Studying Philosophy

Studying is probably the single most important skill for getting through your education, but it's also the skill on which students generally receive little to no advice. This section is intended to help you become a better student in this regard.

Begin by recognizing that you should be studying every day, even if it's just a little bit. By studying or reading for your classes every day you will be able to increase your concentration and your understanding of the material will become well grounded. It takes a little discipline to do this, but if you do you stand to gain a great deal over those who simply cram before every test. Incidentally, cramming is probably the worst way to study. The human mind is such that it cannot possibly master all the material from weeks of class in a single night or two. It's also the strategy that pays the least (aside from not studying at all) in terms of retention of the material. Additionally, since cramming is usually done into the wee hours of the morning of the day of the test, students who cram generally aren't well rested when they take tests, and so tend to do worse. A fatigued mind is not as capable as a well rested mind. If you study a little bit every day, you will be more confident in your ability to complete the test, you will be able to spot problems and ask questions well ahead of time, and you will be able to get a good night's sleep before the test. All of these things will make you a better test taker; if you can apply just a little self-discipline and study every day.

Bearing all of that in mind, you need something to study. Take good, organized notes in class and do the readings. It is important that your notes be organized, and by that I mean that your notes should be structured in such a way as to reflect the general outline of what went on in class that day. Keep track of major topics, things written on the board, and class discussions as well. Do not simply write down everything that gets said at random intervals in your notebook. You will have no way of separating important points from points that are less important.

Be aware also that not everything that gets said in class is particularly important. There are asides, jokes, and digressions that, while they make the class more interesting, are not necessarily relevant to any assignment. You need to learn how to judge what material is relevant and what is not. In my classes, it should be fairly easy to make such determinations. It may not be so in other classes. When in doubt, ask your instructor or a classmate AFTER CLASS. Nothing is more annoying to an instructor (well, to me anyway) than a student who raises his or her hand in the middle of an interesting discussion to ask "Is this going to be on the test?"

When it comes time to study you want to be sure that you choose an appropriate time and place to study.

Choosing an appropriate time will make your studying a bit easier. You will probably find that your studying goes better if you pick a time of the day to read when you are most alert, or when you tend to get your best ideas. If you are a morning person, try studying in the morning. If you get your best ideas at night before you go to sleep, then try doing a little reading then. Every person is different, so don't try to get all your studying done in an afternoon with all of your friends on the night before a big party when you're at your intellectual best after dinner or in the morning. Choose the time that suits you best to get the most out of your studying.

The same thing goes for choosing a place to study. Pick a place in which you are free of the things which distract you, and in which you feel relatively comfortable. If you find that you concentrate better in your home than in the library, then study at home. Try not to read when you are overly tired or preoccupied.

Hopefully you've got a good idea of when and where to do your studying. Now to the big secret— read everything more than once. Read and study until you are so comfortable with the material that you can explain it to your friends. No, really— you should strive for mastery over the material. If you come across a word or phrase you don't know, then try to find out what it means or ask your instructor in class.

That said, don't beat yourself to death trying to read or study the same passage of philosophy for more than an hour or so without a break. A short break. Hey! Come back here! Jeez!!! Anyway, take a 10-15 minute break for every hour or so of studying. If you get hung up on a particular passage then make a note to yourself to ask the instructor about it and try to move on. If you are doing the reading for class, at least try to read as much as will get you to where you should be for the next class. If you're the really ambitious, motivated type, then you can take notes as you read as well. Outlining chapters or sections is usually a good way to keep yourself clear on what's happening in a particular piece of writing. Writing down your thoughts or comments as they occur during class (even "I don't understand this, I need to ask a question" or "Dear God, the horror!") will prove helpful when studying, too.

You should also avail yourself of any university resources dedicated to improving the quality of your education (e.g. writing centers, academic counseling or success centers, etc.).

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