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Getting Knowledgeable Slowly

Posted on: July 13, 2021

What is the best study method? How do you study effectively? Anthony James, author of Say 'No' to Exam Stress, explores how learning well is a slow, gradual process.

There is probably no such thing as get rich quick. The same applies to getting rich in knowledge. It is a slow, gradual process. If you are interested in the best lesson I learned about how to study, it was how to get knowledgeable slowly. There are three steps.

  1. Look up questions from previous exams or ‘past papers’ in your subjects. They are probably freely available in your college or university library.

    This is not just about exam preparation. Looking at past papers really concentrates the mind on the reality of what you have to know about your subject if you want your knowledge to stand up to scrutiny. You may spend time listening to a lecture and come away feeling uncertain about what was said and unable to remember much about it. Looking at previous exam questions tells you clearly the sort of things you need to know about any topic.

    You might accept that most of us have quite a short attention span. Also, we are easily distracted by social media, social gatherings and so on. Pace yourself accordingly. Pick a question from a past paper and take a week or more of gathering information and drafting your initial attempts at an answer. Keep your draft saved where you can easily retrieve it.

    Your information gathering may include study guides which highlight key points. Online resources can guide your study by helping you to identify fundamental ideas. Do not plagiarise of course, but if you think you have found a key issue, it is reassuring if someone else agrees with you.
    Write a list of bullet points from your draft and save those. You might try memorizing the list.

    Over a period of months pick as many past paper questions as you can and write out your answers. You may prefer to write your answers in bullet point format only, not written out in full. Go back to your bullet points from time to time and memorise them.
  2. We can learn from others and so you might try out what you have learnt during informal gatherings with co-students in the bar and so on.

    You are not going to show off your knowledge or interrogate people. Just be casual about it. Talk a bit, but adopt a listen and learn approach. You might say something along the lines of, ‘I think X is an interesting topic.’ Your companion or co-student might ask why you think X is interesting and so you could start to share with them a bit of what you know. Your companion might reply, and so you might learn something new. In which case you could try to look up what was said. It may turn out to be genuine information, in which case you can go back and thank your companion for putting you on to something good. In turn, your further reading may have unearthed a new bit of information which you can pass back to your companion out of gratitude.

    On the other hand, you may get more than a brief reply from your co-student. They may have a lot to say and be more knowledgeable than you are. In which case just listen and learn. Thank them for a valuable conversation. After the conversation, jot down a few notes on what they said and check it against whatever you can from your reading list or online. Maybe what they said was just talk, or maybe it was useful information. Later you might go back to your co-student and share with them that you have been thinking about what they said and found it valuable. Thank them for putting you onto something good.
  3. As the months go by, try to decide in your own mind, what are the most important topics on your course or courses. These may be the topics which come up most frequently in exams.

    Discuss your most important topics with your co-students. Listen and learn from them, then go to past papers again and see what questions are asked on these topics. Draft your answers, maybe just in bullet point form. Memorise the bullet points, not only as exam revision. Your knowledge can foster your informal conversations with others. Always remember to thank people when they have put you onto something good. Pace yourself, take your time, take breaks from studying and enjoy your leisure activities. Get knowledgeable slowly. Nonetheless, if you start to enjoy having relaxed conversations about your subject, you may get keen to gather material for future discussions, which means your motivation for further study increases. We are not all engaged by the  studying process and anything which increases our motivation could be a good thing.

Conversations with co-students may be difficult to start, or drift into nothing, so you can just leave it and try again later with someone else. Nonetheless, gradually you will become more knowledgeable on your topics chosen from previous exam papers. If you do not like studying, admit that to yourself and maybe to one or two of your friends and content yourself with working slowly. Be prepared to build up knowledge carefully over weeks, months, or years. When you read something, write out what you have learnt in bullet points and save it somewhere you can find it easily. Make a habit of that approach. Look up your bullet points from time to time. Try to remember them and use them for both everyday conversation and exam revision.

In summary, from the start of your term or course:

  • look at past papers;
  • pick a question;
  • take a week or more to build up you answer in bullet points;
  • save the bullet points;
  • memorise the bullet points;
  • discuss with co-students;
  • learn from them and thank them for a valuable conversation;
  • review and improve your bullet points;
  • choose your next past paper question and repeat the process;
  • slowly build up your knowledge over weeks, months or years;
  • as your knowledge builds up you may start to enjoy your conversations with co-students;
  • you may find that you look forward to future conversations, which motivates you to study further.