Anatomy of Study
When I was a little boy I sometimes pretended to read a book even before starting school, before I knew one word. One time I realized that my book was upside down, damaging my self-esteem and probably giving reason for a deferential nod from one of my aunts.
After learning, more or less, how to read, it was fun to decipher words and letters, but then people wanted me to tell them about what I had read. My brain was all used up in the reading, thus I found it difficult to draw out the meaning too. For a while I was convinced that a conspiracy was afoot. There was some kind of a disconnect between reading words and recalling afterward what they had all said.
I did not understand what exactly was meant by studying. Was it enough to just look serious? Was it carrying books around? Did scribbling on a pad help? I knew how to listen pretty well and keeping up my interest wasn’t a problem, but as subjects became increasingly complicated I began to lose ground.
If an assignment was given I knew that the pages were to be read. That was the easy part. Organizing and assimilating the content of my reading was the puzzle. How was I to remember what the chapter said, especially when the class got to chapter thirty? How could I know what the teacher would expect?
Looking back on the early days of schooling I must admit to a cardinal sin of youth. My concentration was on doing assignments, performance of duty, not on learning. Gaining knowledge was only a by-product of my school day. The main task was perceived as three fold, producing papers, thinking of an answer when called on by the teacher [to ward off trouble] and not getting caught doing something that was against the rules. It is a wonder that I learned much of anything.
Godly parents and teachers made up for some of my deficiencies. Needless pain, fear and midnight oil helped to cure some poor habits. The mistakes of youth, however, can be a catalyst to assist others to do better. After many fruitful years of schooling I have developed a workable plan for study.
A Plan for Effective Study
1. Be ready to write when you read.
This creates a posture of expectation. You are looking for something and will want to write it down.
Just one word is enough sometimes. Perhaps two or three will be better. After each paragraph or so think of how to tell yourself what the author said. When you read the very first paragraph in the Bible you could say that God created the world. Light was first. The sun and planets came next, then solid ground. He made water, fish, birds and animals. Finally, He created man. God was pleased. He said it was all very good.
Reviewing that little outline a week later, even a child could recall some kind of order as well as the main fact that God created the world.
Most textbooks already have headings in darker print. Use these at first to make a grid on which more information can be filled-in.
2. Mark what you read.
Like a treasure hunter, leave tracks everywhere so that you can find your way back. Use highlighters, underline with red pencil or make notations in the margin of your book. This helps to relocate a thought or explanation.
In class always listen for what the instructor thinks is special. If the teacher talks a lot about yellow butterflies, then yellow butterflies are something that you want to carefully note in your reading and in marking your text.
3. Practice working backwards.
What do teachers or parents usually ask about? Think about what they usually ask? Which facts will probably come up in discussion or on a test? It’s important to be looking for something. Wandering about, with paragraphs towering all around and words proliferating, will not help at all.
A Reading Example:
When we read a story or a work of literature we will be expected to know who the characters were. In the Story of King Arthur we meet Uther-Pendragon and Lady Igraine. These people are a noble king, the overlord of England and a beautiful and gentle woman who became the king’s wife and the mother of Arthur.
What is the story about? Answer: The king would fall sick and die, but his son would be hidden and protected from evil men who wanted to take over the kingdom. Arthur would grow up and continue the good rule of his father.
What should we know? Answer: Who are all the people? What do they do? Why and how do they do it? How do these things relate to other ideas that we have heard about? Where is another place that we read about a savior king who had to be hidden at birth so he could grow up and rescue his kingdom?
An Example from Science:
Today we read about butterflies, a genus (category) of insect. Many are yellow, like butter. They have four wings, spiral tongues, and hairy bodies. Butterflies lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars [crysalids] that turn into butterflies again.
Insect (Latin) means cut-in. The body appears to be almost divided. Most have articulated (sectioned) limbs and antennae. Some breathe by gills. Most pass through three metamorphoses [stages], the larva, chrysalis and the insect stage. The butterfly is an example.
4. Finally, retrace your steps.
Look back over the notes you have taken to see if you can recreate the ideas, names, especially important facts, terminology, etc. Go over the reading, revisiting the marked areas and margin notes you have made. Check on words that you didn’t know. Use the dictionary or the glossary in the back of the text. (Stopping to look up a word seals its meaning and significance in the mind.) Get someone to ask you questions about the chapter. Talking about an assignment will always help to solidify your knowledge.
When you can only listen the challenge changes somewhat. Note first the general subject to be covered. The preacher announces his text or the teacher introduces a topic. Teacher says, "Today I will talk about the book by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death."
Idea: even war is a media event today. The ability to communicate quickly brings distant action up close right away. People are accustomed to seeing immediately, not learning over time, not reading the details. We receive most news by means of pictures, which are symbols
Of course, much more is needed in order to have an effective study method. Research requires a procedure all its own, though it would not be totally different from what is outlined above. Concentration is crucial. Pray for the grace to concentrate on your subject for 30 minutes or an hour. Don’t pray for a snow day or good luck on a test. Neatness helps very much because it means that you will be able to find the good tracks that you left a week or a month ago. Faithfulness and regularity are important contributors. Reliability is reflected in our approach to studying. Perseverance is the major aspect of what is most important. Anyone with a degree in perseverance is a valuable person. Little boys and girls learn quite early that pretending isn't enough, and with a few good tricks they can learn to become excellent students.