Studying Is Unnatural: why knowing more about yourself is important

I was not fond of hitting the books in my younger days. As a young boy, play was more important for me. I would always play some imaginary games or play with my sister some of the toys we have in our collection. Much of my play was triggered by what I watched on television. I seldom go out to the playground or elsewhere to play.

Even though I love to play, I was quite okay with studies in my initial years. I recall obtaining prizes for being in the top in kindergarten. When I was in my first year in primary school, I was ranked top based on academic scores at the end of the year. Even in my second year I was ranked within the top three. How I did that I have no idea. I just know I like to have fun and studying then seemed easy.

Things took a change from my third year. My results started dropping. Maybe it was more of other people catching up in their studies and performing better than me. Or maybe it was how I did not figure out a way of studying that works for me. Regardless, my ranking within the class and school dropped. I went to the middle of the class by Primary 3, and towards the end of the class in Primary 4. Not an issue, from my point of view. Of course I didn’t receive any more academic prizes.

My mother was worried though. She took me to a few temples to pray and ask the gods to help me ‘open up’ my mind so that I could study. She tried to get me into group tuition classes to catch up with certain subjects (English and Maths were the two main ones). Nothing seemed to work though. I was just cruising along.

One night, I woke up in the middle of my sleep. My parents were in the kitchen, doing their work and talking to one another. I got out of my bed and crawled towards the bedroom door, and eavesdropped into their conversation. My parents were talking about my sister and I.

I cannot remember much about the conversation details. There were only two things my mother said in the conversation that remained with me till today.

The first thing she said was that my sister and I cannot be like them (my parents) when we grow up. They do not have any academic qualifications (they did not even complete primary school) and as a result could only work in factory production jobs, nothing higher.

The second thing my mother said was that since we cannot be like them, we needed as much education opportunities as possible, so that we could get better paying jobs and do better in life.

I crawled back to my bed. Why I decided to crawl out I can no longer remember.

I only remembered that I needed to think about my future so that I don’t let my parents down.

If you think that I started putting in tons of effort in my studies the very next day after that conversation, you are very mistaken. I didn’t. My studies remained a mess. What I learnt about Chinese Language over the past years, for instance, I couldn’t even recall at that time. It was only when I went for Saturday remedial classes that I learnt how to identify Chinese characters based on the way they were written. Similarly, my understanding of English grammar was weak. I still needed to rely on tuition.

For a confused lad like me, I did well enough to progress to secondary school. I was exposed to many subjects, and had wonderful teachers who exposed my worldview tremendously. I put in more time to studying by memorising and worked towards grappling maths and science concepts. My language and creative skills were poor in comparison.

As I progressed through secondary school life, I gradually became aware of my strengths in the maths and sciences, as well as some strength in the humanities. I also realised I have a deep capacity for information, which I could tap on by memorising and regurgitating information regularly.

So that was how I tackled some of my exams. I recall how I memorised the entire history textbook in lower sec years so I could tackle exam papers. I couldn’t apply this to literature texts though. The questions asked require a lot of synthesis rather than regurgitation of information.

Those of you who have read my previous post on finding my career aspirations would know I chose to focus on the humanities after secondary school. I faced a big issue while in junior college. The way I studied in secondary school will not work in junior college.

The nature of the subjects and the kind of questions asked in exams cannot be tackled just by searching for the right information from a textbook source. Neither can you rely on what you have read to answer questions. A-level exams require a lot of thinking and piecing of concepts and understanding to display awareness and depth of the subject topics.

This is where teachers can only help to guide, but not direct you on how to study. They helped me expand my world and pointed out what I am not strong at. The more important aim is to get me to think deeper into the subjects.

Thinking critically is not the only skill I lack. I also lack the ability to hold the breath of information such that I can recall easily. Plus my language skills are not too of the class. There are a lot of things to fix.

It was at this point that I tried out a studying method that helped me to retain information and draw on it when needed. The idea is to study in chunks of 25 minutes, rest for a couple of minutes and review the information quickly before going into the next chunk of 25 minutes. To help the brain remember better, I would review the information I learnt on the third day, seventh day, 2 weeks and one month later. This will help my brain retain information better.

This worked only when I tried getting familiar with content. Yet it is a risk to rely only on this method to think critically on subject matter. I need to find ways to reflect and be reflective on what I am reading and think deeper to make connections within and across the content I work with.

By and by I managed to become a critical reader and thinker in what I read, and took this skill with me to the A-level exams. I would not claim I have perfected critical reading and thinking skills then, but my skills were sufficient enough to help me gain good grades to move on to university.

If you have gotten this far in the post, I guess you are interested to find effective studying techniques for yourself. The method I had worked for me, though I am not sure if it works for others. However, I think there are a few principles you can follow to find a good studying technique for yourself.

1. Plan a study schedule. This means identifying chunks of time you will commit to studying. For me, studying in the day works better than at night because I will be more tired at night. So I will plan which parts of the day I would study.

2. Identify a place to study. During my A-level preparation, the school library is my favourite place for studying. In my university days, my room becomes my place to study. Choose a place where you can focus and devote energy to what you are studying.

3. Schedule breaks in-between studying. The brain is a muscle and needs to have a break every now and then. Break time also allows the brain to do its own work of processing information unhindered. Try a break of 5 to 10 minutes after studying in blocks of 25 minutes. Don’t take in new information during the break. Rather, look outside, walk around or drink water. Let your brain have a breather.

4. Decide on a treat. Give yourself a treat for following your schedule. Take it as a form of extrinsic motivation for doing something you may find unusual. This will be something you can look forward to when planning your schedule.

If you are interested, you can read this post for 5 effective ways to study. This post also lists some of the ineffective ways of studying.

Do you have a particular studying technique you use often? Have you developed a method that is effective for you? Would you use different methods to develop various skills?

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