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to be more specific, I would like to get some advice on perhaps study/lifestyle tips etc, on how I can go from being a slightly above average student to being a 'top' student.

To give a bit more background, I am currently a 2nd year undergraduate student doing an 'Advanced' Mathematics degree. At my university there is a 'normal' stream and an 'advanced stream'. The program I am in (I feel) is very competitive and not to be pretentious, I do feel like I work really hard.

I study every day for hours and hours and I can hand to heart say that my work ethic is not the problem. I calendar my whole semester and I'm not doing things last minute.

At the moment, if I were to give myself an honest assessment of where I stand, I would say that I am just probably slightly above average in my classes (in terms of test and assignment results) with a lot of effort and I would like to be in the top 5% of students. I guess my dilemma is that I don't think I can reasonably put in more hours than I already do in terms of studying (between attending lectures/tutorials and my part time job, I am probably doing about 15 hours a day of university work) - So I am trying to think about other ways that can help me get higher grades.

I should probably also note that my university uses scaling a lot, and so your grades are really just relative to your place amongst your peers. And in this sense, there's really not that much collaboration between peers.

Each semester I have improved a little bit, and have actively tried to think of ways to make my study time more efficient and effective. As an example, in the past, I tried to read the lecture material before I went to class to ensure that I would already understand most of what the lecturer would cover, but I found that between doing this and going to lectures as well, it left me with much less time to actually practice doing questions, rather than reading so much. So now, I usually don't read as much, and just spend more time doing questions and memorizing tactics to approach questions.

I realize that study tips are probably quite specific to the subject and the assessment style, and I guess I'm not looking for a magic formula - but would just like to maybe get some ideas from others on how you have handled competitive undergraduate degrees, and how to maximize assignment and test scores etc.

Thanks so much.

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migrated from Apr 18 '14 at 7:30

This question came from our site for academics and those enrolled in higher education.

While this might certainly be something that can be to some extend remedied with better study techniques, it is important to realize that if you are placed slightly above average while putting in 15 hours a day, then it is highly unlikely that you will ever be in the top 5%. The simple fact of the matter is that while mathematics takes hard work, that hard work is not itself sufficient to be a top performer unless it is accompanied by a large amount of inherent talent, and not everyone has that amount of talent. – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 17 '14 at 8:23
Does 15 hours a day of university work include the part time job? If yes, how much time do you spend for math study? – scaaahu Apr 17 '14 at 8:31
@TobiasKildetoft I do agree that as with anything else, there are people with exceptional inherent talent - but obviously I would like to think that with perhaps some advice I can continue to improve. Either way, wouldn't you agree that your comment isn't really helpful? What use is it to just think I can't do it? – JackReacher Apr 17 '14 at 8:35
How advanced is this advanced group you're in? Maybe by being average in an advanced group, you're already in the top 5%? I'm asking out of curiosity, but it might also affect the answers you get. – Ana Apr 17 '14 at 20:58
This question appears to be off-topic because it is not about productivity techniques or problems, but is rather about academic performance. – Raystafarian May 12 '14 at 14:48

If you are already doing 15 h a day of work, I’d agree that you shouldn’t be doing more, and like the other responders, would add that you might benefit from less, if you can make it more effective.

Find a way to track the results of your study habits. I usually just do this mentally. As I do any work that is rated or graded, I think about how I prepared, and how effective that was, and relate it to how I do on the assignment. Writing the information down could help even more, because you could see over the course of an entire semester what helped you learned. One possibility is to make a spreadsheet or keep a notebook, and whenever you have a graded assignment, record how you prepared, how confident you felt of the material, and what your actual grade was.

Look at your time management. 15 hours a day is a lot, especially if you are getting your 8 hours of sleep. And there are plenty of studies showing that a good night’s sleep is essential to cement your learning. Are you really studying for all that time, or are you reading until you get woozy, and have to reread the last few pages? Do you have uninterrupted study time, or is it 15 minutes, then get interrupted by a friend wondering if you want to go for ice cream, beer, a swim, or whatever? How long does it take you to mentally enter a serious study session, vs a not-intense shallow review of the material?

Look at what you are studying. If you find you spent 10 hours reviewing material for a test, but didn’t cover half the material actually on the test, you focused your efforts poorly. If this happens often, or you are unsure of what the most important points in a lecture are, you’ll struggle to learn effectively. Visit the professor or TA’s office hours to help figure this out. Keeping this up during the semester will keep you from being caught unaware at the final.

Go to your school’s study or learning center. Talk to the people there about tips to study effectively.

I’d also suggest that you don’t get too focused on such an extreme goal as top 5%, because that mindset can lead to frustration when your progress falls short. Instead, look for specific strategies that will help you improve, and focus on implementing those. And whenever you increase your standing by some measurable amount, make it a celebration. Treat yourself to a new book in your field, or go to an interesting lecture you might feel you wouldn’t have time for otherwise. Make the reward related to the goal, rather than something like an excuse to take a day off. You may not make the top 5%, but I’m sure you can get closer than you are now.

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Really nice answer, and some great ideas too. I think I will definitely try as you suggested in regards to writing some notes down about how I did in each test/assessment, and how I prepared for it. I also think you make some great points about how effective my study time is - when I say 15 hours a day, it's obviously not uninterrupted, I often have to fit things around my study time, like just walking between buildings on campus, walking to work, or just everyday tasks, eating, etc. And often, by the end of the day, I definitely feel my attention and focus diminishing. Thanks so much! – JackReacher Apr 17 '14 at 22:52

Some slightly disconnected points:

  1. The transition from high school to university is a process, and it's not uncommon for people capable of excellence to require some time in order to achieve it. It took me almost three years before I'd cleaned out the cobwebs of bad-habits and managed to start doing as well as I knew I could.

  2. It sounds like you've got the study hard bit down... it's time to start investigating the study smarter. Personally, I'd argue 15 hours a day is too much, as you're putting yourself at risk of burnout and not seeing commensurate outcomes.

    You need to take some of your time and start figuring out how to study effectively. What makes a topic stick for you? What are you doing that isn't helping?

  3. I'd spend some time looking into resources available for you at your institution. Do your professors have office hours? Are you banging your head against problems for 20 hours before handing in an incomplete solution... or are you going to office hours and asking about the questions?

  4. Though you say your institution isn't collaborative, sometimes a part of excellence requires leadership. Start talking to your classmates, see if they'd be willing to study together, discuss the class topics etc. Perhaps you should tutor some of your classmates -- nothing nails down a concept like having to explain it to someone.

    Even if you can't get answers from your school, the internet has become a rich place. Find good questions to ask on Math.SE, answer ignored questions there.

  5. Sometimes (and you'll need to use your judgment) the best way to ace a course is to master the material. Your question is very focused on test taking, and while that's appropriate at times, other times you're not seeing the forest for the trees.

In closing: Remember why you are at university. If it's for the grades, so be it, but if it's for knowledge, you need to focus on your knowledge acquisition skills, damn the grades (within reason).

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Thanks for your answer Matthew. As to point 3. I was spending inordinate amounts of time on details that I would get stuck on, until I realised that, it was really more detrimental to my grades than if I just left it. And, yes I suppose my question is a bit focused on test taking, as I suppose that is where I feel like I need to improve the most. Unfortunately at my university, our course grades are only based on a few assessments, so it's imperative to be outstanding in few tests. As an example, in one of the courses we get two tests, one assignment and a final worth 60% of our final grade. – JackReacher Apr 17 '14 at 14:59
MathOverflow is for research level math questions, not undergraduate or even basic graduate level questions. You should probably say instead. – Pete L. Clark Apr 17 '14 at 15:41
@PeteL.Clark Whoops. I forgot there were two! – Matthew G. Apr 17 '14 at 16:59

Reading the lecture materials before going to class is a good practice. If you find it taking too much of your time, then you may want to set a specific amount of time for it. Do not aim for understanding most of what the lecturer would cover, otherwise there is not much point attending lectures, but use the set time to get a feel of what the lecture would cover, and find out which parts you would need to pay extra attention to during the lecture.

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thanks, I like this answer actually. I was actually thinking of this when I was typing out my question. I'll give this a go. – JackReacher Apr 17 '14 at 14:20

It's clichéd, but - work smarter not harder.

The best students I know don't spend that much time studying for any one class. Really focus on getting to understand things at a deep conceptual level, not just shallowly enough to answer the homework. It has the side effect of making everything in the course a lot easier. If your book is unclear, seek outside reading material (usually just things you find on the internet are fine). Go to office hours or set up appointments with professors. Get enough sleep and eat properly. Ask your higher-achieving friends to study with you.

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A point I don't believe has been raised yet is the Idea of a mastermind group.

I've not done a lot of research on this, but it's simply a collection of highly talented individuals in a field who meet for the purpose of helping each other out.

While it might be unreasonable to get a supergroup together just to help your studies, there's always the option of studying with the other top level students in your classes.

The fact that they're facing the same problems as you with a different mind means you can fill in each others gaps, and inspire each other to excel.

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Your work ethic seems to be on point. A few other answers have alluded to working smarter when you are working harder. This seems to be a great idea. Doing your pre-lecture preparation will make some of the concepts come easier. Much like you, I was a slightly above average student. I had go get creative to rise to the top of my class. Here's a few suggestions:

  • Practice the concepts repetitively. Being able to read and understand a topic is one thing but applying it successfully is another. When I was in university, I used to create mock exams online covering all of the topics during a certain time frame. I made the exams incredibly challenging. If you can write a test that is more difficult than your instructors, you can pass his/hers. Also, you can help your peers by sharing these mock exams and develop talented study groups. Once you have developed these relationships, you can rely on your classmates to expand on topics they are more natural with.

  • Take advantage of office hours and your TAs. If your professors and TAs have office hours, use them to your advantage. I've worked with many professors that are consistently frustrated by not having students ask questions during these hours. These instructors are experts - explaining their area of expertise is natural and exciting for them. Using these hours show that you are invested in your success and you're going to the expert to get insights. Also, you're using your time more efficiently. Instead of spending all of your time trying to process a foreign concept, you can develop a base knowledge and expand on it.

  • Don't live in your books. You're fortunate to be living in a time where knowledge is readily accessible. Everyone has their own learning style. Use online resources, interactive tools and alternate texts. Finding out how you learn BEST is key.

The overall message is "get creative" - You will maximize your success when you work and learn your way.

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Approach the material more strategically.

  1. Choose courses that use good books. Before registering for courses, make sure you are taking courses with well-written, interesting books. If the books are poor resources, you will waste much of your time.

  2. Try some learning strategies such as SQ3R to help focus your attention while studying.

  3. Identify the tree-like structure found in most books and read the relevant "branches". Skim quickly over paragraphs that seem less important and slow down at the important parts. Skim through the whole book or relevant portions while marking all of the important places. Return later to those places build your notes or outline.

  4. Use SRS software to review small "facts", such as vocabulary or formulas that are best left to memorization or repeated practice. If your teacher gives you a study guide, feed this data into the SRS software to optimize your review of this material.

  5. Talk with your professors often. They were students like you once, and likely, very good ones. Informal settings, like clubs focused on your major, can be a good place to talk with professors and learn about how they approached the material and to possibly discuss how to improve your own approach.

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