Sunday, January 4, 2009

Studying Tactics

I have something to confess: I'm kind of a slacker. Sure, I made it into a PhD program, which would indicate some minimum degree of competence. But I hate to study. I like to learn -- I like to attend lectures, conferences, and seminars; I like to read books and articles; I like to have conversations about work with my peers; I like to teach my non-scientist friends about what I do. I just hate to study. In high school and college, I managed to achieve satisfactory grades without spending a lot of time doing homework or studying (although I'm sure I would have done better if I'd put in more effort). Now that I'm in graduate school, I find myself surrounded by lots of very smart people, and I have to work hard to keep up. Thankfully, my graduate coursework is focused on the subject that interests me the most, i.e. neuroscience, so it's fun to learn new things in class and discuss the lectures with my classmates. Studying is still a drag, though.

Having resolved to buckle down and study harder for graduate school than I've studied for anything else in my life, I found it interesting to note what works for me and what doesn't work. In high school and college, I didn't have a laptop computer, so I always took notes on paper. When I started grad school I bought some looseleaf paper and a binder and some color-coded dividers, as per usual, and lugged a lot of papers back and forth to my classes for a few weeks. I would diligently print my professors' class notes that were posted online in advance, then fill in more details during lecture. I even took notes in multiple colors. But... it didn't really work. 

Most of my professors rely heavily on PowerPoint presentations in lectures. This makes a lot of sense when discussing neuroanatomy or biochemistry, allowing students to refer to detailed photographs and diagrams during class discussions. However, printing out these notes in advance on my black and white printer (and resizing the slides so that I wasn't printing ~80 pages per day!) decreased the utility of the images in the slides, and sometimes made color-coded or small text difficult to read. I also found it hard to carry around the reams of printed and handwritten notes that I generated after just a few weeks -- my carefully organized binder grew immensely thick and heavy. I tried to conserve paper by taking notes from assigned reading on the back of the PowerPoint printouts for each lecture (some of my classmates were astonished by the bulk of my notes taken from our biochemistry textbook), but I ended up with many, many pages nonetheless. 

Therefore, after my first exam, I decided to bring my beloved 12" Apple Powerbook G4 laptop to class with me. (I am sad that newer Mac laptops are not as tiny and cute as this one, as it will need to be replaced sooner than I'd like.) I downloaded the .ppt lecture note files for each class -- sometimes only minutes before class started, thanks to the miracle of campus-wide WiFi -- and took notes either in the .ppt itself or in a separate file. This proved advantageous for several reasons: 1) My small laptop is no heavier than a full binder, and takes up less space in my bag! 2) I can type much faster than I can write longhand, and can take legible notes on my computer while looking at my professor rather than at what I am writing. 3) Taking notes in this fashion gives me as much room as I need to annotate each slide in a presentation, which is not always possible on a hard copy.

After a few more weeks passed in the new age of note-taking, I was ready to sit for my second round of exams. Studying for biochemistry was not much of an issue, as we switched to open-note exams midway through the semester. My incredibly detailed PowerPoint notes were very helpful for these, as I could refer to them throughout while I was filling out the exam document on my computer. Studying for my neuroanatomy and systems neuroscience class, however, proved to be more difficult. It was hard for me to retain information from my typed notes just by reading them over and over again on a screen. I also underestimated the sheer volume of information that my notes contained, and didn't give myself enough time to study it all before the exam. Cramming: it is not your friend.

When I was unsatisfied with my performance on my second neuro exam, I blamed myself and my sub-optimal study habits. There had to be a way to combine the new note-taking method with a systematic study routine that would help me retain the information I had so judiciously typed.

A week before the next neuro exam, I resolved to synthesize my lecture notes into something more manageable, and convert them into a format that was easier for me to study. I gave myself at least two hours to do this for each lecture (the exam was derived from the content of about ten 90-minute lectures) and forced myself to create a one-page (front and back) handwritten outline for each lecture topic. Some of these lecture notes encompassed dozens and dozens of slides. I had to read through all the material, decide what was important, and figure out how the important concepts related to each other. I drew diagrams of disparate brain regions with arrows indicating information flow between them. I made charts outlining the parts of the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis. I listed important morphological characteristics of different neuronal cell types. 

After reading and rereading my original notes and funneling them into one-page versions of each lecture, I used the outlines to study. It was easier for me to learn the important facts contained in those ten outlines than to spend ages reviewing every single point I included in the original version. I could also carry them around for study in laptop-incompatible places, like the bus. (My poor laptop has a defunct battery, so it must be plugged in while I use it.) By forcing myself to think deeply about each topic and summarize it in my own words, then rehearsing the key points that I highlighted, I was able to learn a lot of material without last minute panic. 

And lo, on the following exam, I earned a much better grade! This study routine worked well for the rest of the semester, and had the bonus effect of making me feel superior when some of my classmates described their all-night cramming sessions. We'll have to see how things hold up when I start my new classes and lab rotations this spring. 


  1. Hi, its amazing that I too came to figure out the same technique while studying.

    Btw, I read some of your posts I like them alot. I am very interested in doing Neuro Phd, but I have a different story, and its hard, but I will try my best.

    Wish you the best :)

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