It’s the week before your organic chemistry exam and you have five chapters to cover in seven days.
Plenty of time, right?
You set an ambitious schedule to cover a chapter a day for the first five days. Being the good student that you are, you start as scheduled on day one and study for hours on end. You feel accomplished but you also feel burned out.
Burnout is a very common occurrence in a course like organic chemistry since it typically requires 10-20 WEEKLY study hours. However, the burnout isn’t caused by the total amount of time you’ve invested in studying, it comes from the blocks of time you’ve devoted to it, or the amount of time you’ve studied without taking a break.
Let me explain. Your brain can focus at maximum capacity for a certain amount of time. The amount is different for everyone, but typically is 45-90 minutes (from personal experience and student feedback). Anything shorter and you abort the mission during peak performance time and lose your momentum. Anything longer and your brain begins to protest. You reach burnout mode and start forgetting more than you learn.
So, if the ideal study session lasts just 45 – 90 minutes how do you study 10-20 hours a week?
Here is an outline of a study strategy that worked for me. I challenge you to follow it for a few days, and then adjust it according to your personal needs.
Break your study sessions into blocks of 45-90 minutes.
Warm Up Time
Give your brain a proper warm-up in order to gain the most of your study session. When you first sit down to study, it takes a few minutes to really “get into it.” If you try to study right away, you’ll find yourself reading the same paragraph a few times before you really understand it. The first few minutes must be reserved for adapting or warming up your brain for the task at hand.
Your warm-up may include skimming notes, reading something you already know, or working through practice problems that you’ve already mastered. Think of the warm-up as jump-starting your brain to function at high capacity. It will help you build momentum, thrust you into the new material and allow you to focus on it.
Once you’ve warmed up, the trick is to finish the 45-90 minute block without interruption. If you stop too quickly, your study session is too short. You’ve wasted a good warm-up and any additional studying that could have occurred. You are not allowing yourself to build up the proper study endurance.
Compare this to going to the gym to work out your body. A 15-20- minute workout is okay but not ideal if you’re trying to get into shape. Your body needs at least 30-45 minutes of exercise for a true impact. So too, your brain. It needs a full 45-90 minute workout to get a solid command of the material.
Don’t Over Study
Most organic chemistry students tend to study too long and too hard. If you push yourself beyond the 90 minutes without taking at least a short break you enter the burn-out zone.
If you study for 45-90 minutes, your brain has a chance to absorb new information and apply concepts to many practice problems. As long as your brain is functioning at maximum capacity you are able to learn
But there is a limit. There is a point where you’ve simply learned TOO MUCH. Any forced study beyond this point will have a negative impact. You’ll get bored, you won’t retain as much, and you’ll start hating organic chemistry. And we surely don’t want that to happen!
If you try to pack too much studying in at once you, you won’t retain as much information long term and you might feel like it was just a waste of time to study. This reminds me of the following expression that I heard a long time ago. It was probably written by some frustrated organic chemistry student!
“The more I study the more I know, the more I know, the more I forget, the more I forget the less I know, so why study?”
Rinse and Repeat
Study for 45-90 minutes then give your brain a break before starting the next session. Let your brain recharge and forget, temporarily, what you have just learned. If you allow yourself to forget or not think about the material, when you restudy you’ll find that you retain the information so much better.
If you have time, take a proper break of about 30 minutes to an hour. Prepare and eat lunch/dinner or meet a friend at a restaurant, watch an episode of your favorite television program, run some errands, do some housework, go to the gym and get a full body work out or give your full body a rest and take a nap.
If you don’t have a lot of time (perhaps a cram day), take at least a 10-minute break between sessions. Eat a snack, take a quick walk or bike ride, watch a funny YouTube video or do a couple of easy chores like walking your dog, folding laundry or cleaning dishes.
Forget About Organic Chemistry
The goal of your break is to eliminate all thoughts about organic chemistry from your head. Totally immerse yourself in another more pleasurable activity; or at least one that does not require much mental capacity, helps you relax and doesn’t stress you out (Yes, washing dishes does relax some people! I personally hate doing chores, but for some reason I like washing dishes).
Now that you’re recharged and refreshed, repeat the process and start another 45-90 minute study session! If you’re in pre-exam cram mode and scheduling multiple sessions, be sure to vary your breaks. Perhaps do 1-2 sessions with a 10 minute break between then take a proper/longer break after 2-3 sessions.
Just think, if you follow this plan on a weekend, you can manage 12-15 hours of maximum study effectiveness, and STILL have time for chores/housekeeping, shopping, friends, and TV. And best of all, these 12-15 hours will be just as useful as 15-20 hours of non-stop studying.
Doesn’t this sound much better than “burning out” for 10 hours at a time?
So let me ask you this – what do you find to be the ideal break activity between study sessions? Let me know by leaving a comment below