Smart ideas for effective studying

If your New Year's resolution is to hit the books hard, don't forget that quality is just as important as quantity

The start of a new year can bring with it plenty of resolutions. Work less. Actually go for a run rather than just looking at the shoes. Whatever the specifics, we often think about how we might improve our lives. The same ethos applies to your education. It's a chance to consider how to be a more effective postgraduate, whether that's through smarter study, better networking or another initiative.

Tweaking the way you use tech is a good place to start. Regardless of whether or not Santa Claus brought you a tablet this year, you can make the wired world work harder for you, especially online. "We're as much a part of the social web as anyone else," says Simon Kear, a learning technologist at Goldsmiths. "The modern postgraduate is missing a trick by not being a part of that."

Simply following academics in your field on Twitter or academia.edu may point you in interesting directions, for example. Creating a custom homepage (using iGoogle or similar) will also allow you to see regular updates from relevant blogs, news channels or other institutions, automatically filtering information onto a single page so you don't feel overwhelmed, says Kear.

Your university could also have a virtual learning environment offering forums and other useful tools. "I use a university app to deliver alerts and notifications for course and university-related issues," says Emma Forest, currently a PGCE student at Birmingham City University. "I also use the university's online learning site to access further reading and learning material."

But the critical thing, whether you use a smartphone, tablet or laptop, is to go mobile. "You should be able to access your learning anywhere in the world, at any time," says Pete Roberts, also a Goldsmiths learning technologist. "It will help you utilise the time you have available for study."

Once you're plugged in, there are other good habits and sound academic practices to develop. The foundation is a good working relationship with tutors and supervisors, according to Dr Stella Cottrell, director for lifelong learning at Leeds University and author of The Study Skills Handbook. "Be prepared when you go to see them, do the pre-thinking and reading to make the best use of the time you have with them so that you get to the heart of things very quickly."

Simple techniques can be the most effective. A diary – paper or electronic – will help you schedule time with your tutor and can help wrangle your hours in other ways. The distant deadlines, but higher workloads, of postgraduate study can trick those used to undergraduate schedules (or those balancing work and study), so time management is vital. Laura Cavanagh, who has a Masters in PR and communications from Leeds Metropolitan University, used checklists to keep track of her objectives and broke longer deadlines up into smaller tasks in her diary. "It's good to give yourself timeframes within assignments," she explains. "Giving myself milestones and reasonable targets really helped me see my progress."

For some, though, that's not the issue. It's the starting work in the first place that stalls them every time. Whether you're lacking motivation or inspiration to begin your writing, one solution is to send for reinforcements. "Use others around you to give you a push," says Cottrell. "It might be your supervisor, family or friends; work out what you want from them in order to help you."

You're aiming to establish a routine. With your supervisor that might mean regular deadlines. With friends and family, it's about balancing study with seeing them. Cottrell recommends writing what you're going to do in your diary, then talking to your support team "so they understand why you're doing what you're doing" and will encourage you to work. Be clear when you'll be available to family and friends, she continues, "so they feel there's a trade-off: you may not be free during your allotted study time, but you will be free other times. Particularly with children or spouses, that can be important."

However many people you have around you, the work only gets done on your own, which can leave some students feeling isolated – especially those undertaking their course remotely. Overcoming those feelings by maintaining contact (in the flesh or via social media) with other learners can make for a more pleasant study experience. "Online discussion groups are vital support, so join them," suggests Open University alumni representative Dr Petrina Stevens. "Your tutor will probably have other students with whom you can get in touch, too, as they will all experience similar problems."

Where possible, Cottrell recommends some face time. "If you don't create opportunities to chat with people engaged with study, you miss out on what has traditionally been a part of the postgraduate experience. You can get around it a bit with social networking, but it's not quite the same thing. Get out and meet people, make contact!"

This step could also help with life beyond graduation. Networking with students and tutors can help prepare you for future employment, with universities often well-placed to help students due to their industry links, careers events and guest lectures. You could even tailor your work to pique a potential employer's interest, says Dr Bill Nichols, senior lecturer in marketing at Bucks New University. "Frame the dissertation subject in such a way that the result will be a conversation piece for any interview," he says. "And design primary research that will require you to contact potential target companies or employers and start to build a helpful network."

Becoming a technophile, learning to love your diary, seeking support and keeping in touch with the academic community are all helpful ways towards being more effective as a student. But another aspect, just as important, is not trying too hard. "There's a balance to be struck between wanting to make the best of it and being over-anxious about that," explains Graham Clark, full-time MBA academic director at Cranfield School of Management.

For Clark, taking a step back and letting your curiosity take charge – by reading around a subject, for example – can lead to better outcomes for students. "It's not what you do, it's what you're learning," he explains. "If you're just doing more and more things, you're not actually learning. Some of our best students are the ones who challenge things, read more widely, do things that are irrelevant as far as assessment is concerned; they're often the ones I recommend to employers."

And finally, to be more switched on, it's also vital to let yourself switch off now and then to recharge your batteries. "One of the biggest challenges of a postgraduate course is the all-consuming pressure to deliver, which leads to that constant feeling that you 'should' be working," says Emma Brassington, a career and business coach. "However, don't confuse the quantity of time working with quality."

Going off and doing something completely unrelated to your studies will help keep you grounded in reality, and also give your subconscious mind the chance to do some processing in the background, with the result that you'll return refreshed, says Brassington. "It's amazing how much more creative you will feel when you come back to your work." So by putting the books down and lacing up those running shoes (or whatever your equivalent is) you'll work smarter, feel better and take care of two resolutions at once. Now that's being effective.

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