Learning how to get good grades is all about knowing EFFECTIVE study habits and techniques – and then putting them into action.
I stressed the word ‘effective’ because a lot of the information that’s passed around as being helpful (‘just study more’, ‘get a tutor’ or ‘start a study group‘) end up setting you back even more.
To prove it let me share my story.
When I was in high school I did just enough to get by and maintain a 3.0 GPA.
When I graduated and decided I was going to try and get into pharmacy school I knew I needed to get at least a 3.5 GPA to have a good shot of getting in.
My strategy? Put in more time studying than any other student I knew. Not the greatest strategy in the world because I studied ‘constantly’ and was always stressed out.
But I did manage to pull a 3.6+ GPA and was accepted into pharmacy school.
But in my first year of pharmacy school my grades started dropping.
Not only that – I was even more stressed out and always seemed to be behind the 8 ball – even though I was putting in a lot of time.
The worst part was it was well known that the second year of pharmacy school was the most difficult and challenging. So during the summer I knew I had to come up with a different game plan.
Moral of the story? My new game plan worked.
My second year of pharmacy school was great. My grades went back up (3.5+ GPA). I was enjoying myself a lot more and really didn’t feel much stress at all.
And from a total time standpoint – I was studying less. A lot less.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their grades here’s the strategy I used.
Organic Chemistry is a hard class.
Thankfully, during my first semester, I had a great teacher who told us to start every problem with the end in mind – and then work backwards.
That little rule not only served me well in chemistry and life – but studying.
For example, let’s say that you know you have an exam every other Friday that will include content from two chapters of your textbook which amounts to 20 pages.
I’m pulling those numbers out of my head for ease of math’s sake. It could be more. Could be less. Just focus on the method right now.
You now have 14 days until your test on 20 pages of material.
But I want to give myself some wiggle room, t00. So I’d actually set my ‘deadline’ on day 10 – not 14.
Humans will naturally let a project take as long as the deadline says they can. This is called Parkinson’s Law. So I artificially set a tighter deadline to make sure I was prepared early.
Secondly, if something did come up on some night I wanted to have that wiggle room to make up the work.
This simple planning strategy drastically lowered my stress levels which is the first step to performing better.
When I was a student I heard a speaker say that you learn more when you teach something than you do as a student.
That always seemed like an odd statement to me. But I thought maybe I should give it a shot. So I came up with what I called my ‘Teaching Method’.
Instead of simply sitting down and reading a textbook or the notes from class I would hole up in my room, familiarize myself with the material and then pretend to start teaching an imaginary person the material.
I know that sounds weird.
It felt even weirder when I first did it because I’d be in my room mumbling to no one in particular. When I first got started I’d almost whisper because I felt so dumb doing it.
No matter. Over time I became more comfortable and it was second nature.
Maybe you share a dorm room with someone. Then either study when that person isn’t around or go find another area to study.
I have no way to prove it but because I had envisioned myself teaching students this practice helped me become more comfortable and confident during group presentations.
And being able to give good presentations – whether it be front of 5 or 500 people is one of the most important skills to succeeding in life.
When I was 5 years old my school told my parents I was a ‘day dreamer’ and had difficulty focusing.
Even today, I have trouble focusing for extended periods.
I’ve been told I’m likely ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) by doctors (FYI – one of the most over-diagnosed diseases of all time).
The point is – focusing on a subject for extended periods of time has never been a strong suit of mine.
Unfortunately, like almost every other student I knew, I spent hours cramming for exams a night or two before the test. I did this all through high school and into my first year of pharmacy school.
Not surprisingly, I sucked at it and it stressed me out. The only reason it had worked up to this point was that my class load wasn’t as demanding. Once that changed in pharmacy school cramming started hurting me.
But, one thing I was good at was focusing for shorter periods of time.
So I followed my gut and my personal strengths and started studying for 45 minute stretches. Once I hit that mark I got up or left the room for 15 minutes.
Once that time was done it was back to studying for 45 minutes and I continued to repeat that for as long as needed.
This is a strategy experts call ‘chunking’. The Pomodoro Technique is a similar, and shorter example of chunking.
Interestingly I later heard about ‘chunking’ from a speaker who said it was a popular method to help kids who had ADD. Ironic.
There’s another part of my chunking method that really helped.
Remember the example above about taking two pages every night to cover the material in 10 days?
Well, I’d start with the first two pages on day 1. Then, on day 2 I’d do a short review of the first two pages and then add on the next two pages. Day 3 I’d do a quick review of the 4 pages before and then add on the next two. I’d continue to do that each night.
Doing a short review of the material I had already studied helped solidify it in my mind and gave me a ton of confidence that I really knew the material.
In addition to learning the material on a deeper level – I was also able to retain the material better.
For example, I worked with a classmate after college who was a notorious crammer. We were having a discussion about a side effect and why it happened in the body. I remembered the process from my chunking sessions ten years prior. She was shocked I was able to retain that info.
Make More Effective Time In Your Day
When I first started college if I had class at 9 AM I woke up an hour before to get ready and get to class.
When I got home from classes I’d try and study. But I was tired from the day and always had buddies with less demanding majors wanting to B.S. or go out for a drink.
My problem wasn’t my friends, their majors or that I was tired. My problem was me. I was suffering from poor time management.
In addition to being a hard ass with friends and telling them ‘no’ more often I needed to make more time in my schedule.
So I made the decision to become an early riser.
Not fast, mind you but I immediately set a goal to wake up at 7 AM. That gave me an extra hour.
Once I had that down for a week or two I was really impressed with how much more I was able to get done in the morning versus the night.
I had way fewer distractions because I didn’t have buddies stopping by at all hours.
When I started I was convinced getting up earlier would be a huge pain but it ended up being great. So much so that I immediately bumped my wake up time to 6 AM where it stayed for the rest of pharmacy school.
Getting up early is one of the best success strategies I’ve ever employed. Over the years I’ve continued to ratchet up the wake up times. At the time of this writing I routinely get up at 4:45 AM every morning.
My Mom and Dad both drank coffee in the morning when I was growing up … but I never saw the point.
But when I made the decision to start getting up earlier I noticed that I was a bit groggy and it took a while to really start concentrating.
I knew caffeine could help so I decided to finally give coffee a shot.
I bought some Folgers coffee bags that you dropped in hot water and had my first cup of coffee. It helped perk me up quicker and improved my concentration.
Like getting up earlier it’s a habit I’ve kept up to this day. Although now I make much better coffee.
Bonus: Don’t Study The Night Before
I found this strategy out by accident.
I had been studying for an exam in one of my most difficult classes (Medicinal Chemistry) and had been using all the strategies I’ve outlined above.
The night before the test I felt pretty confident about the material but I usually tried to do a comprehensive review the night before and the morning of the test.
But that night I happened to sit down in front of the TV and started watching Seinfeld. Before I knew it it was time to go to bed. While I felt a bit guilty about not studying I just went with it.
In the morning I also decided NOT to do a review.
Long story short: I did great on the test. It was my best grade I had achieved.
Over time I began to implement the ‘no study rule’ the night before and the morning of exams.
Ironically, it was this NOT studying that I think helped me perform better because there was less anxiety. And test anxiety is one of those things that cripples students performance.
When you look at the study material right before an exam you invariably come across things that you aren’t sure you have down. You get stressed. So you study it quickly and then wonder to yourself, “What else did I forget to study.”
If you’ve done your job right to this point chances are there’s very little you haven’t covered. So stop stressing. Better yet, stop studying the night before.
The bottom line is that these simple changes allowed me to raise my grades in a tough academic program. If you’re willing to keep an open mind and take action you can see similar – or even better results.