How to Treat Studying Like a Sport

The Student-Athlete’s Dilemma

Earlier this term, I had a student-athlete come to office hours. He was pretty far behind in class, and pretty discouraged.

“I hate studying,” he confessed. “It just seems like a waste of time.”

I’ve had many students, not just student-athletes, tell me this. Why study? they ask. They don’t see the point, and they don’t see the results.

I asked him what he thought “studying” meant. He said “Well, I read the book the night before an exam, and then I just hope I got it.”

This is also a typical response. Students in general, and college students, in particular, have been taught that “cram, jam, and take the exam” is what “studying” means.

How Studying Is Like Sports Practice

I asked my student a series of questions:

  • Did he study more often than the night before an exam? No.
  • Did he use flash cards, self-quizzes, or other tools beyond the textbook? No.
  • Did he study several different things in one study session? No.
  • Did he go to the professor, the tutoring center, or the writing center to ask for help identifying what he was having problems with? No.
  • Did he work in study groups with other students? No, he did not.

Then I asked him about his sport – which, in his case, was basketball.

  • Did he practice more often than the day before a game? Well, of course he did!
  • Did he use videos of his performance to identify where he needed to improve? For him, this seemed like an obvious thing to do.
  • Did he practice the same skill over and over, or did he switch up what he was practicing every 20 minutes or so? Oh, he had to switch it up – otherwise he’d risk injury or overuse a muscle, and be useless on the court the next day.
  • Did he ask his coach to help him identify places where he needed to improve, so he could focus on those areas? Of course he did! That’s what the coach is for!
  • Did he practice alone, or with his teammates? He hardly ever practiced alone. Even if he was just practicing foul-line shots, he wanted feedback from other players who might know something he didn’t.

I let him sit with that for a minute, and then he looked up at me. “Are you saying that studying for this class is like practicing for my games?”

I smiled. He’d gotten it.

Here’s five things to do when you’re studying that are a lot like practicing for a sport.

1. Do It Every Day

You can’t study only once and expect to perform well on an exam or assignment, any more than you can practice only once and expect to score well in the game. Studying is the same thing as practicing. Make sure you’re doing it every day, not just the day or two before the exam.

2. Use Different Tools and Methods

An athlete who only stands at the foul line, throwing the ball at the hoop over and over again, is like a student who only reads the book over and over again. Skilled athletes practice multiple skills over time, and skilled students need to practice with multiple methods of studying over time. Read the book and take notes one day, but then rewrite the notes the next day, and create some flash cards. Use the flash cards on the third day, identify what you still don’t know, and create a self-quiz. Study with a group a few times. Don’t just read the book over and over – that’s been shown to be one of the least effective ways of studying.

3. Switch It Up

An effective athlete practices several different skills in any one practice session. For example, a basketball player might practice mid-court shots, dribbling, passing, and jump shots over the course of an hour to an hour and a half, spending 15 to 20 minutes on each skill. In the same way, an effective student should never study any one specific topic, or in one specific way, for more than about 15 to 20 minutes. If they’re studying sociology, they’ll spend 15 minutes on terms, 15 minutes on relating terms to each other, 15 minutes on creating quiz questions or flash cards on those terms, and 15 minutes looking through their notes and the textbook for more information about those terms.

4. Use Available Help

An athlete who won’t listen to their coach’s feedback on their performance is an athlete who won’t be staying in the game very long. A student who won’t ask the professor for help identifying their blind spots and trouble spots, and use the college resources like a tutoring center or writing center once they know what their issues are, is a student who won’t do well in the class. Ask the professor for their feedback, listen to it, and then work on improving in the areas the professor points out. If you need help writing, go to your campus writing center. If you’re struggling with a particular course, seek out a tutor.

5. Work With Others

Athletes practice together. Part of this is just to get practice, but part of it is to get critical and helpful feedback on their performance. In the same way, students who study together can improve their performance from the different perspectives they get from their study group members – not just on the content of the class, but on strategies for studying effectively.

Tying It All Together

You can probably see by now that if you adapt how athletes prepare for their games, and use these methods to study for your classes, you’ll become a more effective student. If you study every day, using different methods and tools, studying will become less painful and more of a habit. If you switch up how you study and make sure you never stay on one thing too long, you’ll make it easier to remember what you need to learn, training your brain to produce what you need to know when you need to remember it. If you get feedback from your professors, help from on-campus resources, and study in groups whenever you can, you’ll find out what you need to focus on and how to focus and improve.

Treat preparation for the exam like you’re practicing for the big game, and you’ll score better.

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