The Act of Reading Hard and Studying Bad

By Emmanuel Utibe

In a hall in the University of Ibadan (UI), there is a guy talking about how UI is in the 9th or 10th week of the semester, and there is a lady lamenting that exams are barely weeks away. A quick survey of the libraries and reading rooms scattered all over the campus shows a sharp rise- yet to peak – in the population density of these sanctuaries. The nightlife is no longer restricted to the few jackophytes in their perennial act of daily TDB and the children of the chapel tarmac kabashing before their Father. An increasing number of people are coming out to participate in the nightly ritual of reading. The expectation is that their investment in time yields substantial returns in grades.

Now, while much can be said about the health repercussions of reduced sleeping hours, what can also be said is that for what it is worth, most students are not being rational beings while doing the good work of investing their time in reading. They are studying hard, not smart and thus are investing in low-yield efforts.

I know your mind is revolting at this point – who is this guy? Does he have any idea how many exams I have passed by drinking morbid amounts of caffeine and putting my legs in cold water in order to stay awake long and read at a stretch?!

Well, I agree. Yes, TDB and your current study methods may have helped you progress gracefully in your academic journey. But who says a good thing can’t get better? Definitely not me, and I think you would agree with me on this one.

TDB, cramming, reading and rereading the lecturers’ slides till you see them in your dreams, reading textbooks cover to cover several times till you can move the page number as part of the stuff you would use to intimidate your guys, reading, reading and reading; all are methods that have a certain yield on learning a subject, but when done in isolation usually amount to being low yield given the time spent and the fact that most of what is learnt is eventually forgotten.

So, what are the high-yield methods for studying, if not the time-tested practices of students in UI? First, spaced repetition as opposed to mass practice. What you have here is, instead of reading Chem 156 over a five-hour stretch going from reaction kinetics to acids and base and then electrolysis and then repeating the same thing each day for a week, you now read reaction kinetics for an hour on Monday and then read it next on Wednesday after spending an hour each on Acids and Base and Electrolysis the Tuesday before. So, at the end of the week, you have spaced your continuous reading of each topic. Several research studies by cognitive scientists show that even using only this method, provides a massive boost to remember what you read as opposed to the regular closed-circuit reading that most students do.

Next, interleaving topics or even pages in the textbook as opposed to reading through all the topics according to the order of the textbook or study material. So, sticking with our example, instead of reading reaction kinetics first, you could read Thermochemistry first and then proceed to acid and base and then go back to reaction kinetics before coming back up to read electrolysis. Now, I know you are shouting, “this is bullshit!”, as it looks haphazard and seems counterintuitive. Yet, research shows that this practice of interleaving even though it slows down learning boosts the process of retention by as much as over 59% when coupled with the earlier proposed practice of spaced repetition.

The process of learning involves the creation of mental models in the mind in order to get the knowledge and concepts embedded in the mind. A method that takes advantage of this is the use of mental clues. Mental clues like flashcards, mnemonics, memory devices or any other methods programmed to ensure frequent recall of certain information from the brain, are very helpful in the process of learning, as frequent recall helps consolidates the pathways in the brain that encode for the particular bit of information that is being understood.

Also, failing before it matters is very helpful. What does this mean? Personal quizzing and group brainstorming on possible questions that can arise from a subject before the time of the exam is really helpful. For this, maximizing study groups and tutorials and the mocks they organise would be more impactful on learning than hours spent in mere rereading of text over and over again. Frequent quizzing has the advantage of exposing knowledge gaps and allowing for effective studying as more time would be devoted to areas of weakness. The same amount of time that could have been spent trying to get your knowledge of topic 1 from 90% to 100% is better spent getting topic 5 from 40% to over 80%.

Just as quizzing is helpful, frequently teaching and trying to explain the knowledge acquired from the subject in your own words and based on your personal understanding of the subject is instrumental in learning. A person can only teach what they understand and during the process of teaching, questioning by the recipient would help to expose knowledge gaps in the understanding of the person involved. The process of attempting to break down the complexity of biochemistry and its long pathways or the verbose nature of case law to a 5-year-old enhances the deep embedding of the knowledge in the mind of the teacher in question.

Furthermore, while the science around sleep is one that is still expanding – with so much more to be discovered about sleep and all its effects on the brain – it has been established by neuroscientists that sleep is very beneficial to the brain. Sleep is known to be useful in removing toxins and other undesirable materials that build up in the brain during the course of its function while awake. Sleep is also important for learning, as, during the course of sleep, neural connections and information pathways that have been built during the day are consolidated. Sleep deprivation is known to affect concentration and also produce a damping effect on the cognitive processes of the mind. Aside from its effects on the mind and how it affects learning, several works of research show that sleep deprivation negatively affects general body health which impacts learning; you would agree that there is little to be studied on a Jaja bed. Therefore, not only is the long stretch of reading and rereading done during TDB not very efficient, the efficiency is further dampened by sleep deprivation and its long-term ‘benefits’ to health.

“Memory is the mother of all wisdom”

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

What this uncle is trying to say is, if you do TDB, read and reread, a good measure of the efficiency of your method would be how much you are able to commit to long-term memory and how much you are able to recall from memory – knowledge is after all not useful when it is forgotten. So, if you committed yourself to daily TDBs of five (5) hours and cumulatively ran a hundred (100) hours of reading over the course of the semester before you are able to remember and reproduce 55% of the course material in the exams, your method is low yield in comparison to a person who is able to imbibe the methods highlighted above, mix and mash them, commit just about 70 hours to study and reproduce over 70% in the exams. This person also has more hours to relax, have a social life, indulge in extra-curricular like AWO 101 and complain with other students about how “e choke and the stress of reading won kill person”.

In all of this, you, who is supposed to be a student, may end up being a good reader but a bad “studier”, because you commit yourself to mere reading as opposed to actually studying effectively. Then, you would be deluded into believing that you are studying hard because of all the hours you “commit” when you are merely studying badly.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *