Updated: Sep 10
Don’t study harder, study better: how I (un)trained my brain
Welcome back to the second week of a restful break! Even if you’ve done nothing spectacular by the time you read this, it’s not too late to get cracking now.
By this time, you will have (hopefully) made a half-hearted attempt at getting your notes in order, or flipped through your holiday homework- the last you’ll ever get!- and tossed it in the ‘too hard’ pile. I’d be lying if I convinced you I was any different.
That said, the holidays did give me a good chunk of time to seriously reflect; not just on where I was at, but what I could change in the next month or so. I didn’t learn any crazy memory hacks, or lose 10 pounds of fat with this one weird tip. Instead, I found that tiny changes add up. So, in no particular order: Phones away
You may have heard the advice from your teachers before, but I cannot underestimate how useful this was for me. I didn’t properly get social media until year 11, but when I did I absolutely lost myself in Facebook and Snapchat. I don’t multitask well at all- if I’m on my devices, I’ll stay on until I’ve seen absolutely everything I need to. As such, I found that the simplest solutions worked best. My phone was stowed away in a drawer under my desk, under a pile of notebooks, which was under a pile of stationery.
It worked so well, in fact, that I’d search the house for my lost phone before realising it was in my drawer all along. I think physically isolating myself from that distraction- as difficult as it was for the first couple of days- did wonders for my concentration.
I like to have everything I need on hand. Unfortunately, there’s simply too much sensory stimulation- my eyes start wandering off my worksheet and onto a particularly interesting piece of pencil shaving on the carpet.
I also have a fairly messy desk space (trust me, you don’t want to see it) and I’ve always struggled with putting together a well-organised system. Even if I try to arrange everything into shelves and dividers, entropy takes its course and after approximately 12 hours, I’m left with a scattered pile of stuff.
Neither of these are particularly conducive to a quiet, uninterrupted period of studying. After trying to fight it off for a couple of years, I eventually decided to follow KC and the Sunshine Band and just Give It Up. There was no conceivable way I could stop my eyes from wandering, but I could make it start wandering to the right things.
I slowly replaced spare pencils and loose-leaf with boring but practical materials: my set texts for English, my grammar workbooks for German, even my Biology textbook. When I couldn’t concentrate on anything else, I drifted naturally to reading what was around me. I can’t put a precise number to it, but I reckon I got an extra hour of ‘study’ every day just by passively absorbing information in my off time.
There’s some pretty compelling psychology behind it too! Charles Duhigg breaks down our habit formation (in his aptly-named book The Power of Habit) into cue, routine and reward. Habits, he contends, don’t ‘break’; they merely change form- as long as the cue (boredom) and reward (distraction from work) remain the same, the routine can be reshaped to work in your favour.
To be clear, I don’t think the book is gospel truth- it attributes a dizzying range of corporate and social success stories to the manipulation of our habit cycle. That said, I think it’s definitely worth a shot. What do you have to lose apart from the time cleaning your room?
This one I found especially useful for Biology. Looking through my notes over the year, I found a consistent pattern: lines and lines of text pencilled into my notebook, without much else to break up the structure. No wonder I was struggling: it took more effort to decipher my writing than to focus on the content, which is never ideal when dealing with a subject as content-dense as Bio.
I took the drastic step of converting my notes into an entirely digital form. I realised that most of what I had copied in class was a transcript of my teacher’s own notes, for fear of leaving out any sentence that could turn out to be a SAC question. Now that SACs were over, that incentive simply didn’t exist anymore. Two pages of written notes could fit neatly into one typed-up table.
Digital notes also had the advantage of being easily editable, especially when I wanted to fill out a section with diagrams, practice questions, or helpful explanations sourced from elsewhere. It was also far, far neater. Never underestimate the power of looking nice.
Incidentally, this is also a good time to look beyond the resources your teacher provides: the ecosystem of VCE Biology has expanded rapidly, to include blogs, video lessons, and far more. A Google search for ‘VCE Biology podcast’ returns over 9 million hits! The point isn’t to abandon the written word- I still find it the most efficient way to process information- but for anyone looking for an easily-digestible way to review tricky course content, the option is certainly out there.
When all is said and done, study over the holidays can’t be forced. It’s repetitive, confusing, and sometimes utterly frustrating. You might not ever come to like it, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who does. But I don’t think that’s reason to lose hope. By nudging some bad habits in good directions, you’ll be able to make the odds fall far more in your favour- until you switch your Netflix back on, at least.
Have a question
In the final weeks before exams Allen will be hosting 2 Live Q&A sessions to help everyone get fully prepared for exams. If you have a question on how to best get prepared, a question about an exam question or area of content send it through here, and Allen might answer it in one of the sessions.