The great learning curve: how to improve your study habits

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Learning curve

Experts now say a flexible approach, rather than sticking to a ‘learning style’ may be the key to successful study

It was once commonly believed if students were made aware of the learning strategies that worked for them, they’d become more efficient and effective learners. As a result, from the 1980s onwards tailored learning styles became popular and theorists such as Honey and Mumford created questionnaires to help pinpoint the four types of adult learners.

They identified four distinct styles: activists – people who learn by doing; theorists – people who prefer concepts and facts; pragmatists – people who try out ideas to see how they work; and reflectors – people who watch and think. Several variations of this concept have been used by educationists, but over time they have gradually fallen out of favour for a more holistic approach.

Simon Gamble, Bristol University’s academic study skills developer says: “They are no longer fashionable, it’s more about what you’re trying to achieve and what’s the best way of getting there. I try and steer people away from saying: ‘I’m a visual learner’, because they can get themselves in a rut with that. Really, being an active learner is the key to success.


“Recent research says one of the best ways to learn something is to imagine teaching it. Think about how you would explain it to someone in a clasroom, as you need to know how something works in order to teach it.”

Bristol University has now devised one-to-one tutorials and workshops to help support postgrads with their learning and revision. And they advise postgrads to create a timetable, not just for university work, but also for their home and work life outside of study.

“Many postgrads undervalue the life experience they bring to the course, which actually puts them in good stead,” says Gamble. “However, they may have a family or a part-time job and it’s about balancing those needs.”

Kelly Louise Preece, researcher development manager, University of Exeter Doctoral College, says in order to learn and revise efficiently it’s important to develop good work habits and stick to basic practical rules, such as finding the best working environment, note taking and doing the basics, like going out for a walk to boost creativity. It’s also a good idea to build breaks into your routine. “The amount of time you spend working is not always equal to being productive,” she says.

Good quality breaks are a useful tool to maximise the effectiveness of revision. Trainee teacher Aaron Hynds from Hertfordshire says he’s learned to be smarter about how he studies as much of his spare time is now taken up preparing lessons. He agrees that breaks are as important as the time he spends studying.

“I like being thrown in the deep end and doing hands-on work, but I take regular breaks because constant studying can become counter productive as there comes a point when I’m not absorbing information. I’ll go off and play football a few times a week. It keeps me sane and really helps with the deadlines.”

How do I get exam fit?

Create a “to do” list, splitting tasks into those that need immediate attention and those that are more mundane.

How you revise is highly individual, so work out your study strengths and weaknesses, which will highlight the problems that stop you learning efficiently.

Be realistic with your time – to prevent yourself feeling overwhelmed write down your major concerns and deadlines ahead of time.

It’s better to have full on attention for 20 minutes than an hour’s worth of distraction. Less is more, provided it’s quality time.

Check out what you know by testing yourself. Ask yourself questions and see what you can answer without referring back to your books.

Work in a group. Recent research suggests that one of the most effective ways to learn is to imagine yourself teaching the topic to someone else – working in a group gives you the chance to do this in a real life setting.


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