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Study Hacks Every College Student Should Know

These study hacks are good enough to use all the time. And the real deal behind how they work will blow your mind.

I graduated Summa Cum Laude from Brookdale Community College in NJ and was awarded the Outstanding Student Award in the Social Sciences and Education Division. I was then accepted to a couple Ivy League institutions, but ended up going to Rutgers University because the Ivies wanted to saddle me with crushing debt. 

I graduated Rutgers Summa Cum Laude, with honors, and managed to snag the only award they gave out to philosophy majors. What I'm trying to say is that I'm good at academia. Here are the study hacks that made me so successful.  

The meaning of a word is its use.

One of the skills I acquired as a philosophy major was the ability to effectively summarize historically complicated concepts. I'm going to share with you now the fundamental insight by the philosopher of language Wittgenstein. All the other study hacks are extrapolations of this insight. Also, you're welcome for sparing you a 400 level philosophy class.

Wittgenstein began his career by positing that language exists in a one-to-one relationship with the world such that a word was like a picture of what it represented in reality. Hence, this was called the Picture Map Theory of language. The word "dog" meant dog because the word was a picture of a dog. The problem with this theory is that you already had to know how to use the picture map; otherwise, it means nothing. Just imagine the experience of looking at a text in a foreign language. You don't know what to do with that language!

Wittgenstein would later abandon the Picture Map Theory and propose that the meaning of a word was its use, with use determined by appeal to context and intention. This theory is an actually accurate description of how we both encounter and acquire language and information. It's this insight that was key to all my academic success.

The Picture Map Theory is like rote memorization. It takes you partway, but it's not why you're able to ace your tests. If rote memorization works at all it's because you're learning how to use information. Same thing with taking notes. So just study in the same way you'd internalize information if you didn't have to do it for school. Study how you'd study if you were learning something for fun. 

Speak out loud instead of just reading.

A lot of times when you read something you're trying to commit it to memory or understand it at the same time you're reading it. Those processes get in the way of internalizing what you're reading. Just think of it as learning how to shoot a basketball. You'd never take a shot if you were trying to figure out how to sink that rock on your first try. Instead, the first time you're reading something is just that: the first time.

Understanding something really means re-explaining it in your own words—meaning showing someone else how you use that information. That means you know how to use what you know well enough to use it in your own way. When you put something to use in that way you do it by telling somebody about it or writing it out, so approximate that process by reading your notes out loud. 

Studies show that you're almost 50% more likely to demonstrate understanding on a test if you read the material out loud. That's one of my study hacks! And, remember, you are demonstrating understanding. No one cares if you can mimic a text. Parrots can mimic things but we don't give them degrees.

Teach someone what you've learned.

If the meaning of a word is its use, then show someone how to use those words. Call a friend or family member and teach them what you've learned. Or join a study group! That way you'll all be talking about what you're studying and, in doing so, end up teaching each other how to use what you've learned. That's one of those study hacks that's also a friendship hack!

Walk before an exam.

We all know that exercise improves memory and brain power in general. So, take a walk before your exam. Or take a walk while talking about what you're studying because kinetics occupies that part of your brain that keeps you out of "flow," the mental state we're in when we're being creative. AKA "being in the zone."

What the best exercises for your brain have in common is that you do them regularly. That way you subject your body to stress and, in doing so, your body gets used to being stressed out and handles it better. That's a study hack and a life hack! 

Spoiler alert: study hacks are lifehacks. Learning how to use information is a fundamental facet of the human condition, its something we do with others, and it's something we most often do unconsciously. 

Take study breaks.

Every 45 to 50 minutes, take a break. It's just like how you should be looking away from your computer screen after extended periods or getting up and walking around after sitting for a while. In general, your brain's gonna be kinda fried after 1.5 hours. Also, it's unnatural! 

In what context other than a lecture are you going to spend 1.5 hours just being inundated with information? That's worthless! You're not going to get anything out of that because you're just making yourself miserable. Study hacks 101: if meaning is use and studying is practice, then chill out and do something else for a while. Ain't no thang but a chicken wang!

Learn by "chunking."

Everything is made out of smaller parts. The same goes for the information you're studying. So make use of this underlying principal by allowing the natural divisions that exist between ideas to inform how you study things. That's one of those study hacks that's also a metaphysics hack!

Don't stay up all night before an exam.

You need sleep! Learning new info is like working out in that if you're pumping iron you need some solid Zzzzs for what you've trained to recuperate. The same goes for everything! There is no problem that isn't helped with a good night's sleep. That's one of those study hacks a doctor would give you. 

Watch out for the forgetting curve.

Every article about study hacks tells you that reviewing information will help you dodge the "forgetting curve." But we know that reviewing information is really using information. So keep thinking about your studies, talking with people, practicing, writing, etc. 

It's all about developing muscle memory so that you do what you do without thinking about it. Just take a look at 7 top players and their good luck rituals. They do that so they can stop thinking and get in the zone. And that's what you're tapping into every time you review. Sports hacks are study hacks too!

Music in the background.

Playing music softly in the background is another way to get into and stay in flow. You can also leave the TV on in the background. Just don't focus on the TV or music more than on your studies! 

You can also do chores like washing dishes, dusting, or vacuuming; or cardio. No, this isn't one of those study hacks that your parents came up with to get you to do chores. Chores just happen to be the sort of activities that have the effect of occupying the part of your mind that gets in the way of internalizing info.

Studying is all about getting to a place where you're able to speak the language of whatever subject your studying with the same spontaneity you discuss any of your hobbies. 

Consume other related materials.

If you hate your major or your class, this is one of those study hacks that may not appeal to you because the last thing you want is to listen to a podcast or watch a movie about your studies. But if that doesn't describe you then it's time to Netflix and learn.

 If you're a business major sit down with the business documentaries to watch on Netflix, if you're a computer science major watch the best documentaries about hacking and hackers, and if you're in a gender studies class, check out the feminist documentaries everyone should see

Getting a lot of perspectives and getting a more fleshed out view of what you're learning will help you immensely. After all, the meaning of a word is its use and use is always embedded in a pre-existing context. Get that context and get those As! 

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