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RMIT University Library - Learning Lab

Studying efficiently


This page has resources for becoming a successful and efficient learner. It covers concepts such as knowing your own learning style, what independent learning is, and gives you ideas and strategies on how to be successful in your studies.

Active learning

This short video explains what you need to become a successful and efficient learner. It covers concepts such as knowing your own learning style, what independent learning is, and gives you ideas and strategies on how to be successful in your studies.

Do you run out of time when you are studying? The key is to learn efficiently. This doesn’t just happen in SWOTVAC, it is a process that begins early in the semester.

You need to have some learning strategies and develop some learning skills. You need to learn independently; you need to be proactive. This means finding answers to things you do not know, and being aware of what you do not know in the first place.

You need to be efficient, so that you are not going over and over the same material. You do this by using active learning strategies and knowing your learning style. This means understanding how you yourself learn best.

Organise your notes and you to-do list into categories. A long, long list is scary, and the most important things can get lost. Sorting things into groups is the brain’s natural way of remembering.

Another tip is to use active learning strategies. Reading and listening is okay, but you will only remember 20 to 30 per cent of the information. It tends to go in one ear and out the other. Writing, speaking, and even teaching a concept to someone else is much more effective. So, by all means, chat with classmates about the material, take notes, and make your own summaries. These are all active learning strategies.

It also helps to know your own learning style, so you can use strategies that suit you. If your learning style is visual, you should try drawing stuff to understand and remember things. Some people learn best by doing, so hands on activities help them to learn. Explaining things to others really helps [auditory learners] absorb information themselves.

The most important strategy, of course, is to take charge yourself, because no one’s going to do it for you. There is support there if you need it, but you will need to seek that help yourself. Your lecturers, the website, the Learning Lab, the Study and Learning Centre, and the library are all there to help you achieve your best, but when it comes to your study, you are now the boss.

Active learning approaches

This short video was designed for health science students but is relevant for all students. Learning is not all about memorisation and regurgitation. The video provides some new approaches for your study when there is a lot of information to learn.

In order to get more out of your lectures and textbook, it is helpful to learn active learning strategies. Sitting in a lecture and reading a textbook are very passive ways to learn, and while you may learn something from these, you might be surprised by how little information your brain will retain.

Active learning techniques ensure that you engage with the material. You must read the textbook looking for answers to questions that you have in mind, and you must integrate the facts of the lecture into your understanding. Listening attentively is of little use if you don’t really absorb what’s being said. Sure, active learning takes more time and more effort, but it is far more effective, and it’s one of the best ways to integrate all the knowledge that you need to have within the space of a few weeks.

If you feel overwhelmed by the size of your textbook, tank up because you’re not required to know every word. A course may be based on a textbook, but it’s not the same thing as the textbook.

A well-written course has objectives which specify what students need to be able to do, and hopefully to what level of detail. This is the course. This is the document that the lecturer derives the exam questions from, and this is the knowledge that you need to have when you walk into the final exam. Most of it is probably within the textbook, but that is not necessarily always the case.

All in all, the text is not the course. Look to the course objectives to determine what you need to know, if you are fortunate these should be specified topic-by-topic or even lecture-by-lecture. Specifying just the topic area, such as “capillaries” or “gas exchange”, is much like asking how long is a piece of string. You can go on for as long and into as much detail as you like, and you will never know when you’re finished, so that makes it hard to move on.

Here is one of the lecture objectives from the anatomy and physiology course, it comes under the topic of oxygen and carbon dioxide transport in the blood. The objectives require that the student will understand how oxygen gets carried and why it gets released, the two obvious questions to generate from this will be these. And being able to answer these is certainly a good start. You may need to, or want to, fine tune your learning down to more specific questions such as these, or these.

Your lecture notes will suggest how much detail is necessary to drill down to. Writing the information in question form really makes you think about what the book is telling you, and more than that you have a excellent study resource to return to. Even after days or weeks…for testing how much you’d retained. With further reading and more time, you may generate some quite specific questions and these may be approximately or even actually one of the questions you might get in your exam.

Another key point about active learning is that you must actively produce the knowledge that you’ve taken in; so you do not just understand what you’ve read, you need to be able to explain it  - verbally, or in writing and in your own words, without referring to a book or reproducing the sentences that are already there. If you get stuck trying to explain something in your own way, it is an excellent indication that you may not fully understand it.

The look, say, cover, copy and check system is a great way for kids to learn spelling – but it can also be applied to learning subject content at any level. When you read something, you should try to explain it in your own words. Verbally say it at first, then cover the page (this is probably the most important step), and then write out your understanding of the paragraph or section that you had just read.

Do not try not to put ideas in the same order or in the same words, in fact, it’s better if it’s not. Do not hesitate to bring in other concepts that you see as relevant – even if they are from another page or chapter. Doing that will form links in your understanding and that is very positive.

Turn text into diagrams, and turn diagrams into text. After you have written out as much as you can, reopen the textbook and check to see if there is something you had forgotten or misunderstood. This method may feel time-consuming and tedious, but it is much more efficient in the long run, it’s better than reading the page many times over.

So in summary... Decide what you really need to know, and you will know this from the course and lecture objectives. Use questions to keep the information in separate and manageable modules and, whatever you read, you must turn around and explain it, write it, or better still, teach it to someone in your own way and in your own words.

See also: Active reading approaches


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