PREPARING TO STUDY

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YOURSELF AS A LEARNER

Your progress at university will depend very much on you - how prepared you are, how motivated you are, how organised you are, how responsible you are - so it is appropriate to begin your study preparation by thinking about yourself. Your ability to study and learn successfully will depend on many personal factors, including your emotional state.

Your first year at university, particularly the first semester, is a time of transition. For some of you, it is the first time you have lived away from home. Although almost all students are excited by this transition, and exhilarated by its possibilities, it can also be scary. Sometimes it seems that nothing is stable and predictable anymore, and you might experience this as a sort of identity crisis, feeling that you are becoming a different person. This is especially acute if your previous home and school life didnít share any of the features of university life. You may become impatient, and feel that you are wasting your time thinking a lot about yourself, but it is necessary for you to face up to elements of your new life that might be uncomfortable. For instance, if you are not used to speaking English, you may feel very strange having to speak English not only in classes, but also to communicate with your fellow students. You may experience shyness, perhaps because your accent sounds different to everyone elseís; you may feel anger and resentment at not being able to use your own language more; or you may be pleased at the many opportunities you have to practise speaking English. Whatever you feel, it is important to recognise and acknowledge your feelings, and perhaps discuss them with friends. Similar dilemmas arise around issues of smoking, drinking, sex, styles of clothing, music and many other things that embody personal and cultural values. In each case it will be up to you to understand and deal with your feelings about your identity and the changes that inevitably accompany growth.

You should also consider physical aspects of yourself - if you arenít healthy it will be very difficult to concentrate and do the amount of work that university study requires. Student Health Services can offer detailed advice about this aspect of your life, but, in general, you need to consider whether your habits in the following areas suit your new needs, or whether you need to change any of them:

  • your diet
  • the amount of sleep you get (or donít get!)
  • relationships with others
  • recreational activities.

 

Diet. Most of your diet should comprise of carbohydrates.Your body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose, which gives you energy. Smaller, and roughly equal proportions of fruit and vegetables are necessary, totalling about 5 portions a day. Meat, chicken, fish and dairy products shouldnít be the major components of your diet. The smallest portion is reserved for oils, fats and sweets. Ironically, these are often the things that are easiest and most convenient to eat in a busy day or a late night - junk food, fast food take-always, chocolates from the coin-operated machine or the plate of chips from the Students Union! You may feel that it is impossible to eat healthily, especially if you live in residence and donít have a lot of choice about what goes into your meals. If you are living in a self-catering residence, or in some other situation where you have to cook for yourself, you may feel that time and your budget wonít allow you to eat properly. These are problems that should be addressed. It is not necessary to become fanatical, but if you donít give your body the nourishment it needs, you may find yourself feeling unfit for the demands of studying.

Sleep. Different people need different amounts of sleep, but most people canít really do with less than 7 or 8 hours a day. A late night here or there wonít have a long-term effect, but consistently having less sleep than you need will seriously undermine your ability to concentrate on your studies.

Think carefully about your own sleep-needs and how they affect your studying. If you have early lectures on some days, try to adjust your evening schedule so that you arenít too tired to get up in time on those mornings, or to concentrate in class when you do get there. This is easier said than done, especially if you are living in a university residence and those around you seem to be operating on a different schedule. Remember though, that the university residences do have rules about "quiet times" and "noisy hours". Find out what the rules are in your own residence, so that you can plan your studying and sleeping accordingly.

Relationships. You may think that your personal life is separate from your intellectual life, but disturbances in your relationships or deep unhappiness with your personal situation can certainly affect your university work. It is important to sort out problems before they interfere with your studies. You might want to talk to a counsellor at Student Health Services about any major problems.

As a new student at a big institution like UCT, you will come into contact with very many new people. Some students find this exciting, but it can be quite overwhelming, especially if your peer group at school was small and relatively unchanging. Some students find it difficult to find a group of people with whom they feel comfortable, and donít venture out of the circle of friends they have known for a long time. It might be useful to remind yourself that everyone else is probably as nervous as you are (even if you think theyíre hiding it better) and try to develop relationships with your peers. Much of your learning at university will happen informally, and conversations with others, even outside classroom or tutorial situations, will contribute to your growth and development.

Recreation. It is not possible or desirable to spend all your time studying. Relaxation is a necessary part of your life and the time you do spend studying will be all the more productive if you are enjoying leisure pursuits as well. Donít think about recreation as something that competes with your study time; rather see relaxation or physical exercise as a necessary complement to the intense mental exercise required when studying. You do not have to spend hours running or cycling - even small doses of regular exercise have health benefits, for instance building the immune system and reducing stress.

For some people, the perfect break from studying is working out at the gym; for others it is watching a movie. Whatever your preference, there is a vast range of recreational activities available to choose from on campus and in Cape Town. There are student clubs and societies that cater for almost every need, be it sport, exercise, outdoor pursuits, religion, arts or culture. For more details, see the last section of this book.

All the preceding considerations relate to maintaining a healthy self in general, but there are more specific aspects to think about in relation to your own learning. Ask yourself the question: "What kind of student am I?" You have already spent many years of your life studying, so use this experience to help you understand your own needs, and to plan for a successful first year at university. It might help to make a list of your answers to questions such as:

  • When I study, what helps me more - support? or challenge? or both?
  • How much feedback do I need?
  • When have I successfully used group work?
  • When has individual study been better for me?
  • What really motivates me - fear of failure? intellectual interest? the pressure of a deadline? the promise of a reward?
  • When do I work best - early in the morning? late at night?

These are your unique answers, and you alone can plan appropriately for your needs. For instance, if you recognise that you really need a supportive group environment in order to study well, you should do your best to create one - ask a couple of people from your residence or tutorial group to join you for study sessions. If you realise that you produce good essays only when you are working to a deadline, and you also do your best work early in the mornings, then you would need to make sure you go to bed early around the time your essays are due so that you will have enough time and energy to complete your work in time, in the way that best suits you.

You might also realise that the way you have always studied will not be suitable at university. In this case, you may have to abandon your old habits and explore new ways of studying.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)

ORGANISING A PLACE TO STUDY

It is possible to learn anywhere - you may be someone who can read on the train or think through ideas in the shower - but for the kind of long term, sustained and concentrated studying you will need to do at university, it is probably better to set aside some place in which to study.

You will have to do lots of reading. You may argue that you find it easy to concentrate even when sitting on a bed or in an easy chair; however, much of the reading you will do will also require you to make notes while reading, so a table or desk is probably necessary. Working on the floor for a long time can be very uncomfortable, and lying on your bed might tempt you to go to sleep, so it is better to make serious provision for somewhere special that is more suitable for studying. An upright chair and a table or desk are also essential for your writing tasks, where you will need to spread out the various books or documents you are referring to. These basic necessities are provided in all the residences, as well as in various venues on campus, including the library. It is useful to have your own space so that you can leave your things set out instead of having to pack them all up every time you take a break, or stop studying for the day. Good lighting is another essential feature of a suitable place for studying. Poor lighting can cause eye-strain, tension headaches or sleepiness. Some of the lighting problems might be a light that is too dim, lights that are too bright and glaring, and lights that flicker. These problems can usually be solved by changing the strength of the overhead globe or adding a desk-lamp, or both.

Distractions are a very real problem. Wherever you live there will probably be distracting noises: other family members, children playing outside, other students talking, laughing or arguing, even your own television, radio or music centre. Exert whatever influence you can on the environment. For instance, you could ask your family or roommates to keep the noise level down for a certain time every day, switch off the radio or television if it is up to you, or you could close the door or windows to minimise the sounds coming in from outside. For most of us, these options are very limited, and it is not possible to demand silence in a home or in a residence full of hundreds of other students. Try, instead or in addition, to find ways to work around the problems. If your room-mate always goes out for 3 hours on a Thursday night, use that opportunity to get some work done, or try to work when other family members are out or asleep (as long as this doesnít deprive you of your own sleep). Plan to spend time in the library or computer centre when you have essays or assignments to complete, or tests to prepare for.

When you are having a hard time concentrating, almost everything can constitute a distraction. It is not possible to create a distraction-less environment - if you are willing to be distracted, anything will seem to be more urgent or interesting than the studying you are supposed to be doing. Of course you can, and should, work at reducing distracting things in your study space, and try out different places and times to find the conditions under which you will be able to do your best work.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)

ORGANISING YOUR TIME

We are all familiar with feelings and thoughts like: "I know I could do this well - if only I had more time!!" Given the amount of work involved in studying at university, you are likely to feel this all too often in your first year, especially if you havenít managed your time very well. If you have come to university straight from school, you may not have had to organise your own time very much, as schools tend to be quite rigid and dictate when and how you study. They also require you to spend a lot more time in class, and this leads to the mistaken belief that there is so much "free" time at university. It is this "free" time that you will have to take responsibility for now. "Managing time" seems to be very abstract, and if you havenít actively thought about this before it might seem absurd; there are, however, ways to make time more concrete.

You could begin by thinking about the year as a block of time, and all the things you have to fit into that time. The university year has its own pattern and rhythm which is embodied in the academic calendar. Once you have blocked in the time commitments at this level, it is time to start planning on the smaller scale. You should begin by looking at your daily and weekly time use. Try for a week to keep a detailed timetable of what you do. This means taking note of how much time you spend doing the following things:

  • attending lectures, tutorials and practicals
  • studying, reading or doing other work related to your courses
  • working in a job
  • travelling to and from university and your job
  • sport, recreation and hobbies
  • relaxing at home (reading the newspaper, watching tv, listening to music)
  • socialising (including talking on the telephone)
  • domestic maintenance (cleaning, cooking, laundry, going to town to pay accounts)
  • sleeping

When you review this information, youíll need to identify where youíre spending a lot of time. If itís in front of the television, or in the student union playing cards, then you will know that you can afford to spend a lot more time studying. If you see that you spend long hours studying without any breaks or relaxation, you might want to reread the section above on "Yourself as a Learner". Remember that relaxation is a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle, and try to find a more sustainable pattern of work. If you are spending too much time on domestic work (for yourself or others), you need to think about why this is so, and whether you can do anything to change this.

With your own requirements in mind, draw up a weekly timetable that will suit you. If you need to study in long, uninterrupted sessions, then plan for those; if you can get a lot done in short bursts of time, make full use of the time between classes and other bits of time that would otherwise be wasted. If you study best in the night, make sure you get all sorts of other time-consuming activities out of the way during the day; if your residence is too noisy in the evenings, plan to spend Saturday mornings in the library doing the work that needs the most concentration. Be honest with yourself. If you sit at your desk for the two hours every evening that you have allotted for studying, but you re-read old love letters, or fill the margins of your paper with sketches of cars, then you cannot count this time as "studying" time. Try to stick to your timetable, but donít be inflexible - sometimes you might learn more by watching a debate on television, or having a discussion with a friend who comes around unexpectedly, than by sitting resentfully in front of your books. Good planning means that you should never get behind with your work, and so you can afford to be spontaneous now and then.

Overall, it is important for you to assess whether you are spending enough time on your university work. Remember also that this can change as the year progresses: The pressure of work increases through the year, especially if you have not used your time wisely at the beginning, and have allowed things to pile up till the last minute.

Your time management depends on your understanding of how much work you need to do, and how long it will take you to do it. This might be more or less time than is needed by your friends and room-mates, and it is up to you to put in as much work as you need to, in order to achieve what you want to achieve.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)

Learning to learn

Effective study habits

Managing time

How to deal with stress

Study skills self-help information

The basics of good nutrition