How to be an average (PS) student

Necessary if one seeks to be an above average student.

Shortly after I had written a few module reviews, an incoming/matriculating student asked if I had any advice on ‘studying in uni in general, especially for content-heavy modules’. It’s always fun to give out advice (up till a point) and less fun to take it, but this is perhaps one of the few situations where I do practice what I preach. In other words, I’m writing what I do as an average student in hopes that it will help others looking to be average as well.

The following post arose out of the conversation which I had with him, but it’s been edited for clarity and ease of reading. Older themes on ‘general studying’ may be found in older posts such as that which I wrote for Reddit as well as a short testimony/sharing I wrote upon being awarded a small honour. This however, will be more focused on the practical aspects of studying instead of being an introductory post like the former or a personal sharing like the latter.

A Tale of Two Skills

I began my answer to him by explaining how there were, in effect, two different skills that one needed to learn, if not master, during their time as a student. Because I have little experience with other majors, I speak only from my limited experience as a PS student. However, both skills should put one in good stead if they take up a more essay-based major (what comes to mind aside from PS would be History, Sociology and maybe Literature) as opposed to more mathy-majors (Economics and perhaps Psychology might fall into this category). Basically if your major requires you to read stuff and write about what you’ve read, then both skills would probably be quite relevant!

Reading as a Skill

In the spirit of Maple’s old skill icons, I thought it would be fun to make some “skill” icons as illustrations for what I mean. What it comes down though, is basically reading things fast and deep.

Reading fast

Speed Read icon v0.2

Why is this important?

Time management is crucial in life, but particularly for students facing a mountain of readings, you’ll need to know how much time you need to clear what needs to be read. In other words, you need to learn what I call your Rate of Reading (RoR). Doing so will give you the option of choosing to structure your time around your work instead of the other way around.

Let me give an example. After some experience, I’ve estimated my RoR to be as follows:

  1. When focused (deep reading): 40 pages in 1 hour/60 mins.
    1. Understanding achieved: Fairly deep, sufficient for following lectures, engaging in tutorial discussions and writing essays.
  2.  When less focused (skimming mode): 40 pages in 0.5 hours/30 mins.
    1. Understanding achieved: Somewhat shallow, sufficient only for following lectures and engaging in some tutorial discussions.

This is a fairly accurate representation, and so it helps me calculate how much time I need to set aside to clear the mandatory readings for the week. I actually underestimated the average amount of readings a PS student receives in my earlier post – it’s not 120 pages per week, it’s 120 pages per week per module. Let’s assume three major mods, that works out to be roughly 360 pages every week. Topping up with lets say 40 pages from 2 non-major mods that are assumed to be light, 400 pages every week seems like a somewhat decent representation of the minimum mandatory readings one needs to do as an average student (until they do 4k mods, that is).

So then, I have two options available to me:

  1. Option A: Fit time around readings.
    1. Assuming I choose to deepread everything, 400 pages divided by 40 pages per hour takes ten hours maximum.
    2. Broken down over five days, that leaves me with roughly two hours every day to clear the minimum readings.
    3. Or if I’m particularly studious and clear four hours worth of readings over two evenings each, then I just have two hours worth of readings left to clear for the other three days and any extra time can be spent on assignments or other stuff.
    4. Outcome: More time spent on studies and possibly gained new insight/points for tutorial discussion, essays and/or finals, but less time for other things.
  2. Option B: Fit readings around time.
    1. Set an arbitrary number of hours that I’ll study in the week, say five hours (or see what’s left over after I’ve done other things).
    2. Cut out readings from the mandatory list and prioritize some modules over others.
    3. Outcome: More time spent on other things, less time on studies and less readings done, resulting in possibly less material to offer in tutorial discussions, essays or finals.

Notice, however, that this is only possible if I knew what my RoR was. Let’s say there’s a random student who doesn’t know how quickly they can clear readings, or doesn’t have a rough grasp of what level of comprehension they achieve after they’ve read something in a certain amount of time. Their available options would look like this:

  1. Option A: Fit time around readings.
    1. Not possible because they can’t calculate how much time they need to set aside for the readings.
  2. Option B: Fit readings around time.
    1. If they pick a number greater than they actually need, then that’s great, they’ll be able to clear their readings in time.
    2. What usually happens, though, is that uncertainty discourages one from starting early and people tend to overestimate their capabilities. Somehow or another, a few readings won’t be done or they’ll be skimmed through with the vague intention of ‘clearing them in the future’.
    3. Some students may then return to clear them in the future, but as the lecture topic moves on, most have a choice to make:
      1. Option B1: Spend extra time in a later week clearing a reading for an earlier week they didn’t do and which won’t be discussed in lecture/tutorial or
      2. Option B2: Don’t spend that extra time catching up on past readings and wait for Recess/Reading Week to come.
    4. Most tend towards B2 since pragmatically it seems like the best option, and so the mountain of undone work piles (particularly as other essays and assignments begin to be due) with each passing week.
    5. Then boom, it’s Reading Week, they’ve got a lot of work to clear and not enough time. The bunch of readings they said they’ll do is forgotten and/or left undone, and they head into the finals with what they’ve gleaned from the readings they did do as well as whatever tutorial discussions were had (if notes were taken).

Hence why I view finding out one’s RoR as the prerequisite to actually having an option. It’s perfectly fine to know how much time you need to set aside and then choose not to do so – that’s your choice, because you actually have choices available. But if you’re flying blind and throwing caution to the wind, then there’s not really very much you can do short of consistently overestimating the amount of time you need to clear that week’s readings. Even that wouldn’t be the most efficient because you may end up with pockets of time as opposed to if you knew roughly how much time you need to clear everything, and then allocated your week accordingly.

How do I calculate my RoR?

I like what Bonhoeffer wrote with regards to obedience: “You can only learn what obedience is by obeying.” Similarly, you can only estimate your RoR by actually doing work – reading, taking notes, and checking how much you understand something after you’ve read through it for a certain amount of time. It’s not that hard, actually, but you’ll be surprised how few people do it and skip most of their mandatory readings. Again, you don’t need to arrive at an exact value, but you would want to know how you function normally so that when you’re not sick or not particularly in a studious mode, you’ll still be able to get the work that needs to be done done.

What if I know my RoR but it’s not enough?

There arises this possibility that one does know their RoR, but it’s not fast enough. Again, I view reading speed as being relative when viewed alongside comprehension, so it’s not a race to see who can read something the fastest. That said, what should someone do if they estimate their RoR to be, say, 10 pages an hour?

There are a few options available to them:

  1. Option A: Tedious but hardworking – Allocate more time to clearing the same amount of readings. 400 pages divided by ten pages an hour means..40 hours. That’s like 8 hours every day of reading.
  2. Option B: “I know what’s best for me!” Cutting readings – Simply what it says, one chooses which readings to cut based on how much time they have set aside for doing work.
  3. Option C: Difficult but beneficial in the long term: Increasing RoR – How precisely one learns to read faster depends a lot on how they explore – whether through stimulants such as caffeine, learning new reading/skimming/note-taking techniques or simply trying to focus more after a good night’s rest. In the long run, this probably will benefit them the most, but I’m not sure how much work is needed to boost it.
  4. Option D: If you want to go far, go together…: Form study groups – “Here’s your reading, here’s your reading and I’ll do this. Let’s upload our notes in gDocs of each readings so we each only need to clear 40 pages instead of 120 pages.”

The first two options are simply Options A and B as mentioned earlier. I’ve already elaborated on C as well so I’ll look at D in more detail.

How effective are study groups? Should I form them?

Like all good and accurate answers in PS, the answer is ‘it depends.’ There are a few questions one should ask themselves:

  1. Do I trust my friends/study group partners (SGPs) to put in the same amount of effort into making notes as I do for the readings they’re assigned to do?
    1. Best case: Everyone works hard.
    2. Realistically: Some work hard, others slack a little.
    3. Worst case: You’re the only one putting in effort to do the readings.
  2. Can I understand their notes?
    1. Best case: All their notes make perfect sense to you even though they wrote/organized it in a manner suitable for them.
    2. Realistically: It takes a bit more work because you don’t follow their style of note-making (someone preferring more organized notes might find mindmaps messy while those preferring freedom to brainstorm via mindmaps might feel restricted by bullet points and tables), and so you re-do their points in a manner more suitable for you or you just take it as it is.
    3. Worst case: Their notes are unintelligible to you and perhaps them as well. I know this sometimes happens to me because of poor handwriting >< and personal shorthands/acronyms.
  3. Do I plan to use them as a first cut and I’ll re-cover that reading in the future, or am I completely not doing that reading and relying solely on their notes of it?
    1. Best case: One uses their notes as a summary of what they think are the important points and reads the reading for themselves to check if they missed out anything.
    2. Realistically: “Maybe I’ll skim through the reading and compare it against their notes.”
    3. Worst case: “Yea, I trust their notes. Not like I have time/want to do that reading myself anyway – otherwise why would we have allocated readings in the first place if I’m just going to re-do them to check?”
  4. If they miss out something in their notes and it comes out for the finals, who is to be blamed? Me for relying on their notes, them for missing out that point, or nobody because it couldn’t have been predicted?
    1. Best case: “Well, can’t be blamed, nobody knew.”
    2. Realistically: “Eh, people make mistakes.”
    3. Worst case: “I can’t help feeling that if I had done the notes myself, at least I can take responsibility for missing out that point instead of taking responsibility for trusting someone else’s notes.”

Similar to how banks advocate knowing one’s threshold for risk (or what they term risk appetite), your own appetite for risk may affect your desire to form study groups (assuming one can find willing and able participants). Of course we’d all like to end up in the best case scenario for all the above questions, but realistically that usually isn’t going to be the case, so depending on how many ‘best cases’ one finds and how many ‘others’ they’re left coping with, they may find it a worthwhile or worthless endeavour.

For me, the decision why I choose not to form study groups or rely on notes from them stems from a sense of responsibility. Perhaps it too can be seen as pride: Pride says “I don’t need your notes, because they’re not good enough for me.” But responsibility says “I don’t need your notes, because I’m going to take responsibility for what I learn and don’t learn. If I make mistakes or fail to understand something, that’s my fault and so I can’t blame anyone but myself.” Logically too, it makes sense to me that if I have the time to do a reading (which, properly allocated, I would), I would rather do it and make notes which make the most sense to me rather than waste extra time trying to re-read it and/or translate the notes made by others into something not just comprehensible, but memorable, for myself.

That said, I’ve always made my notes available to all in whatever study groups that I’ve somehow ended up in (which, truthfully, isn’t very much). It doesn’t bother me so much about whether others make use of them for their own advantages or not, since they too are freely sharing their notes and I have the option to use theirs if I want. But with sufficient time to read something properly, I’m usually fairly confident of what I come away with, and may only just skim through their notes to see what their perspective was instead of looking for actual content in it.

To summarize, study groups usually seem better as ideals than in reality. Still, it’s not impossible to make it work and forming one may even be more efficient than studying solo if one finds other like-minded and similarly motivated individuals. Take my experience and decision, then, for what it is, and come to a conclusion for yourself based on your own capabilities, situation and beliefs.

Can you share how you do your readings?

I think I’ve typed about this somewhere in past posts, but sure, it’s not some secret. Again, it comes down to practice and knowing what works best for one, and one learns the latter by doing the former. For me, writing somewhat detailed notes is what takes up most of the time when I’m doing a deep reading – I make an effort to rephrase or restructure whatever’s being said into something that makes the most sense to me. That really takes effort and time, but doing so also cements what I’ve read and so I can simply do a reading once instead of returning to it multiple times in the future because I’ve forgotten what it says.

It’s a bit like being given some words, and my brain finds it easier to remember or understand if they are arranged in a particular fashion (for example, a specific acronym). The words are still there, but instead of being a jumbled mess of unprocessed/raw data, they’re given meaning by how they’re organized to me.

What I don’t do is to annotate or highlight readings. I find it usually makes my brain lazy because my brain knows it’s retrievable from that particular source and so it doesn’t make any effort to memorize or deeply internalize whatever I’ve just annotated or highlighted. Of course it might work for others – and maybe that’s why it’s fairly popular from what I’ve seen – and so it comes back down to what works best for one. Trial and error helps a lot if one’s clueless about where to begin, but if one’s refined their studying methods (as they might have coming from JC/Poly) then they shouldn’t have too much trouble with that.

Reading deep

Deep Read icon v0.2

Why is this important?

This ties into what I’ve mentioned earlier about reading fast, and also why I’ve worked out RoRs for different modes of reading. Most, if not all, students can skim through a reading – actually understanding what they’ve read is another matter. If one doesn’t understand, their brain’s just seeing alphabets and they’re just reading it in their mind, but nothing goes in – no sense is actually made.

Reading deeply will help one to grasp nuances or potential tangents useful for both tutorial discussions and writing assignments. Moreover, I’ve found it to have a compounding effect on reading speed – the deeper one reads, the faster they actually can read through the rest of the reading. Why is this so, you might ask. Doesn’t one get bogged down in the details?

Not really, for the details themselves act as little lily pads by which one can spring quickly through the reading instead of being dragged down in the water, figuratively speaking. It’s a bit like running when one has only warmed up a little – the first few hundred meters will likely feel like hell (as a certain running girl said), but after one’s muscles are warmed up, it becomes easier to stretch out one’s legs and go faster.

Again, understanding how certain ideas work together in the beginning is like being given the hint to a string of seemingly random words: That they are all part of a legal document, for example, or steps for a scientific experiment. Then once one knows the context and what the purpose of these words are, it becomes easier to assimilate new words as they come, and one is no longer flying blind being overwhelmed by new, poorly-understood concepts or jargon.

To use a final analogy, reading deep is like having half of a puzzle set’s final picture revealed. Once each piece is understood in relation to the other, piecing the rest of the puzzle together progressively becomes easier.

How can I read deeply?

This arguably comes with experience, but I’ve found internalization of the key ideas or implications of whatever’s being written about to help. Say a new concept is introduced – question why it is necessary, why a particular term is defined in such a manner, who thought it up and what its implications are for other concepts or what one knows of that field. These seemingly vague and general questions might be difficult to ask and perhaps even harder to answer, but doing so forces one to engage more deeply with whatever’s just been mentioned. The good news is that as one reads on, they may find more answers to these questions (since the reading would probably elaborate more on them) and so their understanding of the concept is enhanced. Finally, if they’re still unsure or curious, they can always consult their Profs or T.As to clarify certain questions.

To this end, journal articles are usually easier to ‘read deeply’ because they contain less abstract ideas and follow a fairly predictable PEEL/point, example, conclusion format. Books may digress or include interesting but ultimately irrelevant details, so be prepared to be (more) focused and selective for the latter. Finally, the more difficult readings usually require one to hold several abstract/complex ideas in their mind to understand what actually is being said, or the full implications of what is being introduced. For this reason, it may be wise to (generally) pre-emptively allocate more time for books than journal readings.

Writing as a Skill

Writing icon v0.2

I’ve chosen the above icon to illustrate how a myriad of possible outputs arise from several specific inputs. In a sense, that is how I understand the skill of writing to be: Synthesizing what one’s read, what one wishes to write about and how one wishes to write it.

Academic/Knowledge Input

This refers to one’s relevant knowledge about the topic. Including any possible tangents or analogies, it usually rises or falls based on how much readings one has done, hence the importance of working hard doing one’s readings.

Clarity of Goals

Many Profs, when asked what advice they have for students facing the finals, simply reply “Answer the question.” And that of course makes sense: If one doesn’t answer the question, their answer is irrelevant as far as the question is concerned. Examiners are looking for answers from the perspective of the question, not ‘whatever I know about this topic and the kitchen sink’ or ‘whatever I feel like writing about’. This clarity and focus is equally important for one’s assignments – knowing what one’s writing towards and being sure that one’s answer answers the question is equally, if not more important, than researching examples or brainstorming points.

Linguistic Flair

I believe most students have the potential to develop a certain flair in their writing, and this personal style gives a piece of writing its “organic” feel. How might one go about developing this? Well, I’d argue it comes from consciously understanding how different authors cover the same issue and use different language (by this, I mean choice or words or phrases) to achieve their varied purposes.

This is not too different from an artist looking at the art styles of several different favourite painters and deciding to eclectically choose a little from person A’s style, a little from person B’s style in order to form their own style. In a similar manner, learning not just how but why an author uses a particular choice of words to achieve a specific impact helps in one’s written clarity and readability. This in turn benefits them since whoever reads their essay can more easily follow their arguments and/or train of thought, thereby improving the experience of reading. As one grows in their writing, they’ll become more confident in how they write and adapt as necessary to the situation.

A note of caution, though: Do understand differences between genres/forms of writing and exercise discernment in deciding what is beneficial for a particular situation. A poet, for example, may aim to create an artful imagination with a few choice words, while a reporter may seek to convey factual information as rapidly as possible. An academic might be more interested in fleshing out theories or implications and exploring them in depth while an opinion piece usually has, well, an opinion which they are supporting or attacking. Through, again, understanding the why of how something is said, one should be safely able to craft a style that best expresses their thoughts.

Conclusion

I have titled this as a guide on how to be an average student because I merely address three issues:

  1. ‘How’ to do something – not ‘why’ or ‘whether one should do something’.
  2. ‘Average’ – I consider myself to be one.
  3. ‘Average’ – I have written solely about doing mandatory and not optional readings.

In a sense, my conception of an average student is someone which does all the mandatory readings, because that is probably what most Profs expect students to do when they draft curriculum and decide on which readings are necessary or optional. Also, as the teaser suggests quite truthfully, knowing how much work being an average student entails is essential if one wishes to try becoming above-average: What more must be done?

As an average student, I think it best to count my blessings and cede the honour of writing on a topic like that to someone with greater experience and more illustrious accomplishments than I. Hopefully this too will serve as a good point of departure both for matriculating students curious and presently enrolled students – the former may work towards goal-setting while the latter might benefit from some pertinent points raised throughout the essay.

Finally, may you, the reader, have found this tale informative or thought-provoking.

Fluff

At 4k words, it’s certainly taken some time to write, but I feel slightly glad in having something to refer others to as well. Also, I’m at a loss as to what this should be considered – it’s substantially more specific and in-depth than a thought, but lacks any citations which essays usually have. Neither does it have the formal tone articles and essays are supposed to possess.

I suppose I’ll classify it as a thought, albeit a much longer and deeper thought than I’ve usually written.

 

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