Remember that the U.S. educational system rewards students who can study a large amount of material concerning a broad range of subjects, who can synthesize material from many sources, and who can take examinations effectively. These activities require skills that can be learned. Some of these skills are mentioned and briefly discussed here. The University Counseling Service and Tutor Iowa offers study-skills assistance.
Organizing Your Time
You will have a large amount of work to do and a limited amount of time in which to do it. In this situation, you need to use your time effectively. A good way to do that is to make yourself a weekly study schedule. Allot specified periods of time each day for studying. (A good general guideline: Undergraduates can assume they will need to spend at least two hours studying for each one hour they spend in class. Graduate students can assume at least three hours, and perhaps more.) Look at the course outlines (or "syllabi") you get at the opening of the term and notice how much you will need to read and how many things you will have to write for each class during the semester. Fill in your study schedule accordingly. Then follow the study schedule. If it appears later that your schedule is out of balance, with too much time devoted to some courses and not enough to others, modify your schedule and follow the new one. The University Counseling Service also have tips on planning a better schedule.
When you see the length of the reading lists your instructors give you, you will realize that it is not possible to memorize all of your reading materials for the semester, or even to study them in reasonable depth. That is not what you are expected to do. Instead, you are expected to familiarize yourself with the main points from each reading and often to be able to relate what one writer has said to what another writer has said. To draw the main points from a large number of readings, here are some things you can do:
Steps of the SQ3R Method (from Effective Study, by F.P. Robinson, New York, Harper’s 1961)
- Survey the chapter. Determine the structure, organization, or plan of the chapter. Details will be remembered because of their relationship to the total picture.
- Think about the title. Guess what will be included in the chapter.
- Read the introduction. This is where the main ideas are presented.
- Read the summary. Here is the relationship among the main ideas.
- Read the main heads. (bold-face type)
- Use the questions at the beginning or end of the chapter.
- Formulate questions by changing main-heads and sub-heads to questions. Having in mind a question results in: (1) a spontaneous attempt to answer with information already at hand; (2) frustration until the question is answered; (3) a criterion against which the details can be inspected to determine relevance and importance; (4) a focal point for crystallizing a series of ideas (the answer).
- Read. Read to answer the question. Move quickly. Sort out items and ideas and evaluate them. If content does not relate to the question, give it only a passing glance. Read selectively.
- Recite. Answer the question – in your own words, not the author’s. then:
- Write the question (on a sheet of paper to contain all the notes for this chapter – so, keep it brief – use abbreviations whenever possible).
- Write the answer using only key words, listings, etc., that are needed to recall the whole idea.
- Review. Increase retention and cut cramming time by 90% by means of immediate and delayed review. To do this:
- Read your written questions.
- Try to recite the answer. If you can’t, look at your notes. Five to ten minutes should be enough time for a chapter.
- Review again after one week.
Deriving as Much as Possible from Classes
Since attending and participating in classes is such an important part of the academic system here, it is wise to try to gain as much as possible from your classes. Here are some suggestions that will help you:
- Read in advance. If you have reading assignments that relate to a lecture you will hear in a class, do the reading before the class, so you will understand the lecture better. From the reading you might have questions to ask in the class.
- Take notes. Write down the main points that the lecturer makes. Many lecturers will use phrases that will help you identify the points they think are important and that you should therefore note.
- Review. After the class, go over your notes. Fill in things you left out. Mark things you still have questions about. Before class, spend ten to fifteen minutes reviewing your notes from the previous class. This helps you retain information and makes last-minute studying less necessary.
- Get help if you need it. If you have specific questions or if you are having general difficulty understanding what is happening in a class, get help. Talk to the instructor or the graduate teaching assistant. Try to find another student in the class who seems to understand better and who is willing to answer your questions. If you are having serious difficulties, consider going to the office of the appropriate academic department to see if they can help you identify a "tutor," that is, a person you can hire to work with you privately on the material that is being covered in the class.
- Try not to be discouraged. International students, especially new ones, will inevitably have some difficulties understanding what is happening in at least some of their classes. Many things contribute to this: The instructor talks too fast and/or does not give well-organized presentations; fellow students' comments are incomprehensible because they use so much slang; the entire setting seems strange and confusing. As time passes and you have more experience, these difficulties will diminish. Be patient.
Preparing for Quizzes and Examinations
Here are some suggestions that can help you cope with the many quizzes and examinations you will have at the University:
- Keep up to date on your studies. If you fall behind on your reading or assignments, you will have difficulty preparing adequately for tests.
- Schedule time to review. Before the test, go over your notes from lectures and readings. Try to anticipate what the instructor will ask on the test by recalling the points that were emphasized during lectures.
- Rest before the test. Most people perform better on tests if they have had adequate sleep the night before.
- The University Counseling Service (UCS) offers several handouts with many more helpful suggestions on preparing for examinations.