6 Prepare Your Strategy

Humans can complete more than one simple task at one time, which is called . For example if you were to walk and chew gum you would be multitasking. However, multitasking when one or more of the tasks are even slightly complex rarely saves time and usually results in lower quality outcomes.

Reinforcement Activity

Use a stopwatch to time yourself while you write down each letter of the alphabet in a row and then below that write each number from 1-26 in a row. Record your time on your paper.

Next you will recreate the same two rows of letters and number as before, only this time you will write a letter on the top row, then a number below, then a letter above, and so on. You’ve already done this once so if multitasking really is more efficient then you should be faster this time. Record your time for this trial.

Were you faster when multitasking? Was the quality of your work higher?

Don’t when studying. Spend at least twenty minutes of focused work on a single topic, then take a few minutes of relaxed reflection on your work before moving on to a new task. Even listening to music might be distracting if you are actively listening to the lyrics or trying to decide if you like the song. If you notice yourself thinking about the music and not the subject you are studying, you may need to try something new.

While new to a topic you don’t yet have the tools to correctly evaluate your own progress toward understanding. Put simply, when first starting out you don’t know what you don’t know, which can lead to overestimating your level of preparation until after an exam or other heavily weighted assignment. Receiving on your progress early and often will help you to avoid this barrier to success. Your instructor might provide early and often feedback in the form of quizzes, online homework, tutorials, in-class practice problems, and clicker questions, to name a few. You should actively seek out early and often feedback by attempting the example problems in the book before looking at the solutions, starting your homework early, and asking questions during your instructor’s office hours.

In order to make the most of the feedback you receive you should practice . In other words, don’t just think, also think about how you are thinking[1]. When learning something new, consider why you are going to learn it. Make a plan for how to learn it. Assess your progress in learning it and identify ways to improve your plan. When you think you already know something, stop and ask yourself how, why, and when you came to know it. Reflect on what information that knowledge is based, where the information came from, and how you might verify the information. Metacognition can help you recognize when you don’t yet have enough information to make a good decision, so it might significantly improve your learning and help you avoid barriers to success, both in school and in life. For more information check out this detailed resource on metacognition.

You should adopt a that avoids , but includes early and often along with meta-cognition (just by reading this section you are already engaging in light metacognition). Start by first attempting to understand concepts with aid from various resources. Assess your knowledge by applying it to new situations, and then use the assessment results for . Seek help from your instructor on concepts that aren’t yet clear. Review material that you figured out you don’t yet know, and then repeat. The various activities in your courses are already structured to facilitate exactly that process.  The diagram below is an example study cycle that would likely be effective in most science courses. Notice that the majority of activities provide feedback. Anytime feedback is provided you should employ metacognition and evaluate the effectiveness of your study methods. The chart that follows gives specific tips on maximizing the impact of each part of the cycle.

A timeline of an example study cycle. The order of activities is: read, play with simulations, start homework, watch videos, ask question in lecture, visit office hours, take quizzes and do pre-labs, continue homework, work on labs, tutorials, and projects, continue homework, visit office hours, finish homework, repeat. Each stage of the cycle fulfills one or more of the following tasks: information transfer, self-paced practice, interactive practice, assessment and feedback.
Effective study cycle. the color coded legend bubbles indicate the purpose behind activities in introductory courses. The totals at the bottom indicate the number of activities that fulfill each purpose. Notice that most activities provide some form of feedback that can be used in a metacognitive process.
WATCH Write down questions about what you didn’t understand.

Write down words and concepts that seem important so that you can look for those during lecture and while reading.

ATTEND Attend lectures and pay attention. Ignore your phone and stay awake.

Try not to take comprehensive notes. Instead actively process lecture material by relating it to your own experiences, anticipating the instructor’s next move, participating in practice calculations, and asking questions.

Only write down the most important and most confusing ideas so you can revisit them later.

READ Use the textbook/instructor’s notes as your primary resource, not your own notes.

Read the chapter outcomes so you know what you are expected to learn

Look up words you don’t know and write down questions you have so you can ask during lecture or office hours.

Look out for the concepts you wrote down from videos and lecture.

Don’t skip example problems and example scenarios.

If a question is asked, stop and answer it out loud or in writing.

ASSESS Do what you can to contribute equally to labs and projects. Check to see if you can explain to others how lab activities and projects are related to specific concepts.

Try to solve example problems in the book without looking at the solution first.

Start your homework early. See how far you can get on your own before asking for help. Use this as an indicator of gaps in your knowledge.

Ask your instructor or a tutor for homework help before asking classmates. They will help you fill in knowledge gaps differently than classmates will.

Work on homework with your classmates. Don’t look at solutions from classmates who are already finished or solutions posted/provided on-line. These will prevent you from accurately evaluating your level of preparation.

Take in-class questions and quizzes seriously. Use your scores to tell you what you need to study again.

Check your overall grade often and talk with your instructor about your progress and your goals.

ADJUST Use your exam and overall grade to determine if your study strategy is working. Ask your instructor for help making adjustments if it’s not.
REVIEW Use the results of your evaluations to determine what specific material you need to review and ask your instructor about.
REPEAT Repeat this cycle for each week, chapter, module, or other method of organizing material used by your instructor.

You should also repeat the previous three steps prior to an exam.


  1. "Metacognition" by Nancy Chick, Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and Learning is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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