Thoughts on Studying

Throughout my years at high school and medical school, I have noticed something interesting about the way people study, and the results they got. Some people would study extremely hard for very long hours, and get less than satisfactory results. Others would not study very much but always get results that were better than expected.

I was one of those people that seemed to get better results than I feel I deserved, as through high school, I never studied more than an hour in a day, yet was always within the top 5 students for my year. In pre-med, I would not take any notes, not write any notes of my own, and yet still got better marks than 95% of the other students. Even in medical school, though I hardly studied hard, I was always keeping up with the rest of my classmates, always being about average, which was not too bad considering the general level of intelligence within a medical school class.

I have wondered whether I was just lucky and that I inherited great genes in terms of having high intelligence. And it’s true; at least partially. My dad was quite smart, and we do have doctors/judges/professors in our family on dad’s side. However, I don’t think it explains everything.

For example, there have been several occasions when I achieved terrible results. Like bottom-of-my-class type of results. And these were the times when I studied the hardest.

This made me wonder – there must be something to this. It doesn’t seem like coincidence that so many people who don’t try hard get great results and so many who try infinitely harder get such terrible results. I slowly arrived at the conclusion that it’s not about the effort that was put into learning that made the difference. It was about the state you were in when you were studying, that determined how much of that information got absorbed, and how much you would be able to recall.

Let’s use an example of a child learning to walk or talk. While there may be some differences in physiology such as the plasticity of the brain (which is debatable given recent scientific findings) the children appear to learn quite fast, without effort. They do not sit there rote learning words, or repeatedly practicing a certain move to help them walk better. They do not feel the pressure of having to sit a walking or a talking test, and generally learn both in a playful manner.

This is also seen in adults when they are doing something they enjoy doing, where there is no pressure to perform. For example, many people will be able to remember all the lyrics of a song they’ve heard a few times, without having tried hard to memorize it. Some would be able to recall every detail in a film they just saw. If people are able to do this in other aspects of life, why does this not seem to happen when studying? I think you can already see the differences from the examples I have given you.

From some of the neuroscience I have come across and also from personal observations and experience, the brain appears to absorb new information when it is in a playful state, or at least a relaxed one. This is made difficult in study because often there is an exam coming up, or the material is boring to the student and it stresses them out to have to sit and study it. This stress increases the fight or flight system, and you brain does not learn in this mode, as this mode is made to make quick decisions and help you survive rather than grow.

Also, even when you appear to be relaxing and therefore apparently not learning, your brain is working behind the scenes to put together and absorb what you had been studying recently. This means that the breaks and the resting periods may be more critical than some people would think.

So it seems quite critical that the student finds a way to put themselves in a state where they are relaxed, and interested in the material they are studying. It’s also important to find ways to alleviate stress and tension if they start to build up during the study sessions, by utilizing breaks or other methods.

I plan to write a book about this topic in the future, and will perhaps talk more about methods that could be helpful in becoming more interested in the material, or finding useful ways to relax and use breaks during study. I hope you found the above interesting or useful.


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