students studying in a group
October 17, 2018
4 mins read

6 common study mistakes and how to fix them

I came to UBC way overconfident in my study skills. I had always been a pretty good student, so I wasn’t concerned about how I would do in my university classes.

My confidence came crashing down when I received my first less-than-stellar midterm grade. I didn’t understand what happened. How was this possible? Why didn’t my usual study methods work for me?

The work you do in university is complex and requires more critical thinking. It’s no longer enough to simply memorize the textbook.

So, here I am, a UBC graduate with a real live Bachelor's degree, and I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two about studying. Every semester, I learned something new about what it would take to succeed here, and what doesn’t work.

Here are 6 common studying mistakes that I learned to avoid:

1. The Marathon

The problem: You find a desk in Irving and refuse to move ever again. You don’t even think about taking a break—that would be a waste of time. Don’t you know this assignment is due in 16 hours?

The solution: Whether you’re doing this because you think it’s efficient or because you left everything until the last minute, you’re not going to learn much. Our brains need rest time to process information.

Planning ahead is the key here. Instead of focusing only on your deadlines, work backwards and figure out when you need to start working on a project. Take into account how long each part of the work will take you. Chapman Learning Commons has an Assignment Calculator that’s great for this. You’ll feel less overwhelmed and more able to actually learn the material, as opposed to just cramming.

If you’re really in a pinch (hey, it happens to everyone), try out the pomodoro method: 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off, with a longer break every 4 circuits. It holds off exhaustion and keeps you feeling refreshed over long periods of heavy work!

2. The Full-Page Highlight

The problem: You try to study by reading the textbook, but somehow end up highlighting everything and remembering nothing.

The solution: Turns out, passively re-reading a textbook is pretty useless. Just because you’re holding a highlighter doesn’t mean you’re actually engaging with the material.

Learn how to read actively by taking notes as you read, which will force you to decide what parts of the reading are worth remembering. Come up with practice questions or make flashcards. The more of the 5 senses you use in your studying, the more likely you are to remember the information.

If your exam includes an essay portion, think about what kinds of themes your professor might ask about and make some possible outlines. Even if your practice questions don’t actually show up on the exam, you’ll be in the right headspace!

3. The Multitasker

The problem: You try to do work for all of your classes at the same time by constantly switching back and forth between projects. This one is particularly common during finals.

The solution: People are actually really bad at multitasking. While we think we’re focusing on 2 things at once, we’re actually switching between 2 tasks very rapidly, meaning that our brains never have time to fully adjust to working on either one.

Unfortunately, the only way around this one is to plan ahead (weird how that keeps cropping up). Make a study schedule ahead of time and figure out which days you’ll devote to which subjects. You’ll be able to process the material more efficiently than you would if your attention was split between tasks, and ultimately you’ll have more confidence in what you’ve learned.

4. The Media Frenzy

The problem: You study while talking to your friends, checking 10 different social media tabs, and listening to loud music (or worse, watching Netflix), and looking at your phone every 5 seconds as it buzzes away on your desk.

The solution: SHUT. IT. DOWN. It’s easy enough to get distracted without creating more disturbances for yourself. Turn off your phone, don’t use the internet unless absolutely necessary (if it is, you can use apps like StayFocusd or Freedom to stay on task), and minimize background noise.

Low volume coffee shop buzz and instrumental (preferably classical) music are fine, but stay away from loud conversation or heavy rhythmic tunes. I like to get work done while listening to film scores (nothing makes you feel productive like finishing an essay to the Indiana Jones theme).

5. The Solo Mission

The problem: You only ever study in solitude and refuse to ask anyone else for help.

The solution: Studying on your own is fine (even preferable), but having other people around to bounce ideas off of can be insanely helpful. Make a friend in class (they don’t have to be your soulmate) so you can share notes and ask questions if you need to.

Convince a friend or family member to let you “teach” them the material—the gaps in your understanding will become more obvious when you try to explain a topic to an uninformed party. Most importantly, take advantage of your professors and attend office hours or shoot them an email if you’re confused about something. You won’t regret it.

6. The Full-Out Panic

The problem: You suddenly realize how much work you have to do and completely freak out, flipping tables and curling into a ball on the floor in the middle of the stacks. 

The solution: Take a break. Have a healthy snack, go for a mind-boosting walk, stretch out your cramped muscles, or take a deep breath. Oh, and maybe switch from coffee to water. Everybody gets overwhelmed and sometimes it just takes a few minutes of distance to calm your mind.

Studying is hard, but it’s part of the deal at UBC. Of course, everybody is unique and different people swear by different study methods. Spend some time trying out different methods and figure out what works for you!