It is that time of semester when everyone seems to be stressed out because everything seems to be due all at once. It is as though all of the professors seem to have gathered in a secret coven and, over an open fire in the depths of a midnight mass, decided on the best way to ruin the lives of their students.
First, who told you about our secret covens? Second, we don’t actually plan how to ruin the lives of students (administrators on the other hand…). Rather, it is just that at the end of a semester, unsurprisingly, we have to assess what you’ve learned SOMEHOW. So here’s the best way to get ahead of the game.
1) Read Everything at the Beginning of the Semester
Holy librarians, Batman! Am I seriously suggesting that students should read everything in the first two weeks of semester?
Yes. Yes I am.
Book off work, make sure that your friends are aware you will be disappearing for a bit, and turn off your cell phone for a while. Seriously, this is a big commitment. You won’t see much of the light of day while you plow through literally THOUSANDS of pages of material in a very short amount of time.
Thing is, there are different kinds of reading that we do for different kinds of purposes. The reading you want to do at the beginning of the semester is “surface” reading. You want to just get the basic ideas into your head. Don’t worry too much right now if you understand what Euler’s formula is, because just knowing that those words are coming up and that they have something vaguely to do with trigonometry and complex exponential functions will be enough to prime your brain.
And that is all you are doing at the beginning of the semester—priming your brain for all the things that you are going to learn over the next few months.
This doesn’t mean you don’t re-read the books later, but that can come later. Once you’ve got a basic sense of what is going on and you have worked with the professor to come to a more indepth understanding of what you are doing in the class.
2) Write Every Day
As you read at the beginning of the semester, start keeping a notebook. Don’t put it on your computer. That’s a terrible idea and there is a lot of evidence to show that you don’t learn as well if you take notes via a keyboard.
When you start, just write down major concepts—who does what to who in a novel, major figures in history, dates of major events, names of formulae. It should almost not even seem like a set of notes, but a set of random, dissociated words and concepts. Don’t worry about these things seeming disconnected. This is just building the scaffold.
Then, as you go on through the semester write 250-500 words every day in your notebook (right now, this blog post is about 500 words). This excludes the notes that you take in class. Take a page and fill it, every day.
“With what?” you might ask. I’m glad you asked
With elaborations of what you’ve learned that day. With a list of questions you have about the material. With connections that you are spotting between the major concepts that you wrote down in the first blast through the reading list. Use a quotation from the text as a prompt. Write a list of words you still don’t understand. What’s the worst text in the course? The best? Why?
Hell, it really doesn’t matter. If you really, REALLY hate that physics class and you spend 500 words ranting about how much easier it would be to teach the class with cool experiments like you’ve seen on YouTube, that is fine. Write that.
Just one thing: if you are going to do this, try to make sure that your ideas are at least tangentially related to the course material. This doesn’t really help as much if it turns into a diary or record of your own personal psychodrama. You should be engaging the ideas and the material, not yourself.
The point of this is to make sure that you get into the habit of writing about the material you are going to be tested on later in the semester. The great thing for students who have to do papers at the end of the semester is that if you write 500 words every night, you get so used to writing that a 5 000 word essay seems like a snap.
Now, you aren’t done reading after that first marathon, nor are you done writing after you’ve worked your way through your notebook. Revision is KEY.
So, as for reading, you will have to go back and reread a lot of the material that you read in the first few weeks. You will be addressing it more closely this time. This time you will actually pay attention to details and sit in the ideas. The process might look like this:
- In the first week, you noted that there was a thing called Euler’s formula
- In class, you learned about how Euler’s formula is used in electronic engineering
- You reread the textbook and figured out not just what the prof was talking about but what the implications are
- You wrote a few hundred words about the awesomeness of Euler’s formula
- You reread the textbook again after you used the word “phasor” correctly in a sentence and just got excited
- You wrote a few hundred words on phasors (which, sadly, have nothing to do with Star Trek
In an ideal world, you will have taken the opportunity to write 500 words per day in your notebook into sketching out and then finishing major portions of your essay(s) such that all you really have to do the week the paper is due is to put together the pieces and smooth out the rough transitions.
Whereas the first two to three weeks should be you doing nothing but reading the whole of the reading list, the last two to three weeks should be nothing but you revising the material you’ve already learned and plugging in whatever new material the professor adds.
If you do this right, you will have literally thousands of words and you won’t end up staring at the clock at 11:12 PM thinking that you have nothing to say and only 234 words written for a 1000 word essay that is due at midnight.