How to Study When You’ve Lost Motivation: 8 Sharp Tips to Get Back on Track
About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.
It’s that time of year again. For many of you, exams are just around the corner, and the world is a gloomy, anxious place of flashcards and textbooks, where joy consists in your new glittery gel pens and that trip to the doctor that means an hour’s blissful break from revision.
In my opinion, two evils conspire to make revision-time miserable: the first is the stress of approaching exams, and the sense that there is an overwhelming amount of information to learn in an ever-dwindling period of time. Even spending time with friends, intended for relaxation, can just be a reminder of the exams you’ll be sitting together and the work you ought to be doing. The second is the boredom; the feeling of oppression that comes with the knowledge that the next week, or month, or six weeks, will be consumed entirely with the business of studying.
Of course, there will be days when revision is actually quite enjoyable – when you feel like you’re achieving a lot every day, piecing the different parts of your subjects together, and finally understanding things that have eluded you for months. But equally, the majority of us have just as many bad days, when we’re studying a particularly difficult topic, progress is slow or we just can’t focus. And on those days, the classic study tips seem totally redundant: personally, being ‘helpfully’ advised to make flash-cards or take regular breaks while struggling to understand the very first thing about differentiation has in the past made me feel positively murderous.
So, here are some quirky study tips, new ideas to boost your concentration and motivation as a last resort, when everything seems impossible and you’re dangerously close to just giving up and watching old episodes of Breaking Bad all afternoon. Of course, they won’t all work for you, but trying new things never hurts, especially when everything seems lost.
An old teacher of mine swore by a very particular (and in my opinion, totally mad) study habit. She said that if you read something through three times, then at the end of the third time, you would know all of the information it contains perfectly. For her, it worked – she could sit quietly reading a chapter of a textbook, and then after the third time through, answer pretty much any question about it. For me, this is the worst possible way to revise. My concentration span is that of a particularly dim goldfish. I can sit for hours, re-reading the same piece of text up to five, six, or seven times, without ever once taking in what it says. Sure, my eyes will be drifting over the words, but my mind will be elsewhere entirely – thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch, what happened on last night’s Made in Chelsea, what I’m going to revise next, or even how terrified I am about the exam. And even if I do manage to remember the general gist of the passage, by the next day any specific details have totally disappeared. If I’m going to have any chance of taking something in and remembering it for longer than ten minutes, I have to make learning an active process. Here are some ideas to do this:
Set yourself questions
In subjects like History, English, Religious Studies, Psychology, or Biology, where you’ve got to read and learn long swathes of text, make learning active by turning information into questions. Break a text down into chunks of one page, or roughly 500 words each, and for each part, write out five questions that you would ask if you were an examiner testing students on that part. Next, write out the answers. Take your time over this process – your questions should be careful and well thought-out, isolating the most important elements of a topic. You could even put your questions on flash cards, and use them to revise from in the future.
Teach each other
In groups of two, three, or four, break a subject (or some of a subject) down into parts, each go off and learn a part thoroughly, and then come back together and teach each other what you’ve learned. The ‘teacher’ could prepare a slide-show and a handout, explain how to answer past paper questions, and ask the other members of the group to work through some questions together. This method of revision works brilliantly for a few reasons: first, it’s active, forcing you to confront problems rather than skipping over them, and transform information into a form someone else will understand; second, it’s fun, and social, giving you a break from the solitary confines of your spot in the library. It can be adjusted to suit pretty much any subject: in Economics or History, you could each take an essay question, prepare a model answer and discuss it with the group; in a literature exam, you could provide readings and summaries of books or poems; in Maths or a science, teach a whole topic.
Ditch the books altogether
Some students do exceedingly well in exams without ever making revision notes or even reading through their books – instead, revision for them is a process of going through every past paper in existence, and answering all the questions there. Next, get hold of a mark scheme, read through the exemplary answers contained there, and work out how you’ve scored and where you’ve gone wrong. I used to use this method in subjects like Maths and Chemistry. My first efforts were always a total disaster, with scores in the forties and fifties – but I found it astonishing how many questions were repeated in slightly altered form from paper to paper, and how much I improved each time. What’s more, each time I would read through the answers on the mark scheme, I was learning information in the same way as I would from a text book, building confidence and becoming familiar with the particular demands of the paper – but it was easier to concentrate than if I’d used notes, because I was always comparing the answers there to my own efforts. What’s more, in my experience, if you puzzle over something and get it wrong, you’re likely to remember how to do it properly. Of course, with this system of revision it’s crucial to be alert to changes in the syllabus, and there is always a risk of missing out something important – but it’s a great way of livening up revision and can always be combined with other methods to make it more thorough.
N.B. When practising, remember to keep to the amount of time you’ll have in an exam.
Try something new
There are radio shows and podcasts on basically everything these days. I revised for my Shakespeare exam at university by listening to a really useful podcast on iTunes – and a quick search confirms there are hundreds more geared towards IB, A-level, and GCSE exams. Don’t feel confined to those specifically for your course, though – you can learn new and interesting information that might boost your grade and give your exam an edge simply by searching for a topic you’re interested in. Downloading and listening to these will give you a fresh perspective, or a new way of understanding a topic – and in addition, is a more low-key method of revising – something you can do while you’re walking to school, sitting on the tube or relaxing in the evening.
I know a student who put everything she needed to know about Photosynthesis for IB Biology into a brilliant (but incredibly geeky) rap. And another student who made extravagant and actually quite beautiful posters, writing all the information she wanted to remember about World War Two on different parts of a map of Europe. If you’re especially creative, or learn well from seeing, speaking or doing, you can adapt this to suit how you learn – making acronyms, rhymes or posters – or even acting things out to remember them better.
Staying focused and motivated
Try working at a totally new time
This is one for really desperate times, not to be used all year round: as you will see when you read on, if overused its natural conclusion is a descent into madness.
When I’m having an essay crisis, or an exam is looming and I don’t feel prepared, I totally change my routine, and wake up at 3.30am to work or revise. I have real problems focusing in the evening – I find working after 6pm miserable and oppressive, and know that I work very slowly and inefficiently at that time. However, if I go to bed really early (say, 9pm), when I wake up in the small hours of the morning (and once I’ve had a very strong coffee) my brain is refreshed, and I can get loads done before the day has even properly started. What’s more, there are no possible distractions at that time of day – nothing to do, no one to meet for coffees, and Facebook slows to the merest of trickles. Plus, the feeling of intense smugness that being up and working while the rest of the world sleeps will only make you more productive.
If you’re not a morning person, this one might not work for you – instead, try giving yourself a lie in, and then staying up a few hours later at night. And of course, make up the time you’ve missed in bed elsewhere.
Break it down
Now, many of you will undoubtedly be sick to death of being told to plan your revision. I personally don’t hold much love for study timetables: in my experience, they inevitably end up sitting over your desk, evilly mocking your ineptitude with each day that you get further and further behind the targets you set three weeks ago. On the other hand, though, without a sense of when everything will get learned, it’s easy to feel totally at sea with revision, with a creeping sense that you might not be learning things quickly or well enough, or that you may have missed something out. Unfortunately, then, they can be something of a necessary evil. However, one tip will make sure you keep pace with your timetable, and realise if you’ve set unrealistic goals, while also increasing your motivation and helping you stay in the library for that crucial extra few hours. Each day, break your revision down into chunks- say, at least ten. Once you’ve completed one chunk, give yourself a little reward: I have a friend who will buy a bag of Maltesers, and eat two after each chunk; another who watches one video on YouTube; a third who checks his Facebook for five minutes and a fourth who spends a few minutes punching a punch-bag! Make it a rule that before you leave the library at the end of the day, you’ve got to have completed the ten small tasks you have set yourself.
Plan daily exercise in groups
Annoyingly, for those of us who prefer an afternoon on the sofa with a movie to a walk or a game of tennis, it’s been proven a hundred times over: regular exercise boosts concentration. What’s more, whole days, weeks or even months spent in the library, working towards a single goal, with no distractions or social interaction are very bad for morale, efficiency and concentration. A great way to break revision up, see some human faces and get moving is to plan to do something active and fun once a day with friends. When I was revising for my IB, a group of us used to go swimming for an hour every day before dinner. This was a great social event (and a good chance to moan about all the work we were doing!), which gave us all something to plan our days around, and a chance to get outside and generally stay sane.
Have you got any unusual study tips that have helped you through desperate times? Let us know in the ‘Comments’ section below!