Saturday, July 20, 2013

Small changes that make a big difference to your grades

by Louise Rebecca Chapman

Some of us are intellectual bulldozers in sixth gear; others of us are drifting along the academic year on autopilot, resisting breaking into a sweat, and possibly believing that doing so would scarcely make a difference anyway. Maybe you have been getting the same calibre of grades since you can remember, and achieving any higher, you think, could only ever be down to a fluke. Perhaps this is true of you — maybe the very top grades aren't naturally or realistically within your intellectual remit, but that shouldn't stop you doing even slightly better. Good grades aren't only the preserve of the intellectual elite. In this article, I am going to share with you a sprinkling of golden nuggets that could enable you to achieve your best grades yet.

Identify your Learning Style

When it comes to achieving your potential, you have to reflect on how you study best, and this can require some investigation. You may think that the only legitimate study method is the traditional textbook and notepad set-up — it is drilled into us from an early age that success comes to those of us who have the stamina to plough through greying textbooks from beginning to end, completing all the exercise boxes along the way. And our experiences seem to confirm this assumption: witnessing droves of Oxford-bound geeks in school libraries apparently engrossed in textbooks that, to the rest of us, have all the appeal of soggy sandwiches.

Well, for some people, this is the recipe for success — it plays to their strengths: it complements their unique learning style. But we all have a different learning style. What works best for you could prove disastrous for me. So, under Neil Fleming's VARK learning styles inventory, you can discover the learning style that will enable you to make the time invested into studying count for so much more. In Fleming's short questionnaire, you can discover whether you are a Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, Kinaesthetic or Multimodal learner. Studies have shown that students who cater to their personal learning style prepare more effectively for exams, and ultimately secure higher grades. You can take the VARK questionnaire here:

Don't Be a Busy Fool

Throughout my academic career, I have witnessed a broad and colourful spectrum of students: those who effortlessly enrolled into Cambridge, and just as effortlessly rolled out with a First-class degree, and then those who (bless their hearts) spent their lives strapped to their study desks, only to produce yet another dismal and distressing display on results day. Finally, there are those in-between, who are neither fatally cursed with the gene for academic hopelessness, but aren't quite as fortunate to have been born with a foot into the door of Cambridge. What is this thusness? What is the reason for this thusness?

Well, if you must know, life isn't fair. If you find yourself at the top or the bottom of this hierarchy, then, I think it is not unreasonable to assume, it was your destiny. But most of us fall into the curvaceous mid-point of this bell-curve, and there is in fact quite a lot we can do to improve our positioning. And the real secret here is expediency.

Take short cuts. Read selectively. Be extra discriminating. Keep the endgame in focus at all times. A friend of mine who, to all intents and purposes, has the academic record of a genius, once gave me advice that continues to resonate like a heavenly tuning fork: do what you need to do, but no more. I didn't expect to hear that from him: First-class honours in Philosophy from York, the same again in Clinical Medicine from Oxford, and an illustrious post-graduate CV, including UCL and Cambridge. 'Be shrewd — read study guides instead of your set-texts if you're time-pressed — cherry-pick from your syllabus in order to play to your strengths.' These instructions, in the hands of an astute and discerning student is like gold dust, and I had a powerful moment of anagnorisis upon receipt of this advice.

Naturally though, this advice, in the wrong hands, could be ruinous. If you're already unmotivated and uninspired, then giving you advice that seems to perpetuate your bad habits is not going to help. But if you truly love (nay worship) your subject, then guidance that recommends being clever with your time and resources makes a lot of sense. It is possible to be extremely effective by employing an expedient strategy.

Exploit All the Resources you Can

For those of us who are, or have been, autodidacts, you can surely bear witness to the lonely and often featureless existence of studying outside of a traditional college or university setting. Often armed with only a reading list, the nine-month academic year appears a daunting and testing prospect, particularly if, having taken the VARK questionnaire, it turns out that you learn best from lectures and discursive activities. 'OK', you might think, 'how the hell am I going to weather a year of solitary textbook learning? Surely I will go mad?'

Well, very possibly yes. But before you really allow the darkness to creep in, do some research. Trawl the Internet. You will be astounded at what you will find.

Philosophy may seem to be a fairly esoteric discipline, and you might worry that the laypeople of the Internet would shun its initial obscurity. But wait until you discover the lists of lectures, podcasts, revision-notes, and debates on the topics that you are studying. Universities across the world are publishing lecture series that you can access for free — sitting quietly on the Internet, waiting for you to click through and pluck all the juicy knowledge nuggets. It's as simple as going onto, where universities across the world are uploading lecture series on Logic, Ethics, Politics, Knowledge — and, well, you name it. Or how about YouTube with its extensive catalogue of Oxford, Harvard and Yale lectures? Perhaps even log into iTunes and search for your module topics on there. The Internet is giving autodidacts the opportunity to enjoy a world-class education for free. The only hard work you need to do is seek out these pearls of wisdom, consume and assimilate them, and then prepare a victory dance for results day. I know I did.

Final Thoughts

For what it's worth, I found the life of an autodidact insanely hard, and this Autumn I'm giving it up to study Philosophy full-time at King's College London. Thankfully, my time spent as a distance learner has been highly revelatory, and intensely rewarding. I made the most of the resources I had to hand, including my exceptional tutor, Dr. Geoffrey Klempner, who helped me score a set of straight First Class grades in my summer examinations. But beyond my tutor, I have to commend my own resourcefulness and expediency: without these weapons in my arsenal, I could be sitting in a very different portion of the bell-curve.

Louise Rebecca Chapman


Thursday, June 27, 2013

First things first?

It doesn't sound a good thing to do: start at the beginning and work forward. You don't want to work backwards?
I came across this quote from from the Folk anthologist Harry Smith many years ago (in Stephan Grossman's Contemporary Ragtime Guitar Oak Publications 1972) and it has made a lasting impression on me.

When you were in school you were taught to be a study slave. Read this. Do that chapter. Write an essay on blah blah. And when you were given a list of things to do, as a good student you followed the list and ticked off each thing as you did it.

Sometimes college professors behave as if you were still in school. But you are no longer a study slave. It is your choice to be here and you can drop out at any time. The key to self-motivation is getting rid of your slave mentality.

Here's what I wrote, back in 2004:
Only book worms start at the beginning and work all the way through. Thumb your way backwards and forwards until the pages drop out; fill the margins with pencilled commentary; start at the last chapter and work backwards — anything to break the spell that the writer is attempting to cast on you. Refuse to play along.
I was writing about philosophy but this works for any subject where you have to read.

With maths and science it is a bit different but here too you have the choice to begin at page 1, or dip in and look for the interesting stuff first.

Who needs books anyway now that we have the internet? Problem is, it's not so easy to find stuff you can rely on because there's so much rubbish out there. Which explains why the first place every student goes to is Wikipedia. But consider: if everyone else in your class is looking at the same article, what chance is there that you will do work that is better than average or mediocre?

Besides, what fun is there in doing what everyone else does? You are not a slave, remember?

So here we are. You are sitting at your desk staring at a big pile of books. Pick the one in the middle and open it somewhere in the middle. And then start reading. Form a hypothesis of what the book is about and test it by opening the book randomly in other places. Look at the index, the chapter headings. If you see something familiar, look that up on the internet.

By the time you start seriously reading that book you will probably have worked out two thirds of what the writer has to say.

And don't be afraid to read stuff that isn't on your reading list. Spend a couple of hours browsing in a second-hand bookshop. More than once, I have found that special volume that has changed the course of my life.

Geoffrey Klempner

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A new beginning

I wanted to write an antidote to the kinds of thing you usually see on book shelves (and blog posts) which have nothing to do with real people — 'the joy of study', 'improve your mind', 'unlock your hidden potential', etc. etc.

For most real people, study is a means to an end, a necessary evil. You grit your teeth and knuckle down.

Study isn't always, or usually, meant to be joyful. And it is dubious whether one can do much to improve upon one's natural talents. There will always be people smarter than you — and also dumber, of course.

But there are things you can do to make the experience less painful and frustrating. It is possible to make more efficient of your time and abilities.

As this blog is inspired by the Pathways project (sign up now!) you might guess that some of the things I am going to say are about how you can improve your performance by teaming up with others, with a study partner or study group.

However, the primary focus is on you and your feelings and attitudes towards the subject you have chosen, be it geography, or physics, or psychology, or dentistry, or history, or social work, or... whatever.

My own area of study — as it happens — is philosophy. It's probably true that most people who study philosophy as a main subject are interested in it, often keenly. But then again, there are many other students taking philosophy courses as a mandatory requirement who absolutely hate the subject. I am writing for you too.

So come into my library.

I've chosen pleasant surroundings (found in a Google picture search) because these things are important. It is important to feel that you have some control over where and how you do your studying.

A room of one's own is highly desirable but if that isn't possible then you need to spend time searching for a place that you can feel comfortable in. But not too comfortable. You've work to do!

I generally like silence. But sometimes one needs noise, distraction in order to chase away negative thoughts. Rock music. Or a noisy restaurant. Or the drone of cars speeding by. If you are stuck inside, consider uploading these onto your computer as ambient background sounds.

It is perfectly possible to study sitting in front of the TV if that works for you. Most TV programs don't deserve more than a quarter or third of your brain at most.

This is your task for today:

If you study in your own room, then rearrange it. Get your desk looking like a place where real work is going to be done. Get rid of all the crap and give yourself some space to arrange papers and books etc.

Or, if you use a library then take time to find a good place to sit. I always used to love the stack, down in the basement with neon strip lights and the smell of old books that no-one ever reads.

Now, just sit and enjoy the ambience. You are not working today, just getting used to the idea.

We'll start tomorrow!

Geoffrey Klempner