In brief, an approach to learning means what aims you have for studying and how you study. Are you able to understand the studied contents profoundly and thoroughly? Or is your goal to simply remember things by heart for an exam instead? When studying, do you take lot of personal notes and/or make mind maps of the studied topics, trying to perceive connections between the studied contents and applying them into practice? Or does your study merely consist of reading a book, listening to a lecture or completing the given assignments without further thought to why you are doing the assignments? Your answer to the aforementioned questions gives information about your approach to learning and also predicts your academic performance! Sometimes it can make sense to take the easy way out and learn a few pointers by heart for an exam. Nevertheless, developing in-depth expertise and academic performance at the university require long-term, personal endeavour to understand studied topics, even difficult ones. Read about different approaches to learning and try to recognise what you aim to achieve with your studies and how you study. Also consider how you could develop your own skills in building your personal understanding of the learned topics.
In addition to these pages, you can find good tips in e.g.:
- Student of Technology Tommi Valkonen's Superstudent
- Ryti, K. ja Uusitalo, A. (2001) Antoisampaan opiskeluun (in Finnish)
- Hakkarainen, K., Lonka, K. & Lipponen, L. 1999. Tutkiva oppiminen. Älykkään toiminnan rajat ja niiden ylittäminen. Porvoo: WSOY
- Svinhufvud, K. (2015) Gradutakuu (in Finnish)
How do you study?
When studying, is your aim to deeply understand what you are studying? Do you strive to combine the study contents into a personal whole that makes sense to you? Are you trying to understand the backgrounds and general principles of phenomena? When you are studying, do you often find yourself asking 'why' questions? Do you often find yourself reflecting on where the information comes from and how have the contents and phenomena been discovered? Do you take personal notes / make mind maps / underline text while you are studying? Do you often discuss what you are studying together with your friends or apply what you have learned in solving practical problems? If you said 'yes' to the questions above, you are using a deep approach to learning in your study. This is an often fairly laborious learning method, but will result in good learning outcomes in the long run. At times, it might be appropriate to conduct studies in a slightly more superficial way so that studying does not become too stressful; however, understanding and learning critical thinking is at the heart of university studies. If this method of study is unfamiliar to you, you can start practising it, for instance, using the following technique:
- Change the main and sub headings of a course book or lecture into personal questions
- First, answer the questions briefly off the top of your head
- Use this as a basis for outlining what you know about the topic and what not, and create new questions for yourself on the uncertain subjects
- Start going through the course book or lecture material, trying to find answers to the questions.
- Make personal notes on what new things you have learned. Did new questions arise to which you have no answers yet? Next, immerse yourself in these questions? Did you already get a taste of an increasingly in-depth way of building knowledge and get to experience the joy of learning new things properly?
Do you use a lot of time and effort to studying? Do you make clear plans for studying and think carefully how you use the hours of your day? Do you aim to be an organised and systematic student? Is completing studies according to timetables important to you? If you said yes to the questions above, you are using an organised approach to studying. Studying in such an organised way is a very central study skill at the university as academic work is often independent and requires good self-management skills. Indeed, it is no wonder that organised students are often very successful in their studies.
If you are not yet used to planning your studies, it is advisable to start practising it as soon as possible. A lot of good tips are available at the Self-management and time management section of these pages.
Do you perceive university studies as a series of separate facts you must learn by heart? When studying, do you mostly aim to know the study contents in a test / exam and then forget about them? Do you think that the teachers know the subjects and that facts can be found in books, and that your task as a student is to remember and learn the facts as they are stated in the books and presented in the lectures? Do you tend to repeatedly cram the topics of study into your head so that you would remember them? Does studying usually consist of just reading or listening or completing given assignments for you? Do you feel like it is difficult for you to manage the topics of learning? If you said 'yes' to the questions above, you are probably using a surface approach to learning in your study. This kind of an approach may work reasonably, for instance, in upper secondary school or in some individual university course that is not particularly important and meaningful for you. However, if your entire university studies look like this, it is likely that you a struggling in your studies.
Sometimes this sort of a studying method is legacy of upper secondary school studies or caused by being in a hurry. Sometimes poor background knowledge or personal belief of not being a good enough student leads to such a study method. On the other hand, sometimes a difficult life situation may result in not having enough strength to study issues in a versatile and in-depth manner, but, instead, with more focus on learning things by heart.
It is highly important for university studies that you are not even attempting to learn things by heart. It is more important to perceive what is central to the learning subject and make efforts to understand this. It is similarly important to combine the subjects of learning into entities and aims to see beyond individual issues and learn to perceive general laws and principles underlying the issues. In case you feel that you do not have enough time or resources for using a deep approach to learning at the moment, it is advisable that you think about where you could find time and resources for studying. If you have time and resources for studying, but nevertheless use a surface approach to learning, you can start practising a different approach to studying using the following methods:
- Find out information about what is central to the courses or exercises. The main contents of courses should be explained in study guides and course materials, and teachers and often also students who have already taken the course also know what is essential in the course and what is not.
- Build your understanding on core subjects by drawing, writing or outlining graphs.
- Practise asking questions about the studied subject, initially by answering the questions yourself and subsequently by seeking the missing information from different sources: textbooks, friends, teachers, online...
Try to determine where the information in the textbook comes from, who has written the text and what has he or she been trying to communicate?
The basic studies of a number of degree programmes include studies in mathematics. As many students often initially struggle with these studies, this section deals with studying mathematics as a separate whole.
Learning to become a good student in mathematics takes some practice. The courses in mathematics comprise of a number of different building blocks: lectures, calculation exercises and course material. The different sections support one another. In mathematics, new knowledge is always built on what you already know and thus constant practising is important. Completing calculation exercises throughout the entire course is therefore recommended. Studying together improves learning outcomes. The calculation workshop will help in problem areas.
Practise in suitable portions and regularly
It is better to study reasonable amounts often than large amounts rarely. The brain learns from repetition and cannot adopt a large amount of information at once in a deep way. When you encounter assignments that you were unable to calculate before the calculation exercises, it is worth calculating them again after the exercise session. Do not settle for model solutions, but solve exercises by yourself instead. Learning requires a routine of calculating.
Learning together pays off
Studying mathematics does not need to be a lonely, laborious effort. You will reach better learning outcomes when studying together with others. Making agreements on the time of study together motivates getting on with the work. Sharing experiences and tips for study supports learning and coping, and spending time at the school is more pleasant when students know each other. Giving justifications to arriving at your own solutions also develops personal thinking. When studying together, it is advisable that everyone is working to solve the same assignment at the same time, simultaneously discussing how they end up with the solution. Dividing an assignment into sections so that each person is responsible for different steps and compiling the solution at the end of the process is not the best way for utilising learning in a group.
If you do not understand, ask questions
At some point of theirs studies, everyone will end up in a situation where learning something feels too difficult despite all the hard effort. This is when you have to ask for help. Do not hesitate to ask for help from your peer students, teachers or tutors. Go to the calculation workshop. Keep asking for help for as long as it takes to understand the subject. Think about whether learning the issue is difficult because you have failed to learn some previous skill related to the subject or you still need more practice in the area.
In the calculation workshop (in finnish = laskutupa) you may carry out mathematics exercises independently or together with others. An assistant providing help to students is also present at the workshop.
To support mathematics study and revision:
To revise upper secondary school mathematics: Pikku-M
Bachelor's and master's theses are normally among the most laborious efforts during the university studies, and many kinds of expectations, beliefs and experiences are related to them. When starting the thesis writing process, it is worth remembering that you do not have to know how thesis work is conducted at the beginning of the thesis process. Once you are finished with your thesis, you can be sure that you know enough about what it takes to complete one! All you need at the beginning is to start working on the thesis.
Numerous guides have been written for those working on their theses, providing plenty of tips to writing and the entire process. For example, Gradutakuu by Kimmo Svinhufvud (in Finnish) is a good guide
Nevertheless, keep in mind that a thesis is not completed by reading guides, but by working on the thesis and writing it. If the final thesis process gets stuck for one reason or another, seek low threshold help: from your (study) mates, advisors, teachers, relatives or, for instance, a study psychologist.
Do you sometimes feel that you cannot memorise the studied subject? Or is it in fact more a case of the information not sticking in your mind in the first place? What is remembering, really, and how could it be improved?
What is memory and how much can you fit there?
Memory is closely connected to learning and studying. Memory is considered to be divided into short-term working memory and long-term memory. Working memory processes information from the senses and long-term memory until this is either stored in the long-term memory or lost from the person's mind. Maintenance of knowledge in the working memory is a precondition for thinking, inference, learning and problem solving.
Working memory has a limited capacity. We are able to keep only around 5–7 units of information in the working memory, i.e. under conscious processing. Working memory is used, for example when you repeat a phone number in your mind while looking for a pen and paper. It is also a case of working memory when you are trying to solve a mathematics exercise in your head without any assistance. In order to learn things in-depth, processing the information into a form that can be carried over from the working memory to long-term memory is required. The capacity of long-term memory is considered to be limitless.
What is going wrong when remembering things is difficult?
There is slight variation in memory capacity between individuals. However, when you are struggling with remembering things while studying, it is usually not a case of a problem in memory capacity. The problem is usually in the study technique. The materials studied in the university are usually so extensive that, during the learning process, students must work on them in their minds into such a form that it can be stored into the long-term memory and can be retrieved and applied from there. In addition to this processing, paying attention and personal well-being significantly influence remembering.
How should the studied matter be processed in order to facilitate remembering it, then? Learning by heart can be useful in remembering small, isolated details, but it will not work on the long run. In order to transfer information to long-term memory, it is advisable to apply and link the knowledge to what has been previously learned already at the study stage. By considering what subjects you already know could be related to the topic of learning, what you already know about the topic, or what you do not know about it yet while studying, you are already creating memorising paths to your memory. You can also help bringing the topic to mind later by figuring out why the studied topic is important, how it is useful, or how it could be related to your life.
Paying attention affects remembering: Does your mind wander during lectures or when studying for an examination? If you are paying attention to something other than the subject of study, it is likely that hardly anything sticks in your memory. It is normal that there is variation in paying attention in different situations. For example, whether you find the topic interesting, stimuli in the environment and personal alertness affect attention. So what could help you focus? It is best to put unnecessary mobile devices and other disturbing stimuli out of reach. If you are able to make notes from teaching already when listening to the lecture, this will support both your focusing as well as your learning. On the other hand, if you find it difficult to make notes while listening, you can try to stay alert, for instance, by drawing on paper or squeezing a piece of Blu-Tack or a stress ball in your hands. In this case, having an opportunity to familiarise yourself with the lecture materials beforehand would benefit your learning. In independent study, it is recommended that you avoid reading for hours on end without any breaks or interruptions; instead, you should remember to take little breaks regularly. Also pay attention to the space where you study. What are the soundscape, ergonomics, lighting and temperature of the room like? Would going somewhere else help you focus better? Can you focus better on studying at the school or at home, or would changing the place every now and then suit you the best? Studying in a group instead of cramming information in your head alone is also worth trying.
Your physical condition and emotional state also influence how efficiently you are able to process issues to be stored in your memory. If you are tired or feeling low, memorising things is more difficult. If sleep disturbances, exhaustion, feeling depressed or other worries cause constant harm to remembering issues and studying, you should consider what could help the situation. You can read about mental well-being at the website of Finnish Association for Mental Health and you can get support to maintaining your ability to study from a study psychologist and the FSHS.
• Practising in sequences: Many research findings have indicated that it is better to study in the long term in short sequences than to use the same amount of time in reading without interruptions or by only taking short breaks. For instance, it takes longer to learn words in a foreign language if it is left to the night before than if learning the words is divided over a number of days. Dividing studying into sequences also helps us to remember the studied subject for a longer time than if the contents have been learned at the last minute.
• Understanding is more efficient than mechanical revision: Analysing meanings has been found to strongly correlate with remembering. This applies to both situations where we are aiming to learn things as well as those where unintentional learning occurs. For example, we fair well at learning things unintentionally if we have analysed their meanings (Kalakoski, 2007). Indeed, we often say that understanding enhances learning.
• Memory tips help recalling things: Creating different memory tips and linking issues together helps recalling them. The most efficient way involves linking some learned entity to one mental image instead of forming several, separate mental images.
• Create mnemonics (e.g. colours of the rainbow: 'Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain') • Create mental images • Come up with keywords. You can also create mind maps around keywords. • Place the subjects to a certain path or location. Learning this technique takes practice and using it will become automatic with practice. However, this requires you to use the same path or location. • Come up with different contexts to things or connect them to something you know (e.g. the English word carpet = car + pet) • Link the subject to yourself or your personal experience in some way • Write a summary after reading, browse the text or try to remember its contents
Hakkarainen, K., Lonka, K. & Lipponen, L. 1999. Tutkiva oppiminen. Älykkään toiminnan rajat ja niiden ylittäminen. Porvoo: WSOY Kalakoski, V. (2007). Muistikirja. Helsinki: Edita.