Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | June 6, 2008

How to Study: The Great Migration I

How to Study:  The Great Migration 1

The Great Migration.  Nope; I don’t mean the migration of African Americans out of the South.  Nope; I don’t mean the migration resulting from the Irish famine.  Nope; I don’t mean the migration of Puritans out of England.  And, nope; I am not referring to monarch butterflies, salmon or wildebeests.

The Great Migration I have in mind is the migration of words (or more accurately, information) from authors and teachers to the pages of textbooks and notebooks, then into the heads of students, and finally back to teachers as answers to test questions.  So, the process of studying includes a great ‘cattle drive’ with you as its most distinguished destination.

However, not every migration is successful.  Some salmon never make it back upstream, some information never makes it into your head, and some students fail their exams.  Why are some students successful while others fail?

True, people vary in their native intelligence, but most learning requires you to use only a fraction of your gray matter.  Much of the time it does not matter that your IQ is 100 while Milhouse’s IQ is 160.  No, the big difference between students who are successful and those who are not lies in their study habits.  Good study habits have a very practical basis.

Practical tenets

First practical tenet—your brain can only absorb so much information at any one time.  Want a demonstration?  Try to repeat a random 12-digit number that someone reads to you.  You probably won’t be able to do it.  However, it is no problem—for most of us—to remember 4-digit numbers.  And, you can remember three 4-digit numbers quite easily, which gets you your 12-digit number.

Memorizing the 12-digit number is like eating an entire sub sandwich in two minutes.  You might be able to do it, but then it won’t be as satisfying as taking your time.

The application of this practical tenet is that in order to learn a ‘chunk of material’ you need to give yourself enough time to break it down into manageable pieces to learn over a suitable period of time.  Corollary: Do not cram the night before an exam!

Second, most psychologists distinguish between short-term and long-term memory.  The important point being that things in your short-term memory are easily lost to you once you are no longer using them (e.g., those 4-digit numbers in your short term memory are now probably long gone).  However, if information makes it into long-term memory it will stay there permanently (e.g., your phone number or the spelling of the word ‘alphabet’).

The application of this practical tenet is to give information time to move from your short-term to your long-term memory.  Have you ever attempted to answer a question on an exam and ‘drawn a blank’, having the answer on the tip of your tongue but not able to access it? Likely, it was information that never made it to your long-term memory.  So, help information get there by repeatedly working with it over a period of time.  For learning situations faced by most students that period of time seems to be at least 24-hours.

That leads to the 24-hour rule; complete your studying (the learning part) at least 24-hours before an exam.  In that way, everything will have time to migrate to your long term memory.  Corollary: Do not cram the night before an exam!!

Third, psychologists have long known that sleep-deprived people have poor cognitive skills.  They don’t think right.  The funny thing is, everyone can see it except the person who is sleep-deprived.  If you need convincing about this watch the PBS Frontline videos ‘Inside the Teenage Brain’, especially the segment From Zzzzz’s to A’s ( ).

The  application of this practical tenet is that you should do as your mother always told you—get to bed, you’ll be fresh as a daisy in the morning.  If it’s early to bed, then instead of studying late into the night, you will need to budget for more days of study before that exam.  Corollary: Do not cram the night before an exam!!!

Study Strategy

I suppose you can see where this is going.  Studying begins when your teacher first gives/assigns material to you, and not just before the exam.

It starts with good note-taking skills (see the note-taking links under STUDY TIPS in the column on the right.).  I highly recommend that you follow either the Cornell or Modified Cornell method described in those links.  [A great PPT presentation on the Cornell system is provided by the San Diego County Office of Education— , or see the link Note Taking 5 under STUDY TIPS.]  Moreover, I recommend that you get into the habit of copying your notes over (and expanding them with additional information) within one day of when you originally took them.

Ok, so that’s not much of a strategy; but, it’s a start. Your strategy needs to fit your circumstances, so it must be tailored to you.  How do you develop your personal strategy? First look at your courses and your extra-curricular activities so you can determine how much time you have for study.  Then, visit these links (taking their advice to heart): Note-taking 1, Note-taking 2, Note-taking 3 and How to Study.  You can find them in the column on the right, under STUDY TIPS.  Pay close attention to Rapaport’s ‘How to Study’ website; it will set you on the right track.

Refining your study skills is a never-ending task.  You will find that the need to update and improve your skills will stay with you for as long as you are ready to learn.  The key is to be motivated.  A motivated student with a good study strategy will out-perform a less motivated student every time.

One last important point—unlike people, butterflies, salmon and wildebeests, the migration of information does not take place of its own accord.  It is only through your own will and hard work that you will learn—Nil sine magno labore (Nothing without great effort).


If you still want more information, check out What Smart Students Know, by Adam Robinson and Making the Most Out of College, by Richard Light.

Also see, How to Study: The Great Migration II—

[BTW, my preference for notebooks is a pressboard report cover with prong fasteners .   Get the kind in which the front and back covers are two separate pieces held together by the prongs; you can fit more papers in them than the one-piece cover kind.  I fill them with a bunch of loose-leaf notebook paper for taking notes.  I also punch holes in any handouts from the teacher —syllabi, notes, even quizzes and exams—and stick them into the notebook as well.  (If you reverse the prong fasteners, when you add new material to the notebook it will go in the back without first having to remove all of the previous handouts and notes.) Whenever, I want to study I simply pickup the notebook—I use one notebook per course—and I have everything I need.  An added feature is that if I accidentally leave the notebook at home, I can borrow some loose-leaf for note-taking and add it to the notebook later. Last, but not least, prong fastener notebooks are not as bulky as ring binders; they fit more easily into backpacks.]


  1. […] can do it, your salmon have made it upstream (see the post, How to Study: The Great Migration I, , for an explanation of that metaphor)! […]

  2. […] […]

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