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How to Systemize Your Study

See also: Study Skills

Between your last few years at high school and the end of college you will likely have somewhere between ten and twenty examination sessions.

Exams are a performance and one of the most important parts of any performance is preparation. Rather than reinvent the wheel every time exams come around, make sure you have a study system. This way you can reduce the amount of time getting prepared and spend that time studying instead.

Tweak your system as required, but let the system do a lot of the hard work for you.

A lot of your life is systemized already, even if you haven't thought about it in this way before.  At school and college the courses are structured for you, all you have to do is show up. The same applies in a sports team or a job. The coach or the boss will organize and direct things and you make progress by following instructions and doing the work.

However many things in life require you to create your own structures and systems. Running your own business, training without a coach and exam revision are some of these things. This is difficult for many people and they crave the security of having someone else tell them what to do and when to do it.

Many students struggle with their exam preparation because they approach their revision with no structure and no system. Since no one has given it to them, they try to study with no structure at all. The alternative to this is to create your own structure and your own system. Then all you have to do is follow it.

The things in your life that you can systemize are limited only by your imagination but here are the key ones for study:

  • Your note taking system
  • Your weekly planning schedule
  • Your revision timetable
  • Your study methods

Note-Taking System

Preparing for examinations becomes a lot easier if you can take effective notes throughout the semester and organize them in an orderly and easily accessible fashion.

Review the possibilities, then choose something and stick with it for the entire semester. See how it goes and then review it for the next semester. If you get used to formatting and organizing everything in the same way it drastically cuts down the time needed to re-organize before exams.

First of all, choose your note taking app. You might prefer the traditional pen and paper but there are numerous other alternatives:

  • Word: Not specifically a note taking app, but a lot of people use it because it is familiar. Files are organized and stored in nested folders on your hard drive.
  • One Note: Sticking with Microsoft but this time going for their dedicated note taking app.
  • Evernote: One of the most popular note taking apps in the world. It is not just used for study notes - but is incredibly effective for that purpose as well.
  • Simplenote: An online note taking app that is cleaner than Evernote and clutter free.

Once you have decided what app to use, make sure you take the next step that most students won't. Determine a note taking format that you will use, rather than just taking notes on a blank page.

One common and effective option is the Cornell Note Taking System. This is a pre-set grid, with which you take notes, splitting up key points, details and a summary.

You can import a Cornell template into Evernote and make all your notes in this fashion.

There are plenty of other options, however Cornell with Evernote is a powerful combo.

Weekly Planning System

It is often said that we overestimate what we can get done it a day and underestimate what we can get done in a week.

For that reason many productivity experts recommend you run your life from a weekly plan rather than a daily plan.

This is a great idea for anybody looking to systemize their study. Things can come up on a daily basis that might knock your plans around a little bit, but within a week you should be easily able to accomplish all the tasks you have set for yourself.

To keep on top of all the things you need to do for your subjects or courses an app like Trello is a great option. Trello lets you create different boards, which are effectively categories, where you can keep a "to-do" list for everything.

You can mind dump everything onto Trello whenever a to-do item comes up. Visit Trello at the start of the week and decide what tasks you will accomplish that week.

Then extract them onto your weekly planner. Week Plan is an excellent app for this or you can just use Google Calendar or iCal.

If you can get into an effective weekly habit, it will save you the daily task of organizing your life and will help keep you on autopilot.

Revision Timetable

A revision timetable is something you should be looking to begin at least four weeks before your first examination. Since you have to sacrifice precious free time for study, a timetable is an effective way to make the best use of this time, as well as ensuring that you maintain a balance in life and do not burn out.

The first thing to do is to input all of your existing commitments into the timetable. Then take stock of what free time is available and schedule time for preparation and revision. This way you can figure out approximately how many hours you will have to study and split up your tasks accordingly.

Consider what has worked for you in the past. Do you have a particular time of day where you are most productive? Do you get more done on the weekends or in the evenings? If you know of a clear pattern then try and schedule most of your revision time in those high value areas. This is where your previous exam experience should help you tweak the system to improve your productivity.

A revision timetable is a system that is commonly used among students. The problem for most people is that they draw up the revision timetable but don't stick to it.

It helps to think of yourself as both an employee and a boss. The boss gives you the timetable and tells you that you need to show up, the employee then shows up because that is the expectation and responsibility. Be a good employee and respect yourself as a boss by sticking to your timetable.

You can use your calendar software to draw up a timetable or instead go for a specific timetabling app such as My Study Life.

Systemising Your Study Method

Once you have a revision timetable and are able to follow it effectively, the next question is what should you do with the time? This is something that you can experiment with and systemize based on trial and error.

Many students just aimlessly try and fill the time in their schedule and then congratulate themselves on how many hours of study they have completed.
A much more effective method is to set yourself a list of tasks that you would like completed and then systematically work through them.

These tasks might include things like:

  • Reviewing study notes to see if anything has been missed during the course. Catch up on any gaps there are in your content.
  • Take your semester's notes and reformat them into study notes, lists, flashcards and mind maps.
  • Memorize key facts, concepts, information etc.
  • Practice past papers or examples of questions you expect to get in the final paper.

Exactly how you approach this will be highly individual and dependent on the nature of your course and the way you learn. However the idea of coming up with a regular system you can follow and a checklist of tasks is applicable to everyone.

It is much more effective than merely committing hours for the sake of it, which can result in aimless wandering through the course material.

Knowing how far you are through your list of tasks helps you manage your time more effectively. It also helps with your confidence, because you can walk into the exam on the day knowing you were fully prepared.

Once you develop a system you can review it at the end of each exam session and tweak it for next time. That way every time you sit a new set of exams you are building on an established method.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

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About the Author

Thomas is passionate about helping students improve their study skills and productivity while at the same time managing stress levels. He believes that efficiency and serenity are the keys to peak academic performance.