How to Properly Use a Textbook

Girl reading a German book while sun bathing

Image "Studious Andrea" courtesy of Flickr user Robert Wallace (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Student: I failed my midterm(s).
Me: I’m sorry to hear that. Why do you think you failed?
Student: I don’t know! I’ve been studying really hard.
Me: So how do you study?
Student: Well, I read the textbook…

On a good day, I inwardly sigh. On a bad day, I want to *headdesk* and *ragequit* (yes, I just said ragequit). Why? Because reading the textbook is NOT a study technique!

Why not? Because deliberate practice is the best way of understanding or getting good at something. Deliberate practice is:

1. Studying with focus and without distraction…
2. With a goal in mind…
3. While being challenged by the contents (of what you’re studying)…
4. And using feedback to make adjustments in approach…
(repeat)

Reading a textbook may satisfy criterion 1 and maybe criterion 2. However, even though reading the textbook may feel challenging, it’s not the good type of challenging when you feel your mind bending around and understanding a concept. No, reading a dense textbook sometimes feel like hitting a mental wall with no hope of going around and usually breeds frustration. Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, the textbook offers no feedback and there are very few ways to track how you’re learning objectively. Sure you could do the in chapter questions, but even that is usually about memorization and not understanding.

The high school way of simply reading through a chapter from beginning to the end is passive, not active, learning and is highly ineffective.

So how can you use your textbook properly? That depends on the course. If…

… The course is memory intensive and you will be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. psychology, history):

You’ll have no choice but to read everything. BUT, don’t just read. Do something active while you’re at it. Write summary notes, create study questions, note down how all the key terms link to each other, etc. This helps retention and prevent you from having to re-read the textbook for the midterm or the final (because you have notes!).

… The course is memory intensive and you will not be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. biology, physiology, pharmacology, genetics):

Don’t read any more than you have to. If your professor states that he or she won’t test you anything that haven’t been covered in class, then there is no need to read your textbook unless you don’t understand a topic. Use the textbook like a highly specialized encyclopedia (er… Wikipedia or Google). Read the section you don’t understand (plus any other sections necessary to understand that section). Then move on to higher yield study techniques.

… The course is not memory intensive and is more about problem solving (e.g. math, physics, some chemistry):

Use the book for the questions (if they are like the ones your prof asks on exams). Don’t simply read the example questions in the textbook – actually do them! Cover up the answers, read the question, and go as far as you can. If you solved the question, move on to the next one. If you are study, look at that section of the answer key, then cover it up again and redo the question! This may take some more time than straight up reading, but you will learn and retain so much more.

… You’re pre-reading. 

Figure out if you need to pre-read first, then act accordingly.

The textbook is a reference material. For better understanding and retention of topics, you must supplement it (or replace it) with more effective studying techniques.

 

Quickie: Tick Tock Goes the Clock

“Quickies” is a new column on SotN for short or niche tips. These topics are interesting or important enough to warrant their own post, but are too short for a full length one. If you have a “quickie” you’d like to share, contact us! Enjoy! 

I get up at 7:30 am every morning. On Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, this is reasonable as I have class at eight. However, I get up at this time on Tuesday and Thursdays even though I don’t have class until 11 am.

This is not a post about my strange sleeping habits (and how to annoy a roommate). Rather, it’s about knowing oneself. I know two things about my productivity:

  1. I feel better when I get up at the same time every day as opposed to different times on different days (regular circadian rhythm).
  2. I am much more efficient in the mornings than in the evenings and I get more work done.

This means that I study for my toughest subjects first thing in the morning, when I am fairly awake, instead of late in the afternoon or evening after long and tiring days.

You have your own rhythm. I bet that you’ve told others that you’re a “morning person” or a “night person” (or a “noon person”). Use your own (natural or enforced) rhythm to your best advantage to study or tackle other tough projects. If you’re the most awake at 12 am, study then. If you cannot sleep past 4 am, study then!

Do what works for you.

 

Quickie: Skip that Step!

“Quickies” is a new column on SotN for short or niche tips. These topics are interesting or important enough to warrant their own post, but are too short for a full length one. If you have a “quickie” you’d like to share, contact us! Enjoy! 

Efficiency is the key to being academically successful. What is efficiency in this case? It is putting in the least number of hours to learn the most amount of stuff. However, it’s hard to be efficient. Aside from distractions, there are often five million ways or resources you could study for a class. You could read the textbook, go over the notes, do the problem set, watch online videos, go to office hours, post on the online discussion board… If you don’t have time for all of these steps, what do you do?

You skip steps! Yes, really. The key is to be selective in choosing which steps to skip.

Strong students know this. They know (either intuitively or through trial and error) what works and what doesn’t. One of my friends always need to recopy/condense her notes before she can start studying in earnest. Another friend never does because it’s a waste of his time. This is also why some of your friends seem to only need to read the textbook or class notes in order to ace exams.

Know which steps actually contribute to your understanding and focus on those.

If, for example, you have an overwhelming amount of resources or ways to study for a course. First, try as many of the ways as possible to study within the first 2 weeks of class. Then eliminate what obviously doesn’t work. Continue using the rest and see if you can eliminate ways that aren’t as successful as other until you have a small handful before the midterms (or even finals). Then study hard using these extra effective strategies in order to ace that exam.

How to Make the Most of an Exam Viewing

OMG!

Image "OMG!" courtesy of Flickr user Nicolas Hesson (CC BY-NC 2.0).

You’ve survived the exams! In fact, you feel really good about them, even about that one that everyone else thought was killer. Some time later, you get your results back and *gasp* that exam that you thought you did well on? You didn’t. In fact, your grade is so abysmal that you are starting to wonder if you got someone else’s grade (or the prof/TA mistakenly took away 30%). What do you do? Why you go and look at the exam of course.

While exam viewings are terrific opportunities to improve your grades (both on the exam and for the future), few people use them to their full advantage. So how can you make the most of an exam viewing?

First, recognize the goals to any exam viewing. You want to:

  1. Make sure there are no mistakes in the tallying and recording of the marks.
  2. Figure out why you lost your marks and where you made your mistakes.
  3. Obtain some additional marks.

 

The first goal is easy to achieve. Go through the exam, look at all of the marks, and make sure they add up to what you and the prof has on record. This is objective because you are NOT to look at how any of the questions are marked or try to dispute the marking (that’s step 3). Simply make sure that there wasn’t an adding or transcribing error somewhere.

After that, move on to goal 2. Go through the entire exam and try to figure out what you did wrong and why you lost marks. At this point, assume the professor or TA (or whomever marked the exam) marked perfectly and that there were no errors with the exam, the marking, or the answer key. Ask yourself:

  • Did you get the concept(s) wrong? Are there any gaps in your understanding or knowledge?
  • Did you read the question wrong? Did you go off topic? Did you answer the question that was actually asked?
  • Did you interpret the question correctly? Did you think it was asking something else?
  • Did you make any calculation, copying, or other clerical errors?
  • Where there any other problems? For example, were you so nervous you over-complicated or oversimplified the problems?

 

Knowing what went wrong is crucial. If your course is a full year course (or the exam is a midterm), you’ll need to know what you got wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes on the next exam. This is more important if you made conceptual errors. Even if the course is not a full year course, you may take similar courses in the future or this course may be a pre-requisite for a harder course. Moreover, this is a great chance to figure out if you make any systematic errors. That is, are you always misreading or misinterpreting questions? Do you make lots of silly errors that cost marks? If you do, it may be time to change your exam writing strategies to minimize these errors. I’ve found that the types of systematic errors I made in university weren’t the types I made in high school. Therefore if this is your first set of final exams, it would behoove you to pay attention.

If you don’t understand how you did something wrong or you don’t understand a question, ask your prof to explain it. He or she will be glad to as long as you do not act like it’s their fault you got the question wrong (yes, people actually do that).

After going through all the questions you got wrong and understanding the right answers, you may disagree with some of the marking. In that case, you may wish to ask for some extra marks or submit your exam for re-marking. This is be appropriate if:

  • You got the question right (or a part of the question right) and it was marked wrong.
  • You are on a borderline mark – for example, between pass/fail or C/B. Do NOT ask for extra marks if you have 98% unless you’re absolutely sure that the question was marked wrong. Otherwise you will be wasting their time and you will look like an obsessive mark grubber.

 

So how should you ask for extra marks?

  1. Talk to your professor and show them the question(s) in dispute. Indicate that you understand the marking scheme and why it was marked the wrong.
  2. Explain why you think you should get more marks. If you think the marking was too harsh, give a solid reason as to why you should get more. Your excuse should not be “well, I just should”.
  3. If the error was with how you interpreted the question (this is NOT for if you have read the question wrong), explain how and why you interpreted it the way you did. Explain your rationale, especially if the question was somewhat ambiguous. If possible, indicate where you did some scratch work that demonstrated your (somewhat correct) thinking.

 

You want to appear confident and show that you’ve thought through the questions and the marking. However, coming on too strong will cause your professor or TA to go on the defensive and make them less likely to give extra marks. I believe that most professors and TA’s want their students to do well and would be willing to give extra marks if it can justified (especially if the class average is low). Thus, do the justification for them! As well, while you may be very upset and emotional over the low grade, don’t act it. Avoid hysterics and anger. Attacking them, the exam, or the way the exam is marked will more than annoy them. As well, avoid the pity party and the sympathy card. Also avoid the “I have to get this grade or I will be…” argument. Your prof has heard it all and will think that you’re desperate. Worse yet, they’ll think you’re trying to play them (and no one likes getting played). Be calm, logical, sincere, and above all, don’t put them on the defensive!

As well, if you will be asking for extra marks, pick your “battles” carefully. Focus on the questions where you are most likely to receive the extra marks. This keeps you credible. Asking for extra mark for every question will annoy your prof or TA and also make you look like an obsessive mark grubber. Profs do not like obsessive mark grubbers (who does?) and will not want to help you.

Have a good exam viewing (though I suppose it would be best if you never actually have to use these tips :)) and happy 2012!


Welcome to 2012 (and the new site design)!

Happy New Years! Yet another year has flown by, and since contrary to popular belief, the world is unlikely to end this year, we here at SotN decided to make some site upgrades overwinter break.

So, what’s new?

New Pages:

  • Articles” – All articles on this blog organized neatly by topics. Kid in the candy store (ok, maybe that’s stretching it)?
  • Start Here!” – New to SotN? Don’t know which articles to read? Overwhelmed by the master article list? Start with this page!
  • Special Thanks” – SotN wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of many people and organizations, thank you for all your support!

Design Changes:

  • Featured Content Gallery – Yes, that fancy scrolly slideshow thinggy up there. It displays the newest and/or most popular content on this blog.
  • New logo – It perfectly showcases what SotN is about (and is darn cute too).
  • New Theme – The layout and colour scheme should make browsing easier.

 

Thank you for reading and supporting SotN!