Here’s my recommendation:


i.            Lay out a week in your favorite medium (graph paper, calendar, Excel, dragon skin and the blood of a newt,[3] medium doesn’t really matter).[4]  


ii.          Subtract a healthy amount of sleep. If I was to make one change in the many regrettable study practices of my undergrad, I’d sleep more.[5]  


iii.         Then block out the non-negotiable activities that are ‘above the line,’ activities that you prioritize before academics.  For me, in undergrad, it was church, participation in Intervarsity large and small groups, and, in my senior year, a Saturday date with my girlfriend.[6]  For some this will include exercise, close friendships, a sport or club.  With the rising costs of school, for more and more students, this includes non-trivial hours, working to pay the bills.  If video games or television are non-negotiable, budget a reasonable (and I would argue, a reasonably brief) time for them, and then stick to the budget.  Sabbath is a good principle here.  Make time for rest[7] and protect it.  


iv.        Then find the blocks of time for work and study.  Mark some in stone as non-negotiable, the same time and place where you are not likely to be interrupted by friends or internet, and make others flexible in time and place, experimenting with what is most conducive to flow…but assess that critically and don’t self-deceive.[8]


v.          Whatever you are doing, be fully present.[9]  Don’t watch hulu during study time.  Don’t worry about the test while you are enjoying time with friends.  Just like with money, if you make a budget and stick to it, it not only keeps you from wasting the resource, it makes enjoying the part set aside for fun guilt free.


4. Find a Study Group for Problem Set Classes


This one is particular to STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math).  A good study group can be hit or miss in the humanities, social sciences and even the descriptive sciences.  They can sometimes waste more time than they save for reading, essay exam, discussion, and term paper based classes.  But for classes based on problem sets (Math, Physics, Chem…) find a study group, or make one.  The best study groups meet at the same time each week to tackle a regular problem set, early enough before it is due so that you can each visit office hours to get help on problems that you get stuck on.


It is ideal if there is someone else in the group as good or better than you at problem solving.  Often if there is at least someone of your caliber in the group, you will figure out different problems or different parts of the same problem, saving time.  But a study group is valuable in STEM even if you are the strongest performer in the group.  As long as the others don’t simply copy your work, if they solve the same problem even with your approach, they can verify your solution independently (or catch mistakes).


5. Go to Class…Always…and Early


Class is the best use of your study time.  There is no better return-on-investment for your time than going to lecture.  The time cost of reconstructing the material from a class is almost always much too high to make missing  class worth it, even if you have a test in your next class.


Also, if you get to class 5-10 minutes early and review the previous class’ notes, you will get more than 5-10 minutes of value from that time, because it is close enough to the first introduction to plant it more firmly in your memory, and because it will help you understand the new material (that will, presumably, build on it).


6. Notes > Text


This might not be true for English, but in all the STEM classes I took, and most of the liberal arts classes, the professor was far more interested in what he or she told me than what the book had to say.  In many cases the professor has forgotten what was in the book.  I have a very close friend whose GPA jumped a full point when she stopped spending all her time reading the text and really metabolized the notes. 

 Granted, this is a tip for grad chasing rather than learning, but it is best if your learning manifests as grades, and your time is limited.


And while we are talking about grade optimization rather than learning, the best thing you can do for your grades is to read the syllabus, carefully, paying attention to the percentages, and apportioning your effort accordingly.


7. Stop Telling Yourself You Work Best Under Pressure…Seriously, Just Stop


“I work best under pressure” is self deception.  Work under a deadline is rushed and unreflective.  What you are experiencing ‘counterfeit flow’ is a truncated version creative productivity that comes from finally giving yourself a small, sad, exhausted block of undistracted time.  But you would have had the same experience, only sharper and more productive and more creative, if you had given yourself the same block of time a week earlier, in the morning or mid-day.  


Necessity is the friend of productivity but the enemy of creativity.


You might work fastest under pressure, but real learning requires time to reflect, and creativity is a middle-distance race not a sprint.[10]  You are most productive when you capture a state of flow (see #1) which usually requires regular, predictable setting of undistracted time.


8. Work While You Aren’t Working…By Working Ahead


Most creative work happens when you aren’t actively working.  While you are eating or exercising or at a job or talking with friends…shoot, I once dreamed the solution to a physics problem.  But you can only take advantage of the ‘work when you aren’t working’ phenomenon if you start early enough to have the basic ideas you are working on in the cognitive hopper for a while before the deadline.[11]


If you have a paper outline in your head, you will fill it out while you walk to class, then when you sit down to work, momentum is close at hand.


9. Ask Yourself “Why Did my Professor Find this Subject Interesting Enough to Dedicate her Life To It?” and Then Try to Contract the Virus.


Your professor dedicated her life to this topic.  At one time or another she found it that inspiring.  Surely there is enough beauty and value in there for you to squeeze 4 quarter credits of attention out of it.  And if your professor is seriously done, like out to tenure pasture done, long past inspiring anyone, then try to figure out what is so enchanting about the topic that your TA is committing her future to it.


You don’t have to make the topic your vocation, but you’ll have a lot more energy for the quarter if you find the secret to their passion.


10. Experiment with Academic Generosity.


I’m convinced that generosity is the most powerful prescription for worry and discontent.[12]  The problem is that we generally think of generosity in terms of money, and undergrads have none of that…in fact, given the loan situation, most undergrads actually have negative money.


But the most precious resources in undergrad are time and GPA.  Experimenting with academic generosity, giving time and donating insight when your time and insight can make the difference for someone else.  This will deconstruct the competitive power of the academic life.



So that is my eccentric, anecdotal top 10.   

I also reached out to some of my professor friends to ask them.  I posted my friend Prof. Rich's, Prof. Teresa's, and Prof. George's thoughts in the comments and rolled Prof. Tiffany's thoughts into a second post here.

What about you?  Please share some of yours in the comments.[13]



This post was written while listening to In the Aeroplane Over The Sea[14] by Neutral Milk Hotel




[1] I have a friend who used to work in increments of ‘one laptop battery’ (which used to be just over two hours).  For him, that enough time to achieve flow, but stopped  for a break before the point of diminishing returns.
[2] Like a real, life, physical timer.  Don’t rely on an internet timer, because you want to be going to the internet as little as possible.
[3] Actually, dragons are apex predators, so even in an imaginary world, commoditizing their pelt is probably morally dubious, and if you are handling dead newts, be aware that the contain one of the most toxic neruo toxins in the animal kingdom.  Maybe better to go with a molskine and a pen…or at least sheep hide and frog blood.
[4] I use software for this, but I’ve had friends tell me that is weird
[5] The sleep deficit I ran made me exhausted in class, so even though I was there, I had to re-learn the material and had horrible notes, and when I tried to work, I was too tired to be creative.  It is a physicalogical reality.  You are more creative when you are well rested.  Red bull does not provide the same brain chemicals as sleep…espresso does not consolidate and reinforce neural pathways.  Sleep is part of learning.
[6] My now, wife.  This was the best investment I made in undergrad.
[7] Rest gets confused with as entertainment.  In your very limited non-work time, make sure to actively choose activities that are life giving.
[8] If you don’t have enough time in iv, revisit iii and your definition of ‘non-negotiable,’ or lower your academic expectations and be cognoscente of the future costs of that decision.
[9] This was my friend Tiffany’s approach to her first year of Grad School at a top 5 English program (where she measured the reading she had to do that year in meters).  I stole it, and it has served me well.
[10] I think the ‘marathon-not-a-sprint’ metaphor is overused and mostly inaccurate.  If an all nighter is a sprint, by simple temporal upscaling, writing a paper carefully and reflectively over the course of 2 weeks is a middle distance race, something like an 800m or a 1600m.  Nothing in the quarter system is a marathon, but it’s also better if it’s not a series of sprints either.
[11] This may seem to contradict my advice to ‘be fully wherever you are’ but it doesn’t really.  The ‘be fully present’ principle is about worry and distraction.  If you have learned why your topic is fundamentally interesting or even beautiful, thinking about it recreationally does not violate the boundaries of Sabbath.
[12] I actually did a talk about this.
[13] I have reached out to some of my professor friends to provide a few thoughts of their own.
[14] It was also written IN an aroplane, somewhere over Nevada.

6 comments:

stanford said...

My Friend Rich is a Math and Physics Professor at a major University. He sent me 10 reflections of his own:

1. Go to class. Studies show that there is a direct correlation between class attendance and GPA.

2. Be an active learner. One example came from a discussion that I had today. Many of my classes now have an online component. Specifically, I introduce class topics with a 15-minute pre-lecture. However, students need to learn how to take advantage of online lectures. They can't simply passively listen to the online lecture. They should be taking notes and trying to understand as they would in the classroom.

3. You aren't going to love every class, but understand there may be a reason why you are taking that class. In a panel discussion last night, some of our former students said that they didn't understand why they had to take a computer science class graduating with a math major. Now, they wish that they had had more CS classes.

(Stanford Note: Tiffany also stressed this, and more specifically I should have minored in computer science)

4. Make the most of every situation. I took a class on the -ology of education (physiology, sociology, etc.). I had to write a research paper for the class.

I chose to write about the Jesuit views of education because it was a topic that I wanted to learn more about. Somehow, this was one of only two research papers that I wrote in college. (I am not counting papers like those in our Humanities classes about the books that we read.)

5. Many of my best students do well because they start early on assignments. Don't wait until the last minute.

6. Don't wait until the last minute to ask questions. You might not get your question answered before the exam or you might forget your question altogether.

7. Don't be afraid to take writing, speaking, and critical thinking classes. The best class I ever took in college was a College Writing class at St. John Fisher College before transferring to Geneseo. My writing improved 100-fold, which I still use to this day.

Stanford Note: Another place where Tiffany, Rich and I agree.

8. Don't be afraid to pave your own path. High-end students will often take the path less traveled by finding a way to develop their own curriculum or take courses of interest that aren't required of them.

9. Along with that, high-end students often engage in learning outside of the classroom environment. If you are interested in teaching, volunteer in a classroom as early as possible during a semester to gain valuable experience and see if that path is really right for you. Or find summer internships in your field. Or engage yourself in research project supervised by a college professor. I wouldn't be in my current position without having engaged in undergraduate research.

10. It makes sense that you talk a great deal about flow since you study groundwater flow.

Stanford Note: :)

stanford said...

And Thoughts from My Friend Teresa, who got her PhD from Oregon a few years ago and has been a Tenure track English professor since:

As to: "A good study group can be hit or miss in the humanities"

I have been doing more reading on what works as a study group in the humanities, and it looks like students who are first-generation or traditionally at-risk students do better in study groups, even if they aren't very focused.

In "Whistling Vivaldi" the author (I can't remember his name) discusses the concept of identity threat, which more or less prevents the students who need the most help from asking for help.

Those who were brought up in a fierce independence because of identity or stereotype threat tend to be students who fail, because they didn't have people to talk to who they trusted enough to ask for help.

This concept struck home with me, as this was part of my college experience. I got lucky, so I didn't fail, but I certainly didn't do as well as I should have as an undergraduate.

stanford said...

And one more from Teresa:

"One more I would add would be: take the time you need to think. You covered this. But I would reiterate that for the humanities that this is urgent and necessary in order to make the most of this discipline. I have to cut out the time I need to sit and think. I don't read or make notes, I sit and process. Sometimes this means yoga, sometimes meditations, sometimes a quiet place in a museum or library. It doesn't LOOK like working, so finding a place to be that won't get interrupted or distracted is important."

Justin Bower said...

My favorite Gibson college studying tip is indubitably: Take advantage of long car rides home to the North Country have a non-driver read a book aloud to the driver.

stanford said...

Justin, I had forgotten about that. Those rides were really fun (even if we tried to pack too much biomas in Chapman's escort a couple times).

stanford said...

Finally, my friend George is a Math Education professor at my undergrad (and who as a student helped me master Calculus in an act of 'achademic generosity'). He weighed in on the discussion:

I wholeheartedly agree with the advice given thus far.The idea of budgeting your time is a big one for me. Every person gets 168 hours a week; none of us is rich or poor in this area. If you don't block out hours to study for my calculus class, your suite mates will fill your time with senseless pursuits. If you don't block out time for personal renewal / devotions / DQT, a myriad of events that comprise the Tyranny of the Urgent will suck that time.

Also, go see your professors during office hours. It's not like detention on high school; it's more like one-on-one help for free that the professor is required to give.

And I love the talk about flow. Teaching people to think about building positive momentum in a particular direction is important. Creativity is messy, and people would think that it can be summed up in some easy algorithm.

The big thing for college students to see is that they have great freedom... And with great freedom comes great responsibility. :)