Step one: Start with yourself
Step one has, actually, not much to do with learning or lessons, but it is the most important. Before you want your brain to respond well to the information flow, you need to take care of yourself well = cover the basic needs.
You should not go to a class or a quiz when you are hungry. If you are hungry, taking an exam is a total no-no. The same applies to being thirsty. Your brain needs water to function well. The problem with this easiest point is that most people do not realise when they are hungry. Or thirsty. To put it in simpler terms: if you have not had lunch, it’s a recipe for disaster in your last class.
Sweets are not a solution as they give a short-term boost but then pull you even further down. It can work when one is totally drained emotionally or physically and basically anything is better than nothing. Luckily, it does not happen that often.
Another crucial step is getting enough sleep. Realistic ‘enough’ is usually about 7 hours as the bottom line. 8 is certainly better. All your learning is based on putting information from short-term to long-term memory. This process can only happen during a deep sleep stage and it requires hours of healthy sleep. The problem with this point is that teens have their sleeping cycles shifted forward. Where adults will start getting sleepy at 22, teens will probably feel the same at midnight. At least our first lesson starts considerably late (9, opposed to 8 or 7:30 in many other countries). When facing a choice to go to bed or to study into the night, the right choice is always to sleep. You’ll remember more if you read and revise in the morning on the way to school, than if you burn the midnight oil.
Step two: Understanding the requirements
Each subject has its own set of expectations which are provided by Cambridge and by the teacher. Approaching IGCSE’s and the fact that all exams are based on past papers puts the Cambridge approach at the top of the list.
Teachers’ expectations are much closer related to the daily classes and homework. Let’s briefly pause here. Each teacher has their own ‘thing’ which they request. Someone needs you to be very punctual about your homework deadlines, someone needs detailed explanations or specific response answers. Some teachers want you to sit quietly never speaking, just listening, others want you to respond with or without raising your hand… You got it. For each teacher, you need to figure out what that specific teacher cares a lot about and how to fit those criteria. Usually, it’s nothing too hard or unusual: have a notebook, take notes without reminding, submit homework in that specific format, etc.
Once you know what each teacher looks for in terms of behaviour, move to the subject specifics. For example, as an English teacher, I can’t pass on the lack of capital letters and paragraphs. I can be forgiving in terms of spelling, but punctuation is something I’ll follow up closely. You can understand those points of no forgiveness by your feedback and general comments in class. Take a note of it: it must be something really important and pretty basic.
*I’ll write about dealing with feedback a bit later.
Now, the most important: Cambridge requirements. You can spend days and weeks working on a subject but if you answer in the wrong format, cannot use your exam time appropriately or misunderstand the task, your study time won’t matter anymore. You need to know perfectly well the exam structure, question types, how your work is graded. The last one is of utmost importance. If you do not understand where you lose your points and why your study is aimless and will become a guessing game.
Cambridge has published revision materials, past papers, mark schemes, sample answers and examiner reports for all subjects. You will need to learn how to use them to your benefit. Once you get it, the rest will be the question of learning facts and applying skills: you will know what skills, when and at what level.
That’s the tricky part of standardised exams; that’s the beautiful part of the standardised exams.
What to do:
1. Take a few minutes to think about each subject you take and put together a list of expectations specific to the teacher both behaviour- and academic-wise.
2. Have a look at full past papers if you have not yet. Check the syllabus/revision materials available. See how your current studies correspond to the syllabus and tick what topics you feel comfortable/have covered by now. This part is really big so it’s better to break it down into chunks based on subject and paper. It will take time but once you figure out for yourself what you will need to do at your exam and how it is graded, you will see your preparation as a direct road with clear milestones.
Step three: Working with mistakes
This is the most underestimated part of smart learning. This is why last time you were asked to check how mark schemes work. Anything you do to study, you need to check. You can check yourself, but luckily, the school also provides you with teachers who grade your homework, quizzes and give you feedback.
Minimal feedback includes just a grade, but this is the moment when you need to go through your paper, find mistakes and ask the teacher what exactly the problem is if you don’t understand why you lost some points. If you make a mistake once, you are prone to make it again. And again, maybe even in a very important exam. Go back to your already graded assignments and face the problems. It can also help you identify the gaps in your knowledge from earlier times, maybe even years. Fixing basic mistakes can take time but once done, it will quickly take your grades up.
– look at your graded assignments and analyse the mistakes: do you know why it is wrong? Do you know how to fix it? Why did you make that mistake? (didn’t read the task properly, don’t understand the topic, wrong structure/length of the answer, spelling, poor time management, etc)
– identify repeated mistakes (on the same topic). This is what you need to work on. Luckily, YouTube, Khan Academy and other similar sources can provide you with all the information needed.
Step four: When and Where
The study schedule is the key to successful studies, many people say. Yeah… To start with, let’s say that learning is a time-consuming process and there is no escape from this fact. Still, the notorious human factor always interferes with the best of intentions and no matter how meticulously the schedule has been created, it is not about it alone.
You can do an activity either exercising your willpower (you decided to do maths from 17 to 19 today and you do) or in a state of flow. The last one is that case of perfect focus on whatever you do, time passes and you do not notice. The willpower approach suffers from a limited attention span: 20-30 minutes of active work is maximum. In reality, it can be much shorter, especially if you don’t have much interest in the subject. It brings us to the problem with hours of studies: it’s impossible to learn actively and in a productive way for hours in a row. You need breaks. Many people like the system of 30-40 minutes of work, 10 minutes of break.
Sometimes magic happens. You started that 30-minute study session. The timer suddenly went off, but you are so much into what you do that you actually WANT to continue, you want to finish what is at work. This is a state of the flow. That rare, fragile and wonderful state of mind is the best for learning (or doing literally anything). To get to this state of mind, you need to be internally motivated. Just the fact that you have a quiz the following day or the submission deadline will not bring you there. You should be curious about the topic, you should know what your goal is (you remember that time you were checking the requirements in step 2?) and know where potential missteps can occur (that is why last time you were asked to pay attention to the feedback).
This is the same principle used in gamification: you have a clear task, get feedback, gain or lose points. Kill the monster, collect diamonds, start again if your character was killed. Nothing hard.
Decide what exactly you want to study/do, set a timer. If you are not in the right mood, you will know that you have just 40 minutes to do this and that, then you don’t need to bother with it again. You can check the timer and see the end of the road: it gives hope and some energy. During the break try not to stick to social media. It’s better to move around a bit, talk to people: do something very different from the learning process with a screen, books, being quiet.
To feel even more proud of your work try an app like Flip to track the time you study (or workout, hobby, anything you find important). Nothing feels better than setting goals and reaching them, seeing how much you actually put into a subject (it’s hard to estimate without tracking).
Place or environment?
As for the place, you will most probably be at your usual table, but changing the surroundings can help. It does not have to be a big jump, changing a room can work just fine. Having a study buddy is another great trick. You don’t need to talk to the person or even to know them. Just seeing someone as busy as you will do the job. This is why many students like to study in a library or in student-occupied coffee shops. Your environment will motivate you.
Step five: Putting everything together
Hopefully, at this stage, you will know the standards for each subject area, where you make mistakes and miss points, get a general idea of how to fix those mistakes and, finally, find yourself in the right place and at the right time, not hungry and not sleepy.
Now we can get back to what you could have expected to get to as the very first thing: study schedule. I’m not a big fan of mechanical assigning time slots for different subjects and pushing yourself to follow it. You may be not in the mood to do English tonight and would better do science instead. It can turn out that one assignment is longer and you cannot finish it on time do you have to push further other subjects or make a hard choice which homework to do and which subject to ignore.
All those problems come when one faces a deadline. And the last night is usually the time when the work gets done. Let’s be honest, it’s not the best option. If you get stuck, there is no place to get a qualified help from. If you feel bad that might or something else came up, you inevitably lose both in terms of your learning and in terms of your homework grade.
A solution to this probably requires terrific time management skills and loads of willpower. Not, it does not. It may when you shift the study habits, but if the transition is planned, it can be pretty smooth. Do the tasks, at least start them on the same day you for the task. No need to be a hero with the task. If it does not make sense, you can go to the teacher and ask for help or clarification (surprise the teachers, they hardly ever see such interest in their subject). If that evening there is somewhere else you need to be – that’s fine, you have time at hand.
And then the best part: you can submit your homework early and no need to worry about it anymore. It’s done. If you are lucky, you can get some feedback early on, still have time to improve it and get an even better grade (not all teachers do it, but it is worth trying).
You may also want to set a system for tracking your study tasks, but Canvas or whatever you currently use should work for it just fine. If the stars align correctly, you will be able to study without too much pressure, seeing a clear goal, knowing your weakness. When nothing challenges your focus, you will be much more productive (multitasking is the enemy of productivity). If you are productive, you won’t get bored and dragged into the slow and endless practice of covering the pages. You will have time to get help. You will show that you care and you will get back support.