Maximizing Your Time and Memory
You have truly learned material when you can readily recall it and actually use it—on tests or in real-life situations. Effective studying is your most important tool to combat test anxiety, but more important, effective studying helps you truly master the material and be able to apply it as you need to, in school and beyond.
Effective studying is an ongoing process of reviewing course material. The first and most important thing you should know is that studying is not something you do a few days before an exam. To be effective, studying is something you do as part of an ongoing learning process, throughout the duration of the term. Humans innately memorize information constantly, and just like learning how to swim or drive, repetition and practice are the keys to effectively retaining information in your long-term memory. Studying does not need to be a chore as you learn effective skills and allow your brain to do the work for you.
Maximizing class time and studying as you attend class is an excellent way to jump-start test preparation. Memory is an amazing gift, and becoming an active listener in class will help you in multiple ways. Keeping great notes and staying engaged will help you use class time as study time. If you treat your class time as study time, you are getting ahead just by being present and staying focused. Class time is never a waste of time, and using the time to study is a way to maximize your time!
Studying in Groups
Study groups are a great idea—as long as they are thoughtfully managed. A study group can give you new perspectives on course material and help you fill in gaps in your notes. Discussing course content will sharpen your critical thinking related to the subject, and being part of a group to which you are accountable will help you study consistently. In a study group, you will end up “teaching” each other the material, which is the strongest way to retain new material. But remember, being in a group working together doesn’t mean there will be less work for you as an individual; your work will just be much more effective.
Here are some tips for creating and managing effective study groups:
- Think small. Limit your study group to no more than three or four people. A larger group would limit each student’s participation and make scheduling of regular study sessions a real problem.
- Go for quality. Look for students who are doing well in the course, who ask questions, and who participate in class discussions. Don’t make friendship the primary consideration for who should be in your group. Meet up with your friends instead during “social time”—study time is all about learning.
- Look for complementary skills and learning styles. Complementary skills make for a good study group because your weaknesses will be countered by another student’s strengths. When a subject requires a combination of various skills, strengths in each of those skills is helpful (e.g., a group with one student who is really good at physics and another at math would be perfect for an engineering course). Finally, a variety of learning styles is helpful because each of you pick up differing signals and emphases from the instructor that you can share with each other, so you will not likely miss important points.
- Meet regularly. When you first set up a study group, agree to a regular meeting schedule and stick to it. Moving study session times around can result in nonparticipation, lack of preparation, and eventually the collapse of the study group. Equally important is keeping your sessions to the allotted times. If you waste time and regularly meet much longer than you agreed to, participants will not feel they are getting study value for their time invested.
- Define an agenda and objectives. Give your study sessions focus so that you don’t get sidetracked. Based on requests and comments from the group, the moderator should develop the agenda and start each session by summarizing what the group expects to cover and then keep the group to task.
- Include some of the following items on your agenda:
- Review and discuss class and assignment notes since your last meeting.
- Discuss assigned readings.
- Quiz each other on class material.
- “Reteach” aspects of the material team participants are unsure of.
- Brainstorm possible test questions and responses.
- Review quiz and test results and correct misunderstandings.
- Critique each other’s ideas for paper themes and approaches.
- Define questions to ask the instructor.
- Assign follow-up work. If there is any work that needs to be done between meetings, make sure that all team members know specifically what is expected of them and agree to do the work.
- Rotate the role of moderator or discussion leader. This helps ensure “ownership” of the group is spread equally across all members and ensures active participation and careful preparation.
Tips for Taking Tests
You have reviewed the material for a test and feel confident that you will do well. You have brought your test anxiety into control. What else can you do to ensure success on a test? Learn and apply these top ten test-taking strategies:
- Learn as much as you can about the test. What has the instructor told you about the test? Will it be open book? What types of questions will be on it? Are there parts of the test that will be worth more points than others? Will it be cumulative or just cover the most recent material? Will you have choices about which questions to answer?
- Try to foresee the questions likely to be on the test. What kinds of questions would you include if you were the instructor? Brainstorm possible questions with your study group. Look for possible questions in your notes. Review past quizzes and tests to see what kinds of questions the instructor likes to ask. Above all, take it seriously whenever your instructor warns, “This will be on the test.”
- Don’t be tempted to stay up late cramming. Get some exercise and watch what you eat. Cramming is not a substitute for doing your assignments and studying consistently over time. It is far more important to get a good night’s sleep and face your test fresh and well rested. A good workout the day before an exam will help you be fresh and stay focused during the exam (provided you already like to work out; if not, find time to take a long walk). A healthy diet the night before and the day of the exam will give you energy and concentration to do well on the exam. Include “brain foods,” such as those rich in omega-3 oils, and avoid “heavy” foods that are rich in fat and sugar. (After the exam, you can celebrate with a cheeseburger, fries, and milkshake—but not before the exam!)
- Get to the test site early. Take out all your allowable tools (pencils, pens, calculator, etc.). Turn off your cell phone (yes, all the way off, not on vibrate) as a way of disconnecting from your everyday world. Do some of the relaxation exercises described earlier for controlling test anxiety.
- Create a test plan. Listen carefully to the directions given by the instructor. When you receive your test, scan the entire test first. Evaluate the importance of each section. Then create a time allocation plan. Decide how much time you should dedicate to each section. You don’t want to spend 80 percent of your time on a question worth 10 percent of the grade.
- Write it down. Take a couple minutes to write down key facts, dates, principles, statistics, and formulas on a piece of scratch paper or in the margin of the exam paper. Do this while you are still fresh and aren’t yet feeling time pressure (when it will be harder to remember them).
- Then you can refer to these notes as you take the exam.
- Read the directions carefully. Then reread them. Do you understand what is expected of you? If not, ask the instructor to be sure you are clear. Too many students lose points simply by not following directions completely!
- Do the easy questions first. By getting the easy questions out of the way, you’ll feel more confident about the test and have more time to think about the tougher questions. Start with the objective sections of the exam first (multiple choice, true or false, and matching columns). As you answer these questions, keep an eye out for facts or concepts you may want to use later in an essay question.
- Keep an eye on the time. Keep as close to your plan as possible. If you see that you are running out of time, don’t panic. Move to those questions you think you can still answer accurately within the remaining time.
- Check your work. This doesn’t mean going through all your calculations again. Start by ensuring that you have complete answers according to the directions. Then look for other common mistakes, such as a misplaced decimal point, dropped words (especially those that can modify the answer, like “not”), and any incomplete or incomprehensible phrases.
Optional Activity #1
Controlling Negative Talk
You have learned how negative thoughts contribute to test anxiety and keep you from doing as well as possible. Take some time to disarm your most frequent offenders.
Dealing with Test Anxiety
Most of us have experienced text anxiety at some point in our lives. It is normal to feel stress before an exam, and in fact, that may be a good thing. Stress motivates you to study and review, generates adrenaline to help sharpen your reflexes and focus while taking the exam, and may even help you remember some of the material you need. But suffering too many stress symptoms or suffering any of them severely will impede your ability to show what you have learned. Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which a person feels distress before, during, or after a test or exam to the point where stress causes poor performance. Anxiety during a test interferes with your ability to recall knowledge from memory as well as your ability to use higher-level thinking skills effectively.
There are steps you should take if you find that stress is getting in your way:
- Be prepared. A primary cause of test anxiety is not knowing the material. If you take good class and reading notes and review them regularly, this stressor should be greatly reduced if not eliminated. You should be confident going into your exam (but not overconfident).
- Bounce bad vibes. Your own negative thoughts—“I’ll never pass this exam” or “I can’t figure this out, I must be really stupid!”—may move you into spiraling stress cycle that in itself causes enough anxiety to block your best efforts. When you feel you are brewing a storm of negative thoughts, stop what you are doing and clear your mind. Allow yourself to daydream a little; visualize yourself in pleasant surroundings with good friends. Don’t go back to work until you feel the tension release. Sometimes it helps to take a deep breath and shout “STOP!” and then proceed with clearing your mind. Once your mind is clear, repeat a reasonable affirmation to yourself—“I know this stuff”—before continuing your work.
- Visualize success. Picture what it will feel like to get that A. Translate that vision into specific, reasonable goals and work toward each individual goal. Take one step at a time and reward yourself for each goal you complete.
- It’s all about you! Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to other students in the class, especially during the exam. Keep focused on your own work and your own plan. Exams are not a race, so it doesn’t matter who turns in their paper first. Certainly you have no idea how they did on their exam, so a thought like “Kristen is already done, she must have aced it, I wish I had her skills” is counterproductive and will only cause additional anxiety.
- Have a plan and follow it. As soon as you know that an exam is coming, you can develop a plan for studying. As soon as you get your exam paper, you should develop a plan for the exam itself. We’ll discuss this more later in this chapter. Don’t wait to cram for an exam at the last minute; the pressure you put on yourself and the late night will cause more anxiety, and you won’t learn or retain much.
- Make sure you eat well and get a good night’s sleep before the exam. Hunger, poor eating habits, energy drinks, and lack of sleep all contribute to test anxiety.
- Relax! You perform best when you are calm, so learn some relaxation exercises you can use during an exam. Before you begin your work, take a moment to listen to your body. Which muscles are tense? Move them slowly to relax them. Tense them and relax them. Exhale, then continue to exhale for a few more seconds until you feel that your lungs are empty. Inhale slowly through your nose and feel your rib cage expand as you do. This ll help oxygenate your blood and re-energize your mind.
Effective and Engaging Presentations
Public speaking—giving an oral presentation before a class or another group of people—is common in education and in the work world. You will likely be asked to give a presentation in one of your classes at some point, and your future career may also involve public speaking. College provides an opportunity to practice and develop public speaking skills.
In order to warm up to presenting in front of the class, ask questions during class. Practice speaking out loudly and engaging others in this manner, that way, you will feel less nervous about speaking out.,
Public speaking is similar to participating in class—sharing your thoughts, ideas, and questions with others in the group. In other ways, however, public speaking is very different. You may stand in front of the class to speak, rather than from your usual seat—and for most students, that changes the psychology of the situation. You also have time outside of class to prepare your presentation, allowing you to plan it carefully—and, for many, giving more time to worry about it and experience even more anxiety!
Overcoming Stage Fright
Although a few people seem to be natural public speakers, most of us feel some stage fright or anxiety about having to speak to a group, at least at first. This is completely normal. We feel like everyone is staring at us and seeing our every flaw, and we’re sure we’ll forget what we want to say or mess up. Take comfort from knowing that many students feel anxious about presentations. With a little work, you can learn to overcome your anxiety and prepare in a way that not only safely gets you through the experience but also leads to success in your presentation. The following are proven strategies for overcoming anxiety when speaking in public:
- Understand anxiety. Since stage fright is normal, don’t try to deny that you’re feeling anxious. A little anxiety can help motivate you to prepare and do your best. Accept this aspect of the process and work to overcome it. Anxiety is usually worst just before you begin and but eases up once you’ve begun.
- Understand that your audience actually wants you to succeed. They’re not looking for faults or hoping you’ll fail. Other students and your instructors are on your side, not your enemy. They likely won’t even see your anxiety.
- Reduce anxiety by preparing and practicing. The next section discusses the preparation process in more detail. The more fully you prepare and the more often you have practice, the more your anxiety will go away.
- Focus on what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it. Keep in mind that you have ideas to share, and this is what your classmates and instructors are interested in. Don’t obsess about speaking, but focus on the content of your presentation. Think, for example, of how easily you share your ideas with a friend or family member, as you naturally speak your mind. The same can work with public speaking if you focus on the ideas themselves.
- Develop self-confidence. As you prepare, you will make notes you can refer to during the presentation. You’re not going to forget what you want to say. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become.
Guidelines for Presentations
Preparing and delivering a presentation in class (or in business or other settings) is a process very similar to the learning processes used for taking notes, preparing to read, and preparing to take tests. The process breaks down into these six basic steps:
Step 1: Analyze Your Audience and Goals
Who will see and hear your presentation—and why? Obviously, other students and the instructor. But you still need to think about what they already know, and don’t know, about your topic. If your topic relates to subject matter in class lectures and readings, consider what background information they already have and be careful not to give a boring recap of things they already know. It may be important, however, to show how your specific topic fits in with subjects that have been discussed already in class, especially in the beginning of your presentation, but be sure to focus on your new topic.
New terms and concepts may become familiar to you while doing your research and preparation, but remember to define and explain them to other students. Consider how much explanation or examples will be needed for your audience to grasp your points. Thinking about your audience will help you find ways to get their attention and keep them interested.
Be sure you are clear about the goals for the presentation. Are you primarily presenting new information or arguing for a position? Are you giving an overview or a detailed report? Review the assignment and talk with the instructor if you’re unsure. Your goals guide everything in the presentation: what you say, how much you say, what order you say it in, what visual aids you use, whether you use humor or personal examples, and so forth.
Step 2: Plan, Research, and Organize Your Content
Starting with the assignment and your goals, brainstorm your topic. Jot notes on specific topics that seem important. Often you’ll do reading or research to gather more information. Take notes as you would with any reading. As you research the topic at this stage, don’t worry at first about how much content you are gathering. It’s better to know too much and then pick out the most important things to say than to rush ahead to drafting the presentation and then realize you don’t have enough material.
Organizing a presentation is similar to organizing topics in a class paper and uses the same principles. Introduce your topic and state your main idea (thesis), go into more detail about specific ideas, and conclude your presentation. Look for a logical order for the specifics in the middle. Some topics work best in chronological (time) order or with a compare-and-contrast organization. If your goal is to persuade the audience, build up to the strongest reason. Put similar ideas together and add transitions between different ideas.
While researching your topic and outlining your main points, think about visual aids that may help the presentation.
Also start thinking about how much time you have for the presentation, but don’t limit yourself yet in the outline stage.
Step 3: Draft and Revise the Presentation
Unless required by the assignment, you don’t need to actually write out the presentation in full sentences and paragraphs. How much you write depends on your own learning and speaking style. Some students speak well from brief phrases written in an outline, while other students find it easier to write sentences out completely. There’s nothing wrong with writing the presentation out fully like a script if that helps you be sure you will say what you intend to—just so you don’t actually get up and read from the script. Sometimes having everything written down can be more nerve-wracking. If you lose your place, you might start to panic.
You will not know for sure how long a presentation will last until you rehearse it, but you can estimate the time while drafting it. On average, it takes two to three minutes to speak what can be written on a standard double-spaced page—but with visual aids, pauses, and audience interaction, it may take longer. While this is only a rough guide, you can start out thinking of a ten-minute presentation as the equivalent of a three to four-page paper.
Never wait until the last minute to draft your presentation. Arrange your time to prepare the first draft and then come back to it a day or two later to ask these questions:
- Am I going on too long about minor points? Could the audience get bored?
- Do I have good explanations and reasons for my main points? Do I need more data or better examples? Where would visual aids be most effective?
- Am I using the best words for this topic and this audience? Should I be more or less informal in the way I talk?
- Does it all hold together and flow well from one point to the next? Do I need a better introduction or transition when I shift from one idea to another?
Step 4: Prepare Speaking Notes
As mentioned earlier, it’s not a good idea to read your presentation from a written page rather than deliver it. We can all tell when someone is reading rather than speaking to us, and it makes it much more difficult to actively listen and engage with the ideas being presented. To keep your audience’s attention, it’s important to make eye contact with them and to use a normal speaking voice—and you can’t do this if you keep your eyes on a written script.
Speaking notes are a brief outline for your presentation. You might write them on index cards or sheets of paper. Include important facts and data as well as keywords for your main ideas, but don’t write too much. (If you forget things later when you start practicing, you can always add more to your outline then.) Be sure to number your cards or pages to prevent a last-minute mix-up.
Think especially about how to open and close your presentation, because these two moments have the most impact of the whole presentation. Use the opening to capture the audience’s attention, but be sure it is appropriate for your audience and the goals. Here are some possibilities for your opening:
- A striking fact or example (illustrating an issue or a problem)
- A brief interesting or humorous anecdote (historical, personal, or current event)
- A question to the audience
- An interesting quotation
Then relate the opening to your topic and your main point and move into the body of the presentation.
Your closing mirrors the opening. Transition from your last point to a brief summary that pulls your ideas together. You might end with a challenge to the audience, a strong statement about your topic, or a personal reflection on what you have been saying. Just make sure you have a final sentence planned so that you don’t end up uncomfortably fumbling around at the end (“Well, I guess that ends my presentation”).
Step 5: Practice the Presentation
Practice may be the most important step. It is also the best way to get over stage fright and gain confidence.
Practice first in an empty room where you imagine people sitting, so that you can move your eyes around the room to this “audience.” The first time through, focus on putting your outlined notes into full sentences in your natural speaking voice. Don’t read your notes aloud. Glance down at your notes only briefly and then look up immediately around the room. Practice two or three times just to find the right words to explain your points and feel more comfortable working with your notes. Time yourself, but don’t obsess over your presentation being the exact length required. If your presentation is much too long, however, adjust it now in your notes so that you don’t start memorizing things that you might accidentally still say later on even though you cut them from your notes.
Once you feel confident speaking from your notes, continue practicing to add some more polish to your delivery. You might want to record or videotape your presentation or ask a friend or roommate to watch your presentation. Pay attention to these aspects of how you speak:
- Try to speak in your natural voice, not in a monotone as if you were just reading aloud. If you will be presenting in a large room without a microphone, you will need to speak louder than usual, but still try to use a natural voice.
- Practice changes in your delivery style to emphasize key points. In usual conversation, we speed up and slow down and vary the intensity of our words to show how we feel about what we’re saying. Don’t keep looking at your notes. It’s fine if you use words that are different from those you wrote down—the more you rehearse without looking at your notes, the more natural sounding you will be.
- Be sure you can pronounce all new words and technical terms correctly. Practice saying them slowly and clearly to yourself until you can say them naturally.
- Don’t forget transitions. Listeners need a cue when you’re moving to a new idea. Practice phrases such as “Another important reason for this is…” or “Now let’s move on to why this is so.…”
- Watch out for all those little “filler” words people use so often, such as “like,” “you know,” “well,” and “uh.” They’re very distracting to most audiences. Listen to or watch your tape to see if you are using these fillers or ask your friend to point it out.
- Pay attention to body language when practicing. Stand up straight and tall in every practice session so that you become used to it. Unless you have to stand at a podium to use a fixed microphone in your presentation, practice moving around while you speak; this helps keep the audience watching you. Use hand and arm gestures if they are natural for you, but don’t try to make up gestures for the presentation because they will look phony. Most important, keep your eyes moving over the audience. Practice smiling and pausing at key points.
- Finally, it’s a good idea to be ready in case of an accident. Most likely your presentation will go smoothly, you’ll stay on track with your notes, and your PowerPoint slides will work fine, but sometimes a mishap happens. Be ready to joke about it, rather than becoming flustered. If the computer fails and you lose your visuals, say something like, “Well, that’s a shame, I had some really great photos to show you!” If you drop your index cards or notes, or accidentally skip ahead in your presentation and then have to backtrack, make a joke: “Sorry about that, I was so excited to get to my next point that I’m afraid I lost control there for a moment!” Let your audience laugh with you—they’ll still be on your side, and you can defuse the incident and move on without becoming more nervous.
Step 6: Deliver the Presentation
Be sure to get enough sleep and eat a healthy breakfast. Don’t drink too much caffeine or else you’ll become hyper and nervous. Wear your favorite—and appropriate—clothing and comfortable shoes.
Remember, your audience is on your side! If you’re still nervous before your turn, take a few deep breaths. Rehearse your opening lines in your mind. Smile as you move to the front of the room, looking at your audience. You’ll see some friendly faces smiling back encouragingly. As you start the presentation, move your eyes among those giving you a warm reception—and if you see some student looking bored or doing something else, just ignore them. Remember that many people are not aware of their facial expressions when they are watching a presentation. Their face might be relaxed rather than an indication of boredom. Don’t focus on any one person in the audience for too long, which could make them nervous or cause them to look away.
Don’t keep looking at your watch or a clock: If your rehearsal times were close to your assigned time, your presentation will be also. If you do notice that you’re running behind schedule, it may be that you’re saying too much out of nervousness. Use your notes to get back on track and keep the pace moving. But it’s better to deliver your presentation naturally and fluidly and be a bit long or short than to try to change your words and end up sounding unnatural.
At the closing, deliver your last line with confidence, sweeping your eyes over the audience. If appropriate, ask if there are any questions. When you’re done, pause, smile, say “Thank you,” and walk back to your seat. Depending on the presentation, this may also be an appropriate time to ask for questions.
Later on, ask other students and your instructor for comments. Be open minded—don’t just ask for praise. If you hear a suggestion for improvement, file that in your memory for next time.
You may be assigned to give a presentation in a small group. The six-step process discussed previously works for group presentations, too, although group dynamics often call for additional planning and shared responsibilities:
- Schedule a group meeting as soon as possible to get started. Don’t let another student put things off. Explain that you’re too busy and won’t have time at the last minute.
- Begin by analyzing your audience and your goals together as a group to make sure everyone understands the assignment the same. Discuss who should do what. While everyone should talk about what content to include, from here onward, you will take on specialized roles. One or more may begin research and gathering information. Others who are good writers may volunteer to draft the presentation, while one or more others may develop the visual aids. Those who have public speaking experience may volunteer to do all or most of the speaking (unless the assignment requires everyone to have a speaking role). You also need a team leader to keep everyone on schedule, organize meetings, and so on. The best team leader is an even-tempered student with good social skills, who can motivate everyone to cooperate.
- Steps 2 and 3 can likely be carried out individually with assigned tasks, but group members should stay in touch. For example, the person developing the visuals should be talking to those doing the researching and drafting to see what visuals are needed and get started finding or creating them.
- Before preparing notes in step 4, meet again to go over the content and plan for visuals. Everyone should be comfortable with the plan so far. Make final decisions about who will do each section of the presentation. Set the time for each segment. Then speakers should prepare their own speaking notes. Let someone with strong speaking skills open or close the presentation (or both), with others doing the other parts.
- The whole group should be present for practice sessions in step 5, even if not everyone is speaking. Those not speaking should take notes and give feedback. If one student is doing most of the presenting, an alternate should be chosen in case the first choice is sick on the scheduled day. The alternate also needs to practice.
- During the delivery, especially if using technology for visual aids, one student should manage the visuals while others do the presenting. If several students present different segments, plan the transition from one to another so that the presentation keeps flowing without pauses.
Giving presentations, alone or in a group, is a challenge, but many jobs require this ability to communicate information in groups or to other groups of people. Learning this skill in college, as well as how to professionally communicate, will benefit you greatly as you prepare for your future career.
Who are you now?
- What study habits have worked for you in the past?
- What are some time-wasters that intrude on your success?
- How often do you struggle with procrastination, and what causes you to procrastinate on your work?
Who would you like to be?
- Mentally imagine a day in the life of a happy and successful college student. What does that look like to you?
- Who do you admire for their ability to succeed at life?
- List two new study habits that you are willing to try in college. How will you implement these habits into your life?
Who are you becoming?
- Imagine a time when you succeeded in a class or on a job. How have those successes shaped your future?
- What is one thing you can do today to start your journey to success?
- Compare high school to college. What successful habits separate a high school student from a college student?
The Successful Student
It may seem easy to spot the best and the brightest students in college by how they present themselves. The most successful students are the honest and sincere ones who ask good questions, pay attention in class, persevere through hard times, rarely miss class…. and the list goes on. These students makes things look easy, and make the rest of us wonder how they do it all. The question is…what habits will make you a successful student, and what is your plan to achieve success? Who do you admire most among your peers?
We were all given an incredible gift, and that is the opportunity to gain a college degree. A love for learning is a skill anyone can develop. You do not need to begin college loving the learning process. Loving to learn is a decision that starts with a healthy perspective. You are paying to be here with us at AUM, in order to gain incredible amounts of knowledge. Retaining that knowledge begins with effective study habits. What study habits will you adopt as you become a successful college student?