Before you stop and pause and take a few minutes of your time to read this article, I really should stop, pause and take a few minutes of mine to convince you why you should consider my points. So here goes:
I graduated from my secondary school with 7 A1’s in the O Level Examinations, and scored 6 distinctions for my ‘A’ Levels. In this Singapore education system, I am probably considered a success story.
However, I consider myself one who figured out how the system works rather than an exceptionally bright person. You can use the study tips/ideas that I have formulated over my 12 years in the Singapore schooling system to give your academic results a boost in the right direction.
So without further ado, I present to you the 12 lessons that I have learnt over my student life:
1. Being Smart is Overrated
At this point, I sound condescending. Let me take you back to when I was in Primary 2. I achieved 2nd place in class (when there were still examinations conducted for P1 to P2 students) and I was pretty sure I was an intelligent young kid. The examinations were a breeze and I did not study much for it.
Yet, in my following years as a primary school student, my grades dropped on a yearly basis because of my wishful thinking. In fact, I regressed so much such that when I received my PSLE results, I once again got 2nd place in class… from the back.
A simple and true explanation on why my grades tanked is that I simply did not try hard enough. Sure, I studied and I listened in class, but definitely not enough to understand what the teacher was saying and answer their questions.
My point is simple and true – you actually have to try (hard) to get good grades. Being smart may help, but being smart is overrated.
2. The People You Surround Yourself with Influence You Greatly
I enrolled into a below average secondary school. In my secondary school there was a laidback culture and indifferent attitude towards studying. In fact, some were even chastened for studying. The indifferent attitudes of my peers rubbed off me, and I did not work really hard in my school examinations.
I was doing okay, just a tad above average but nothing extraordinary (as I was not revising my work adequately). In my junior college though, the culture was the opposite.
Everyone was expected to study. Peers would invite you to study sessions for the next examinations a week after the last ones ended. You would be looked at like an alien who did not belong here if you expressed your incredulity at their proposition by asking them “For what?”.
At least, that’s what I experienced with a change in environment. The bottom line is this – for our developing teenage brains, peer pressure is a powerful tool.
If you can surround yourself with others who are exceedingly competitive and kiasu, it is likely that you will be influenced by them and study harder as a result.
On the flipside, if you surround yourself with the less inspired and proactive, then you will be more likely to adopt their ways in your studies. Remember, it is always easier to go with the flow, so if possible, choose the flow aligned with your goal of academic success. (See: Neighbourhood or Elite Schools)
3. Sleep is Important
I had this friend in secondary school who stayed up late daily, to either play video games or to revise before examinations. He would get about 4 hours of sleep daily and let’s just say his grades were not the best.
It seemed like a cruel joke, that other students who seemed to put in less effort scored way higher marks than him.
Sleeping late adversely affects the performance of one’s prefrontal cortex, resulting in a poorer memory and decision making ability as seen in the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, one of the leading sleep neuroscientists in the world.
Sleeping in class is also a common result of a lack of sleep, which only serves to hamper your learning further. All of these negative effects of a lack of sleep can be reversed simply by not burning the midnight oil. Hence, do yourself a favour and do not neglect sleep!
4. Doubts and Uncertainties Will Snowball
If you ever get lost in your teacher’s endless droning in class (which happens all the time to everyone), clarify your doubts immediately. Do not ever let it slide, because you will forget about it. No matter how inane or seemingly stupid your doubts might seem, always clarify.
In Secondary Two, I didn’t understand the function y = mx + c. I had no idea what the m-value and c-value meant, so the entire equation was foreign to me. As a result, I failed the coordinate geometry section in my Math papers and I hated anything to do with graphs.
In hindsight, it is no surprise that I failed since the equation of a straight line graph is something so basic that everything else, such as gradient of a line, length of a line segment etc. were built on this idea.
Subject content is taught in a way that builds up previous knowledge into newer and more complex ideas. Hence, if your tiny uncertainty over a fundamental idea is not addressed early, your doubts will amass into one giant snowball as more content is taught.
And when your teacher throws this massive snowball straight at you in the form of the examination papers, it will hurt badly. (See: Ex-GEP/Elite School students, Where Are They Now?)
5. Find a Hobby to Keep You Sane
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
This proverb is true for everyone, even if your name is not Jack. Studying all the time, being focused on academics 24/7 will not be sustainable in the long run. Experiencing burnout is a real thing, and it is not pretty.
I had one such friend who burnt out during the ‘O’ Level period, despite spending so much time studying for the past few months. With one week to go, he completely gave up on A Math. And by give up, I don’t just mean that he stopped revising those subject. On the morning of the A Math papers, he slept at home.
You’ll face times of hardship, frustration, moments when you feel like giving up because no matter how hard you try you feel that it is not enough. Maintain your sanity in this increasingly crazy world we live in, and find something else to do.
Read, write, play games, exercise, hang out with your friends, just do something else. Then come back refreshed, ready to take on your academic challenges, with your sanity preserved.
You will look back fondly on your schooling days if you did more than just burying yourself in books and study tips.
6. Memorising Blindly is Less Effective Than Understanding
No top student memorises everything without understanding most of the content. It is simply inefficient and ineffective.
It is also way more difficult to memorise everything than to understand the fundamental points and see the links in between topics or within topics themselves. Instead of relying on memory work, understand the content.
Understand the how’s of a process, and the why’s instead of trying to cram the exact phrasing of each step of a certain process. Picture the process happening in your head, coming up with reasons behind each step of the way.
In IB, memorisation work is not important for students (See: IB Survival Guide)
Interestingly enough, once you actually understand the in’s and outs of a process, the steps that you have tried so hard to memorise come naturally to you.
7. Understanding Content Takes Time and Effort
So perhaps you have tried to understand say, a topic in one of your subjects, but you just cannot understand it.
Mental blocks are common, and despite spending a long time on your problems, the solutions still do not come to you. Unfortunately, the hard truth is this – it is hard. But precisely because it is hard, there is a tangible sense of achievement behind finally understanding the content/doing well for examinations/winning that championship/other feats requiring great struggle to overcome.
If it wasn’t hard, anyone could do it.
Then there would be no point in trying to do well, since success is commonplace and well within everyone’s reach. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
8. Take Notes
One way to help you understand content is to take down notes as your teacher is teaching. As for how you do this, it is up to your personal style and preference.
Organise your notes in your own fashion, just make sure it is clear so you understand it when revising it. In secondary school, I took notes for Chemistry in A4 notebooks, rehashing what my teacher said and including diagrams, mindmaps, tables etc.
You can choose to do so, or just take down the important points that your teacher or tutor makes. Or if you don’t like taking notes in class…
9. Make Notes
Make your own notes, referring to the textbooks and school notes but organising and writing it your way.
Most textbooks up to JC level have more fluff than that found in a candy floss at a fair, so making your own notes helps to cut down all the unnecessary parts. Your own notes will cover the relevant content in the syllabus and will be way more concise than it.
I did this for my ‘O’ Levels and ‘A’ Levels, which worked out pretty well. Be warned though, making your own notes takes a LONG time. I used to spend an entire day camping at the National Library just to finish two topics for H2 Chemistry. But it was worth it.
10. Be Consistent (do your homework)
Use it or lose it.
If you don’t go through what you’ve learnt in class in a consistent manner, it is unlikely that you will even recall what happened in that class. In JC, some of my classmates didn’t bother to do their tutorials, resorting to copying others in class. I have to admit that I have done this on more than one occasion, although I did not make it a habit.
It is not surprising that they are the same people who didn’t fair as well as the rest. Too many people treat examinations as a sprint – they run at breakneck speeds, studying all they can a week before the examination.
What they fail to realise is that examinations are more like a marathon, the starting gun was fired from the start and they still have yet to start running.
By the time examinations approach, there is too much distance to cover and it’s too little, too late.
11. Don’t Panic
Anxiety for examinations is a thing. Everyone should have them to a certain degree as it’s only human. Crippling anxiety can be a severe problem, however, when it strikes during examination periods, impeding your learning and answering of questions.
A way to alleviate the situation would be to do your very best in preparing for the examination. That way, your mind would not be filled with thoughts like “what if I can’t answer the questions?” or “will I fail?” since you have done your level best and will leave no regrets over your performance.
However, do seek professional help if you are unable to deal with it on your own.
12. Seek Help
This journey is hard, as I mentioned earlier. Sometimes you can’t handle it all by yourself, and you’ll need assistance from others.
Do not hesitate in asking for help from your friends, seniors, teachers, and even external tutors. (See: market tuition rates, 2019) You are not alone in your educational journey. In conclusion, my experience has shaped my views on how to do well in the education system we all go through, through these simple 12 study tips.
The path to excellence is not easy, but I believe I have made it simple enough for everyone to utilise. My 12 points are a simple track to excelling in school, but the hard part is staying on track and that is all up to your personal effort.
I wish you all the best in your studies and whatever the future brings for you.
(This article was written by our tutor Yong Xuan, providing study tips through his experience for the past 12 years in the Education system)