How to study right is one of the most critical skills you’ll ever develop. Why? Because you want the best pick of graduate jobs or the best entry internship gig. But the real meat of it is because learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom or late at night beneath the harsh glare of library lighting or even amid the seven empty espresso cups decorating the table at your co-working space.
Learning happens everywhere, and when you can grab a pocketful of good study habits, you’ll find that learning transpires without all the, well, effort. Why are you studying right now? To get the job you want. To get the most out of the education you’re paying for. To pass tomorrow’s midterm––that might be your most pressing reason––but the former two are the motivation for developing the right study habits.
If the idea of studying studying sounds boring to you, don’t worry, that’s not what this blog is about. Trust us, we’ve been there. Heck, as a start-up company, we are there––perpetually. From years spent developing industry intimacy to build our business, we’ve had to collaborate with business, industry, and ourselves. We know a lot about how to motivate ourselves to work in a way that ignites our minds, motivates our butts, and produces the results we want.
First, let's talk about what integrated learning is and how to understand it ...
What is Integrated Learning?
Have you ever noticed that you understand concepts better when they’re personally relevant, or when you’ve had a chance to somehow engage with them? That’s because knowledge sinks in when it’s meaningful to us, when it has some practical application. Now, you might be wondering, how the heck can I make E=MC2 personally significant? I don’t know because I’m not a physics student nor an interested candidate (ignoring that physics defines the material and meta worlds, of course), but I do know that everyone has a certain degree of resourcefulness. That resourcefulness is our ability to seek out information and use it in new and creative ways.
We are already equipped with a unique set of knowledge that has been constructed throughout our lives. How that all comes together is, essentially, the basis for integrative learning.
It’s connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar, finding similarities between two contradictory ideas, likewise, finding the contrast between two things that appear the same on the surface.
It’s about diving into those ideas that disrupt what you know.
It’s about taking an idea or a piece of information and dissecting it into as many parts as necessary to make it its own discipline.
Then, you reach out with tentacles of curiosity to explore each piece with critical interest and discard what’s not necessary to focus on what is.
Remember it like this: Disrupt, Dissect, Discard.
The first two insights up ahead sound a little juvenile at first glance, and that’s exactly what we require to become engaged with what we’re learning. Consider how crap-in-his-pants excited a child is to learn some of the most boring stuff. That’s the kind of attitude you want to wear when you approach studying. And as adults, we have the advantage of meta-cognition, that is, the ability to think about how we think. We can analyze our own brains, essentially attempting to figure out the very thing that seeks to figure itself out.
But okay, before we go too far down that rabbit hole, let’s stick to the plan: How to study right.
#1 Be Curious (It Engages)
Knowing your learning passion is a privilege not afforded to everyone on the planet. Some people know exactly what they want to do, be, or discover, and off they go in pursuit of it with a to-do list they can refer to at every checkpoint. Others (ahem) are fortunate in a different kind of way. They wander into higher education having a sense of what they want, but their view is murky and they need active engagement with many ideas to find clarity or simply stumble upon an answer. And they may find that answer changes several times throughout their lives.
Whatever your situation is, it affects how you learn. No matter what you’ve chosen to do, go wandering, in both a broad and specific-to-the-task manner. You never know what is going to come up and how it is going to connect in a meaningful way. When you’re studying for an exam or reviewing lecture notes, find those connections that make the information relevant to you.
#2 Ask Why (It Motivates)
When I was researching for my graduate thesis, my supervisor urged me to challenge each of my interviewees’s responses with one simple word: Why. The problem is that this question makes most of us squirm in our seats. Why? Because we don’t know, and that’s a tough thing to realize. Think about how irritating it is when your socially-undeveloped little five-year-old nephew continually responds with why why why to everything you say to him. But how much does that also make you think? You have to dig deeper and deeper, not just to uncover some hidden meaning––there isn’t always one––but to discover a different way to explain an idea or concept, which inspires a different understanding. Our thoughts and words get in our own way sometimes. Asking why forces us to break complex concepts down into digestible little chunks of ideas that, in the process, become quite fascinating. When we’re fascinated by something, we simply want more of it and we’re motivated to get it.
#3 Create a Suggestive Environment (It Prepares)
A suggestive environment is one that is set up for you to succeed. It may not look like a traditional learning environment and that’s fine. If it does, that’s okay too. The point is that it prepares you to work. How are you most comfortable staying alert? This is an important question and another way to consider it is, in what position are you most effective? Comfort is relative to the environment and the task; so is effectiveness.
When I’m prepping to sleep, lying down in a cozy bed with good pillows is perfect. But when I’m studying or working, I’m most effective sitting upright in a chair that supports my posture, at a table of the right height so I don’t get dead arm from typing or pinched nerves from sitting cross-legged. If I confuse my sleeping position with my study posture, I don’t do either one particularly well.
Now you might be thinking duh, and I would be too, if I hadn’t experienced how easy it is to make that mistake. You might be cool with a chilled-out study space, and if that works for you, then leverage it. But it’s important to know the difference (be honest with yourself) and prepare an environment that supports your learning.
#4 Know Your Learning Behavior (It Informs)
This is not about learning theory or fitting you into a learning-style identity box on account of a quiz you completed. Knowing how you learn starts with an awareness of yourself. What inspires your curiosity? What prevents you from meeting your goals? Are you a hard-ass self-disciplinarian or a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants procrastinator? If you don’t know because you’re new to higher education or because you haven’t paid much attention to yourself, just observe your behaviour for a few days and notice what you do when it comes time to study. Do you dive into your books with the enthusiasm of a first-grader? Or does doing the dishes suddenly take priority? And, we can’t help but ask:
Do you turn off the notifications on your phone?
Then, zero in on the details. Are you a pen-to-paper person? Do you strictly learn from your laptop? Do you prefer to listen or read? Write or dictate? Highlight or circle? Do your preferences produce the desired results (remember what the suggestive learning environment is about).
#5 Define Your Tasks (It Clarifies)
This may sound somewhat contradictory to our advice to wander with your curiosity leading the way. But it’s not. There is a time to zone in and a time to allow for some free flowing engagement to happen. Know which one is required at a given time. Learning shouldn’t always be about what you have to do. If it is, you’ll find it becomes as dry and dull as chewing a wet wool sock.
Ask yourself, what must get done tomorrow, the day after, this week? Then break it down into a series of tasks. This helps clarify what you need to do, how much time you need, and its contribution to the bigger picture.
#6 Find Your Flow (It Produces)
Bonuses are always necessary. We work well when rewards are part of the picture. As you dive into your next study session with this new mindset, you may discover that your flow state is its own reward for study.
Flow state is when you completely immerse yourself in a task. It’s what positive psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, defines as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best” (1). Sounds pretty good, right? Now that might seem to apply to many things (I’ll leave that to your imagination) but when it comes to studying, a lot of it has to do with your degree of focus because that predicts how involved you’ll be in the act of studying. When you’re truly involved, one thought flows into the next, actions are seamless movements, and ideas breed boundlessly.
So, find your focus. Use these insights to integrate your knowledge and create your best possible study habits. Make learning a free-flowing process all the time, whether you’re actively studying or not. You’ll not only pass that exam, you’ll create the right cognitive and behavioral conditions for completing your education, landing the job you want, and progressing in your career, whatever it is.