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Tips for Academic Success

Study Skills are the key to success at Wits!

Most students have to enhance the skills they bring to the university setting. It is normal to find that you are required to digest larger amounts of information at a quicker pace than that which was required in high school. In addition, the nature of testing at university level often demands a conceptual as well as a factual level of understanding.

There are skills that can be learned that will facilitate this transition. Here are some tips to consider incorporating into your study habits.

Time Management and Overcoming Procrastination
Realistic time planning

Time management skills can help you feel in control of your life so that you can find more free time for effective study.

  1. Structure your academic schedule as if it were a 40-hour work week.
  2. Use a planner or calendar to write down all your regularly scheduled activities as well as any due dates for papers or exams. It is important to include time for sleep, exercise and social activity/recreatic.
  3. Determine your study environment and optimal time of day for concentration. Plan study time each week that is consistent with your preferences.
  4. Take ten minutes before each class to review your notes from the previous class. Take ten minutes after each class to "fix up" and review the notes just taken.
  5. Break large or overwhelming tasks into smaller manageable steps.
  6. Reward yourself for completing tasks. This means noting what you have accomplished even if an entire project is not complete.
Read actively
  1. Before you read, preview the material in the chapter. Read any introductions, headings & chapter summaries.
  2. Have a purpose when you read. You may want to think of a question that you are trying to answer in each section of the material.
  3. Do not move ahead in the chapter until you can answer your question. Ask yourself, "Am I getting it?". If not, go back and find the place where you last understood the material, and reread.
  4. Ensure you can answer the "who, what, where, when & how" questions at the end of your reading.
  5. Focus on the main idea and any supporting information.
  6. Take notes as you read. Try making an outline of the material by organizing the main ideas and each supporting detail.
  7. In your own words, write a brief summary of the main ideas. Or, draw a diagram/mindmap illustrating the relationships between the main ideas.
Maximise your memory potential
  1. Before trying to memorize, assess your level of concentration. If you are not able to focus, you are not likely to retain much information. Determine what you need to do to enable yourself to focus (e.g., eat, take a short nap, a walk, several deep breaths, etc.). Take care of this need, then refocus.
  2. Use flashcards. Write a word or formula on the front of a card and its definition on the back. Go through the cards until you can define each word correctly.
  3. Create acronyms. Make up a word or phrase using the first letter of each term you want to remember (e.g., the spectrum of colours in a rainbow can be remembered with Roy G. Biv = red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).
  4. Draw diagrams of concepts that your are trying to remember. Be able to verbally explain the concept and reproduce the diagram.
  5. Study to the point of recall, not simply recognition. This means that you can define and explain material in your own words.
Take tests wisely
  1. Pay close attention to directions, both oral and written.
  2. Skim the entire exam before answering anything, then plan your time according to the difficulty and value of each item.
  3. Answer the easy questions first, then go back and do the more difficult questions. Pay attention to information in questions that may help in other parts of the exam.
  4. Watch out for qualifier words in questions (e.g., none, some, frequently, never, most, etc.)
  5. Watch your time management.
  6. BREATHE! Ten deep abdominal breaths will help release tension and enhance your focus.

Remind yourself that your entire future does not depend on one test and that you will learn from this experience regardless of how well you do on the exam.

Understand your stress
  1. Recognise how you typically respond to stress (physically, emotionally, and cognitively).
  2. Assess your stress level before you begin studying. If you are experiencing a high degree of stress you won t be able to study as effectively.
  3. Respond to your stress accordingly: determine what you need to do to reduce your stress.
  4. Remember - some anxiety or stress is normal and can actually enhance your performan
English for Academic Success

Students who feel that they need assistance with developing English competence in order to succeed in their studies should explore consider taking a course with the Wits Language School

Test Anxiety

You can P.A.S.S.

Test anxiety is a problem frequently experienced by university students. Almost every student who takes a test feels some anxiety, but for some, the feeling is so intense that it affects their performance - with serious consequences. Test anxiety can be managed if you understand what causes it. To help you gain control of your test anxiety, use the P.A.S.S. method described below:

Sections covered:

  • Preparation for tests
  • Assess sources of anxiety
  • Strategies for test-taking
  • Stress management
Preparation for tests

Test anxiety is caused in large part by inadequate or ineffective exam preparation. If you do not use effective study strategies, you will not have reviewed and understood the course information sufficiently to perform well on the test.

Consider coming to the Counselling and Careers Development Unit if you feel you require professional assitance to deal with anxiety.  Additional actions you can take to prepare effectively for tests include:

  • Talk to your lecturer. Ask for suggestions on how to study for his/her tests.
  • Ask your lecturer what material will be covered in the test. Ask about the test format. Will it be essay or multiple choice?
  • Join a serious study group. Practise by writing and taking your own tests.
  • Review your lecture notes daily. Clarify material you don t understand with your lecturer, study group or colleague.
  • Review old tests. Ask your lecturer if he/she keeps old tests on reserve in the Library. The more you can know about what to expect in a test, the more prepared you will be and the less anxious you will feel.
  • DO NOT CRAM for tests. Cramming is only minimally effective for getting good grades, but a GREAT way to increase your anxiety beyond control!
Assess sources of anxiety

Part of the problem with test anxiety is a vicious cycle of fear-avoidance-more fear. It is possible that at one time in your prior school experiences you performed poorly on a test. As a result, you became fearful of tests because they meant negative things like failure, ridicule, scolding, etc.

To deal with your fear, you avoided tests, resulting in poor preparation, poor performance, and increased fear about tests ("I never do well in tests!"). Because of a few unfortunate experiences, you have built your anxiety to a level that almost ensures you will do poorly on tests.

You must identify the sources of your test anxiety before you can begin to eliminate or reduce their power over you. You have just read about how to improve your study skills so you can prepare more effectively. The other major sources of test anxiety are your negative thoughts and unrealistic expectations.

Identify the thoughts that increase your anxiety. Thoughts can make you frantic by creating images of catastrophic scenarios, such as:

  1. "I'll never be able to do this."
  2. "If I don t at least get a C in this class, I won't get into my major."
  3. "I have never done well in maths."
  4. "I have to get an A in this class or I won't get into medical school."

You must try to challenge those thoughts to make them more rational. For example, say to yourself;

  1. "This one test won't decide my chances for medical school."
  2. "With the right type and amount of studying and help from my instructor, I can get through this maths class."

Corrective reasoning will directly result in reduced anxiety. Other ideas to eliminate irrational thinking include:

  1. Mentally yell "STOP!" when worries or fears cause you to become anxious.
  2. Accept that you will feel anxious in a test. Accept that you will run into questions you can't answer, so there is no reason to get upset when it happens.
  3. Daydream before a test. Fill your mind with pleasant thoughts to push out the anxiety.
  4. Visualise before a test. Mentally rehearse what it will be like to succeed. Visualise taking the test successfully.
  5. Focus. If you can't answer a question, focus your thoughts on answering the next one instead of catastrophising that you won't know the remaining questions.
  6. Praise yourself with thoughts like, "I can do this."; "I m doing fine."; "One question at a time."; "This isn't as bad as I thought." Even if you don't totally believe what you re saying, your mind doesn't really know that.

    If you think more rational thoughts, you will automatically feel and act in more positive ways, despite your level of belief in what you say. The more you practise thinking rationally, the easier it becomes, and you will eventually believe it.

  7. Catastrophise. Exaggerating the negative things that you think could happen can have a positive effect. You may see the absurdity in your thinking, and thus create more rational thoughts and take corrective actions.

While not performing well on tests can have negative consequences, it is rare that a student's life or career is totally ruined by poor test performance. Spend your energy identifying what is creating the anxiety and poor test performance. Talk with lecturers or a counsellor.

Strategies for test-taking
  • Come to the test early, with all materials necessary such as paper, "blue book," plenty of writing utensils, etc. Take some time to relax, stretch, breathe deeply.
  • Listen to music that has a relaxing effect on you as you walk to class or wait in the classroom.
  • Don't do last minute cramming or "obsessing" with classmates before a test. This is guaranteed to increase your anxiety and do little to substantially improve your test score.
  • Wear comfortable clothing.
Stress management

Practise stress management on a regular basis and before each test. Stress management includes relaxation techniques, good health habits, and positive self-talk.

  • Get adequate sleep before a test. Cramming all night may get you through some tests, but in the long run, is ineffective for adequate university performance. And, for some subjects, cramming just does not work to learn the material.
  • Eat food with nutritional value, especially the day of an exam.
  • Limit your intake of substances that tend to negatively affect your concentration.
  • Do a ten-minute relaxation exercise before you leave for a test. This can be visualization, meditation, muscle relaxation, or deep breathing.
  • If you run into a tough question during the test, close your eyes, breathe, think to yourself, "I can do this. Relax", and resume work.
  • Focus on your work, not on what your classmates are doing. Even if some people are working faster than you, it doesn't t mean they are more prepared. It could mean they don't know the answers and are just putting anything down.

Using the P.A.S.S. method can help you understand and manage your test anxiety. If you continue to experience anxiety that you feel is beyond a self-help approach, contact the Counselling and Careers Development Unit. 

Reading

Before you begin to read, you need to check your PBID!

  • Purpose
  • Background
  • Interest
  • Difficulty
1. Purpose

Students often sit down to read with only the vague thought that they have to "study" this chapter and will hopefully retain "something". You would benefit from taking a minute to identify the purpose of the reading. Why are you reading that textbook? What do you hope to gain from this reading session? Some common reasons that you need to read a text are:

  1. Read the chapter for background information so that you will understand the next class lecture. 
  2. Read the chapter for information so that you will understand the lecture that you already heard and can add information to class notes.
  3. Read the chapter and memorize details, such as definitions of types of rocks in geology or the time sequence of events that led up to the adoption of the post-apartheid constitution.
  4. Read the chapter and be able to discuss the causes and effects of different issues such as the cause of Soweto Student uprising of 1976 and its impact on the politics of South Africa.
  5. Read a science text to understand scientific principles and processes such as Mendel's Law of Genetics or Newton's Three Laws of Motion.

Your purpose for reading often goes hand in hand with the type of testing in the class and the type of homework or papers that you have to complete. 

2. Background

Your reading comprehension is strongly affected by your background knowledge. What do you already know about the subject? Skim the chapter headings, pictures, charts, graphs, and diagrams. Read the summary, and think about what you know about this subject.

If you have high knowledge of the subject, then it may be easier for you to read the material. You will be able to meet your purpose quicker than if the information is totally new to you.

If your knowledge of the subject is low, then you will have to build up your knowledge base. Sometimes an instructor will help by giving a lecture that is intended to build students backgrounds before they attempt the textbook reading. Often you will be expected to do this on your own.

Time management becomes a factor, as you may have to reread your text three times to build up enough knowledge so that you can organize and comprehend the information. Discussing new information with other students in a study group will also enhance your knowledge base and help you think about the information in new ways.

3. Interest

Students often complain that they don't like to read the text because it is not interesting. In many cases, this is a true statement. However, in many classes, if you do not read the text you will not pass the class. If you avoid the text because of lack of interest, you need to take some action to make the reading bearable.

  1. Create interest by sharing the reading with study partners. Divide up the chapter, make each student responsible for reading and teaching the concepts from their section to the other members of the group. Be aware that the part of the chapter you learn the best will be the part that you teach.
  2. Do something with the information as you read the text. Write notes or lists in the margins. Create a picture in your mind of the information. Write an outline or try a nonlinear approach such as a mind map.
  3. Break the reading into small time units. Concentrate on the reading for twenty minutes, then take a small break, then twenty minutes more of focused reading.
  4. Reward yourself for reading and studying material that is not interesting to you.
  5. Talk to the instructor and ask questions about the subject matter. Ask them how they would advise you to read and comprehend the text. The instructor may say something to spark your interest.
  6. Create questions before you read, pretend they are real test questions, and you must know the answers to pass the class.
4. Difficulty

The difficulty of the reading material can encourage or discourage a student from studying the text. Sometimes the format of the text is more difficult than the actual course material. You have little control over the choice of the text, but you do have options if the reading is difficult.

  1. Read another text that is on the same subject, but is written on a similar level. You can check out textbooks at Wits Libraries.
  2. Go back and think about your purpose, background, and interest. One of these factors may be making the reading difficult.
  3. Get a tutor for the class, so that the difficult parts can be explained to help you understand the information. 
Study skills
Understanding your brain

Your brain is made up of two hemispheres, the left and the right and both work in different ways. Your left brain is more logical and is used for reasoning, understanding language and calculations. Your right side is more creative and looks at shapes, patterns, colours, sizes, images and sounds.

To get the most out of your brain, you should try to use study skills that allow you to utilise both sizes of the brain. You can do this by using all your senses and different reminders (shapes, colours, images).when you are studying. In this way you are getting the most out of your brain.  This article discusses the following:

  • Reading techniques
  • Consolidating your lecture notes
  • Getting organised
  • Memory techniques
  • Motivating yourself
Reading Techniqures:

When reading articles, recommended books or textbooks you can use one of the following reading techniques depending on the purpose of your reading.

SSQ3R:

  • S - Survey: Look at headings, highlighted words, contents pages and summaries to get a sense of what the reading is about.
  • Q - Question: Think about what questions you have about the reading - who, what, where, when, how?
  • R - Read: Read the reading actively, making notes or underlining important words.
  • R - Recite/Recall: Close the book and test out what you have learnt by seeing how much you can recall.
  • R - Review: Revise the work again a few days later. Use old exam questions to see where your weak points are.

IPSO: This technique is used for more critical reading or studying tasks:

  • I - Issue: First establish what the issue or debate is of the topic.
  • P - Position: Establish what the author's position is on the issue.
  • S - Support: What support is given for this position.
  • O - Outcome: What conclusions are drawn.
Consolidating your lecture notes

Before you begin the studying process, you need to consolidate the notes you have made in lectures:

  • Underline headings and subheadings.
  • Rewrite any illegible portions.
  • Underline important sentences and paragraphs.
  • Fill in any gaps in your notes.
  • Ensure that you understand all the concepts.
Making summaries

You need to consolidate all the information from your lecture notes, textbooks, recommended books and articles. Making detailed summaries of everything is often not practical within the time constraints you have at University. Therefore you need to find another way of pulling all the information together.

Cornell System:

On each page of your notes, draw a vertical line, top to bottom, 5cm from the left side of the paper. Write your notes on the right of this line and leave the area to the left of the line. You can use this space to fill in any additional information from your textbooks and articles. Thus you are using your lecture notes as a basis of your study notes.

Mind-maps:

Drawing a mind-map allows you to put many pages of information on a single chart. Start in the centre of the pages with the heading. Link all the important information, facts and ideas around it. Use keywords, symbols, shapes, patterns, images. Be creative and use colour.

Advantages: Visual; contains lists and sequences and shows causes, is often easier to recall; uses both left and right brain functioning; helps one think from general to specific and puts subjects in perspective.

Getting organised

The key to successful study is ORGANISATION. Draw up your own calendar and put it in a visible place in your study area. Fill In important activities and times you cannot work.

Hints:

  • Be realistic about the amount of work you can do in a given time.
  • If you have half an hour to spare, use it to do small tasks i.e. reading.
  • Use existing study habits that you know work for you.
  • Have some flexibility in your planning and adapting your diary once you know how long it takes to do the work planned.
  • Stick to your schedule.
  • Balance your studying time with rest and fun activities.
  • Break regularly during studying.

It is always a good idea to plan to spend more time on your weaker subjects. To start with your timetable, begin with your favourite subjects. Tackle your difficult subjects when you are feeling fresh.

Memory techniques

1. Organise it

  • Learn from the general to the specific - get an overview of the work by skim reading before you start studying.
  • Make it meaningful - ask yourself why you need to know the work.
  • Create associations - Make links to things you already know about the subject.

2. Use your body

  • Relax -Get yourself into a relaxed state of alertness that is free of tension, take a few deep breaths before starting.
  • Learn actively - stand up, pace around, use your hands, act it out.
  • Create pictures - use diagrams, cartoons, sketches, mind maps, visualisation, humour.
  • Recite and repeat - repeat out aloud the work so that you are using other senses. Repeat until you know the work to embed it in memory.
  • Write it down -Write what you know down. This imitates what you do in your exam.

3. Use your brain

  • Reduce interference - turn off your radio or TV.
  • Consider your concentration cycles - when is your optimal time to concentrate - use this time.
  • Overlearn - especially to enhance speed, accuracy and confidence.
  • Escape the short term memory trap - review within a few hours.
  • Distribute your learning - take regular breaks and give yourself small rewards.
  • Be aware of your attitudes - acknowledge how you feel about a subject. Relate it to something more interesting if possible.
  • Choose what not to store in memory - extract core concepts, decide what is important to remember.
  • Combine memory techniques - use what works for you.

4. Recall it

  • Remember something else - if you can't remember something, recall related information or brainstorm around it. This could cue what you need to remember.
  • Use it before you lose it - use the information, teach it, review it regularly to maintain accessibility in memory.
  • Remember, you never forget -If you have processed it, it's in there somewhere. Keep positive!
Motivating yourself

Many students have effective studying techniques, but find it difficult to actually get down and do the work.

You need to stop negative thoughts like, "I'll never be able to make it" or, "I'll never grasp that concept." These thoughts become self-fulfilling prophecies. Positive ideas and thoughts breed a positive attitude. In other words if you think success, you will become successful. 

Note-taking and Note-making

We distinguish between note-taking and note-making. Note-taking is a passive process which is done at lectures whereas note-making is more active and focused activity where you assimilate all information and make sense of it for yourself.

Note-taking

Taking notes is an important process. It allows you to have a written record of the lecture which may not be in your textbook. It also ensures that you become an active and involved listener and learner.

A more important reason for taking notes is that there is a direct relationship between what happens in lectures and what comes up in the exam. If the lecturer does not personally set the exam, it is likely that he/she will still submit a number of questions.

When thinking about note-taking it is important to consider the lecturing style adopted by different lecturers. Some will prefer dictating, others will provide printed notes. If you are a Wits student you will also have the lecture slides posted on SAKAI.

The following areas are covered below:

  • Setting the stage
  • Listening actively
  • Formatting and structuring notes
  • General note-taking tips
  • If the lecturer talks too fast
  • Note-taking abbreviations
  • The note-making process 
Setting the stage
  • Complete outside assignments: Lecturers assume that students have completed assignments or done the recommended reading and will construct their lecture accordingly. The more familiar you are with the topic, the better your note-taking will be and the more active the process will be. It is also a good idea to reiew your assignments/readings just before the lecture.
  • Bring the right materials:
    • Always have an adequate supply of A4 note paper /exam pads, pens, pencils and highlighters.
    • Use paper that can be filed easily. It is probably a good idea to only use one side of a sheet of paper - this allows you to review your notes by spreading them side to side - usually the benefit outweighs the cost of the paper.
    • Keep a spare pen don t use pencil to write as this tends to fade with time.
    • Use colour for emphasis; to highlight and to separate different sections or ideas.
    • Sit front and centre - sit in a position where you can hear and see clearly without straining.
Listening actively

This involves actively concentrating and paying attention to what is being said and how it is being said. Listen beyond words to the lecturer's body language.

  1. Listening for repetition: When a lecturer repeats a phrase or idea, this is a signal that it is important and you should take note of it.
  2. Watch the board or overhead projector: If the lecturer takes time to write something down, consider that as another sign that the material is important.
  3. Listen for introductory, concluding and transition words and phrases. For example:
    • "The following three factors"
    • "In conclusion"
    • "The most important consideration"
    • "In addition to"
  4. Highlight obvious clues: Often your lecturer will blatantly point out what information is likely to appear in the exam - make a note of this - don't rely on memory.
  5. Notice the lecturer's interest level: When the lecturer seems excited about something, make a note as it is more likely to appear in the exam.
  6. Use pictures and diagrams - This makes the notes more visual and assists in recall. What you need to do is try to find a note-taking format and system that works for you.

HOME TRUTHS ABOUT LECTURERS:

  • Establish lecturer's interests:  Try to establish what topics of research or advanced study your lecturers are part of, especially if these also relate to your syllabus. Also be aware of any articles or books written by your lecturers and their areas of specialisation.
  • ATTEND ALL LECTURES:  Try to attend all lectures - apart from the obvious academic advantage, it also creates an impression of you as a dilligent student which may be to your advantage at some point in the course.
  • THE LAST LECTURE:  Make a special effort not to miss the last lecture of every course - information about the format of the exam is usually covered and the lecturer may also provide information about sections of the syllabus that need special attention or sections that can be excluded. 
FORMATTING AND STRUCTURING NOTES:

Some methods will work better for some individuals than others.  See what works best for you.

1.  General note-taking tips

  1. Give yourself plenty of space.
  2. Label, number and date all your notes.
  3. Develop your own system of shorthand and abbreviations
  4. Use colour, pictures or diagrams to make notes more visual.
  5. Keep your own thoughts separate - this ensures that you don t mistake your own idea for that of the lecturer's.
  6. Use a lost signal - when you find yourself lost in a lecture, make a note of it using a specific symbol and leave space to fill in this later.
  7. Write legibly: Many people feel that they have no control over their handwriting and resign themselves to writing illegibly for the rest of their lives. However, if you put your mind to it and make it a point to write more legibly, your handwriting will improve. This has implications not only for note-taking but for writing exams as well.

2. Mind-Maps

This can be used in conjunction with the Cornell system of note-taking or you might want to use mind maps exclusively.

Advantages: Visual; contains lists and sequences and shows causes, is often easier to recall; uses both left and right brain functioning; helps one think from general to specific and puts subjects in perspective.

Click to explore more about Mind Maps

3. the Outline System
You can use a standard Roman numeral outline or free-form, indented outline to organise the information from a lecture. The outline form illustrates major points and supporting ideas. It has the major advantage of being an active process of organising incoming information.

 Click for more information on the Outline System

4. The Cornell Format
On each page of your notes, draw a vertical line, top to bottom, 5cm from the left side of the paper. Write your notes on the right of this line and leave the area to the left of the line for key word clues and sample questions.

Click for more information on the Cornell Format

If the lecturer talks too fast

  1. Try to be extra prepared for the lecture before class: Familiarity with the subject makes it easier to pick out key points.
  2. Exchange notes with classmates
  3. Leave large empty spaces in your notes - for filling in information you missed.
  4. See the lecturer after the lecture and show the lecturer what you missed.
  5. Consider using a voice/sound recorder.
  6. Go to the lecture again - if it is offered at a different time.
  7. Use your shorthand.
  8. Ask questions.
  9. Ask the lecturer to slow down.
  10. Remember, you don t have to take down everything the lecturer says verbatim.

Note-taking abbreviations

Thus / Therefore                                                              Between                                                  betw
Because                                                               or                                                                   /
Equals/same as                                                 =   Definition                                                     def
Does not equal / not the same as                           Conclusion                                                 conc
Greater than / more than                                   >   Regarding / with regard to                               re
Less than                                                          <   As against / contrast with                                vs
And                                                                   &   Before                                                          B4
Important / importance of                                 NB   Especially                                                    esp
Example / for example                                      eg   Namely / that is to say                                    ie
However                                                         but   -ment (e.g. agreement becomes agreem't)     m't
Compare/contrast with                                       cf   It is/ that is                                                    ie
Without                                                         w/o   Transfer                                                       t/f
-ion  (e.g. proposition becomes proposit'n)           'n    
Usually                                                          usu            

THE NOTE-MAKING PROCESS

Once you have taken down notes in lectures, the learning process is not complete. The next step is the note-making process.

Reviewing lecture notes:

Your lecture notes form the basis of your final consolidated notes and your entire examination preparation is based on these. The following should be done on a daily basis:

  1. Read through your lecture notes.
  2. Underline headings and subheadings.
  3. Correct spelling mistakes and rewrite illegible portions.
  4. Fill in any gaps.
  5. Underline or highlight important sentences or paragraphs.
  6. Make sure you understand the concepts.
  7. If you use the Cornell system, fill in the keywords in the left-hand column.
Integrating lecture notes and readings
  1. The main aim is to integrate your lecture notes with reading from articles, prescribed and recommended books or tutorials.
  2. It is best to use your lecture notes as the basis of your integration and not rewrite these unless your handwriting is extremely poor.
  3. Mind-map summaries can be made to give you an overall picture of the topic. 
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