Staff Writer, Elizabeth Ossowska
There always comes that point in the semester where high school students have a mini
existential crisis – freaking out about a 7% drop in an English mark or worrying about whether you’ll make it into the program you want in university. Especially at this time, as the year comes to a close, stress has a way of creeping into our lives – like at the back of your math classroom or around the corner in the hallway. This is perfectly normal because the nature of school itself (and the rest of life for that matter) is that of ups and downs – rushing and relaxing, studying and procrastinating, waiting and doing, listening and applying.
Okay…. so none of that information was new. Let’s have some story time, shall we?
Last semester I did something very abnormal (to my standards) – I took physics 20 in IB. I didn’t have to take the course in the least – in fact, none of the programs I’m interested in for post-secondary has anything to do with science at all. Yet despite my main interests being elsewhere I had figured since I liked math and I disliked biology, physics seemed like a fine fit. Not to mention that my mother used to be a physics teacher and really wanted me to take it.
As you can see, the stakes were high. The first day, I nervously wandered the upstairs hallway wondering where in the world 210 was, finally found it and took a deep breath and sat at the very back of the classroom. Turns out – I loved it. The class was fun, the teacher was funny, and I enjoyed doing the work. Everything seemed fine and good – until our first quiz.
Upon getting them handed back, the world turned upside down.
The paper crinkled in my hand as I inspected it for the writing in the red pen that we are all so familiar with – and when my eyes found it, the world stopped spinning as I stared in astonishment, not quite believing my mark. Think I got the big 100? Nooooo. Right there on my paper containing the summative quiz, there was a disease – a glaring angry red 54. I was barely passing physics.
By now most of us understand how it works – you do your homework, your mark reflects that. But here’s the thing: I did do my homework. I had done every single assignment we were handed on top of everything in the SNAP book yet I still got a 54.
The purpose of this story is that I know there are other people in the same boat. Maybe not as extreme of a situation, and maybe in a different subject area, but it definitely isn’t rare to completely underperform what you know you can do and get a markdown under. It’s not that bad to get a low mark if you put zero effort in – that’s an easy fix, and the mark is deserved anyway. But when you really did try… ouch.
Many people in these sorts of predicaments simply lose motivation. When I saw that 54 every time I logged onto PowerSchool, there was a hammer in my head slamming into my brain telling me that I suck at physics so I should just move on. It wasn’t even a crippling sort of feeling; more like an urge to give up. Why not focus on the humanities, or get a really good chemistry mark and forget physics ever happened? After all, I just don’t have the head for it, right?
Dead wrong! If you are studying very hard for a class and it’s not working, it isn’t you that’s the problem. What I realized with physics is that I just had to shake things up a little, modify and refine my studying habits. By using the tips and tricks listed below, my mark crept up from that 54 to a 73, then to an 87, and finally by the end of the semester to an 89. That’s over a 30% increase, just by changing the way I studied. Of course, there are other factors that went into this improvement – anyone who has taken physics 20 knows that it only gets easier and easier the farther along you go. A lot of other subjects are like this too though, so don’t throw in the towel just yet! Instead, try out some of these handy little studying tips:
– Talk to your teachers. This cannot be stressed enough!!! Remember that they are
people too, and you wield the power to make their day simply by striking up a
conversation with them. Teachers crave nothing more than personal connections to their
students – more often than not, that’s why they became teachers in the first place.
Bonding with teachers can be a much more useful tool than it seems, even though the
benefits are not as direct as studying. Additionally, there is nothing quite like getting one
on one attention, so if there is a concept with which you are struggling or a question you
can’t figure out, your teacher should be the first place to go. Just remember to show
some humility and bear in mind that they, like you, have good days and bad days – so be
mindful of reaching them at the right time. You’ll need these skills later on in life too,
- Get the big picture. It’s surprising how many students are like robots in the way they
study. School isn’t about mechanically doing your homework. Think about why you’re
learning these things and how they will be useful for you later on (if you’re unsure about
the practical applications of the subject matter, then ask your teacher). Not only does
goal setting boost motivation and make things more relevant, they teach you to get the
essentials. One of my biggest issues, when I began physics, is that I focused too much on
the nitty-gritty details. Yes, sometimes they are important, but you will be much better
off understanding the broader concept really thoroughly than you will be superficially
memorizing a bunch of uber-specific facts. Remember, key ideas are just that – key.
- Keep it neutral. If you find yourself hating a particular thing before even starting it,
check yourself! When learning new things avoid having some sort of prejudice about it.
Or, if it’s a recurring concept that you struggled with previously, fear not! Every class
and every day is a new start with a clean slate. Having a negative attitude towards
something new definitely won’t help your case, so it’s best to stay grounded and simply
listen without freaking out. Some common ones are phobias of graphs and fractions. I
used to hate graphs to the marrow until physics taught me that they are, in fact, your
friend. Another common one to hear that makes my blood boil is “I hate social”. Tell
yourself that and it won’t get any better, and it’s not like it’ll go away if you hate it
enough. Stay open to learning new things and you’ll benefit in the long run.
- Be present in class – not just physically. True, everyone has their days where the focus
seems impossible, and that’s okay. But, try to stay in the moment and pay attention to
what is being said. Write less and listen more. Notes are important for the key ideas, and
certain reminders, but the overall concepts will stick more easily if you keep your ears
open and your eyes off the page. And don’t be afraid of messy notes – you can clean them
- Give yourself some style. Your notes should reflect your personality, not simply be
copied off the board. Use different coloured pens/highlighters to help your brain make
distinctions in your notes, as opposed to a bunch of writing without separation (ex. blue
for definitions, purple for important reminders, green for examples; or even bullet points for definitions, stars for important reminders, lines for examples; etc.)
- Self-evaluate. It’s important to be self-aware of what you’re comfortable with as well as
the areas that need work. If there’s something you feel you strongly understand already,
you don’t have to spend extra effort on it – use that time towards areas in which you are less confident. Also, mark your own homework. There is no use in doing all the work if
you get it all wrong without knowing. The best things we can learn usually come out of
mistakes, and marking your own homework, specifically in math-science classes, is just
as valuable as doing the homework itself. And don’t just mark it and end there; figure out exactly where you went wrong so it won’t happen again.
- Don’t move on until you are sure you understand a concept. If you’re confused
at the beginning you’re only going to get more confused, so deal with the problem at its
root instead of ignoring it until the day before the exam. If you have a question, ask it
right away. Charging ahead won’t do you any good in the long run.
- Use the resources that are available to you. Wondering what I’m talking about?
The textbooks! Learn to appreciate those, because once you get to university they can
cost hundreds of dollars. As high school students getting them for free it is easy to take
them for granted, but your textbooks weren’t written by dummies – on the contrary, they
were written by specialists in the field who know exactly what it is you need to learn.
Especially in social studies, reading parts of the textbook may actually be more
interesting than you think, what with case studies and things. Textbooks also (usually)
offer nice summaries for each unit which can be used for review, as well as glossaries,
which I would very strongly recommend looking at in subjects like social studies. As for
the sciences, get the SNAP book! I found it extremely useful especially in physics, and
they’re quite reasonably priced. You’re not on your own with your studying, and if you’re looking for further resources to use simply ask your teachers about it.
- Revise, revise, revise!! There are studies out there that show that rewriting your
notes, and reading them out loud, will help information stick to your brain – and make
sure you write them by hand because typing just isn’t the same thing. There are different ways to do this – one very popular one is flashcards. If these work for you, use them. However, if you’re one of those anti-flashcard people (such as me), there is a different method that I like. At the end of each unit, I take all the important concepts we learned in class, or those that I know I forget more easily/struggle with, and condense them into my
own personal study guide. For physics, I used an abundance of diagrams (and colours!!);
for social, I use present-day situations or simple analogies to reinforce certain concepts.
My study guides are always centred on the core definitions we need to know, with
examples surrounding them. Whatever works for you is good though – as long as you try
to keep everything on one page that is easy to reference even right before your exam.
Which brings me to another note: never study on the day of the exam. Everything you
learn gets processed in your brain at night, so it’s literally no use trying to learn
something and apply it on the same day. The best thing to do on the day of the exam is
chill yourself out, not study. Which is another reason it’s handy to have a handwritten
study guide at your fingertips so that you can at least refresh your memory (which is not
the same thing as studying).
- Be flexible. This is perhaps the biggest point of them all. My main pitfall in physics was
that I tried using the same method to study it as I did for chemistry.
– Even subjects that seem similar must each be treated uniquely if you want to find
success in every one, otherwise, you will either get muddled and confused
between different subjects or you will find yourself focusing on all the wrong
things (as was my case where I tried writing my notes the same way in physics as
I did in chemistry). The tips in this list are like clay; it’s up to you to mould them into
their own shapes, and each subject will require something different. So stay in
tune with the subject matter and adjust yourself accordingly.
-Another changing variable is the teacher – different styles of exams or handouts
will also force you to change your approach. Remember, your teachers have 20-
30+ students and only one of themselves, so it’s your responsibility as a student to adapt yourself to the teacher, instead of complaining about the way your
teacher is doing things.
-Additionally, there is the factor of time; some people just have a knack for certain
subjects and have trouble with others, and those that are harder for you will
consequently require more of your time. Don’t try organizing your schedule so
strenuously that you have exact time slots for everything; that misses the point of
-Finally, the way you write exams should be different between subjects. In
math/sciences, it is key to trace your logic step by step. Whereas in the
humanities, you just have to go with your gut and avoid overthinking things.
Of course, everything listed here is only a glimpse at all the differences there are between subjects. For the others, you will have to spot them as you go and be flexible enough to modify your studying habits accordingly.
- Beware of:
– “Group studying” – unless there is specifically a group project that you must
complete, we all know that studying around friends becomes more talk and less
work. When studying, focus all your attention; leave your phone far away.
– Listening to music, especially when there are lyrics. Almost all experts agree that
music distracts more than it helps with studying. Unless it is purely instrumental,
pull out the earphones.
– Online answering sites, such as Quora. Any troll could get on the internet and
pretend to know what they are doing in answering your questions, so don’t trust
it. Instead, talk to a teacher or a tutor or someone else you can see face to face.
Besides, the information will probably stick better that way.
-Losing common sense. Sometimes we focus so much on the little problem that we
almost get insane (just ask Mr Pryma about his story with the math 30-1 student
who said that ½ + ½ = ½). Don’t be afraid to use the street smarts too, and whip
out whatever previous knowledge you have – after all, we didn’t go to school for
10+ years for nothing.
– Pushing yourself too hard. If you’re feeling tired while studying, stop. Listen to
your internal cues and know yourself.
- Some extra little tidbits to finish:
-More time does not equal better memorization.
-TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. Drink water! Take your body weight in pounds and
divide it by two: that’s about how many ounces of water you should be drinking
every day (average drinking glasses are 12 ounces each). And, the big one we’ve
all heard many times: sleep! We should all be getting at least 5 sleep cycles every
night; that’s 7 and a half hours of sleep. Of course, we all know that sometimes
that just isn’t happening, and really as long as you’re getting the minimum of 3
sleep cycles (4 and a half hours) that you need to be functioning okay you’ll be
fine if you stay up later every once in a while. However, in the two days before
your exam, it is crucial that you are getting those 7 and a half hours (ideally even
9) if you want to perform to your best potential.
-Avoid comparing yourself to others. A lot of the hardcore people in my physics
class finished with the high 90s, and I could never feel satisfied with myself if I
constantly held myself to the same standards. Just do your best and know that
you have plenty of strengths too, even if you haven’t discovered them all yet.
-Prioritize. To-do lists are your friend.
– Leave yourself some breathing room! Don’t be so intense in your studying that it
stifles other areas of your life – allow yourself to genuinely enjoy what you are
Hopefully at least something in this long list was helpful to you. Have a wonderful,
successful rest of the semester!