The learning material at a university covers much more ground than you are used to from school. It is hardly ever possible to catch up on a semester's or two semesters' worth of material shortly before the exams. That is why you should keep your focus on the learning process right from the start. It is therefore important to take personal responsibility for succeeding in your studies. Even though the courses are governed by the study regulations, it is up to you to prepare the course material on your own and to register for exams. Well-organized study habits and good time management are essential.
Obviously, you should not talk on your cell phone in the lecture hall and it is better to eat your fast food meal afterwards. That said, how do you make your lecture visits as productive as possible?
First of all: be prepared. In the course outline, make sure you look over the material of the next lecture in advance in order to get an overall impression of the next meeting. The benefit of this is that the actual class becomes a repetition of the course material, helping you to better grasp the content. In preparing, you might even uncover a topic that you specifically want to address in the class itself.
Be as proactive as possible. Use the course to test any assumptions you might have from your own preparation. Moreover, listen attentively: Instructor comments like “important," “relevant to the exam" help guide the student's individual study plan and exam preparation. When taking notes, you should avoid recording the lecture in every detail; instead, add your own notes to the lecture notes. You can also take advantage of video recordings of lectures and e-learning offerings.
Do not hesitate to ask questions! If something is unclear to you, try asking for an alternative explanation. Not only is this good for your own learning process (and that of your fellow students, who did not speak up), but it also gives the lecturer important information on how to adapt the course to the needs of the students. Remember, the only "dumb questions" are the ones you do not ask..
After the lecture, be sure to review the material using the course handouts – if possible, within the next day. Refer to your notes to identify key takeaways. If you postpone the follow-up indefinitely, much of the knowledge will be lost. A brief run through is all it takes - besides, it is easier to motivate yourself for 10 minutes than for an hour.
Throughout the semester, consistently try to cross-reference lecture content and specifically review certain topics. If you get stuck, ask your classmates or instructors, or bring your questions to an upcoming class.
Learning is not a passive process. Being distracted in a lecture is not going to help you understand the material. The learning process covers different phases:
Understand: In the lecture, you will first receive basic information. You acquire understanding for what you hear from the lecturer, for example, through active reflection during the lecture and sensible note taking (with an identifiable theme). As an overview, you can create a mind map or write your own summary of the lecture content. There is also selected specialist literature to aid understanding.
Retain: Understanding and retaining information are two different things. So that you can retain and apply what you have understood in the longer term, you should first review the material at shorter intervals, and later at longer intervals. Share your freshly acquired knowledge with your peers and ask for critical feedback. This permanent repetition and consolidation is important, for otherwise you will forget the knowledge you acquired and have to start from scratch before the exams.
Apply: This is the last step in the learning process. It is here that you can tell if you really understood the material or just memorized bits and pieces. Come up with practical linkages, work through practice exams on your own or simulate an exam situation. Share your knowledge with a person who is unfamiliar with the subject and try to answer their questions as concisely as possible.
Learning independently or with others
Whether you prefer to work on your own or in a study group is entirely up to you. The big advantage of a well-structured study group is that time-consuming tasks (e.g. a lot of literature review) can be divided up within the group. Moreover, a group sets a certain pace for the work, which promotes a process of continuous learning. In a study group, you also train key skills such as the ability to work in a team, including how to moderate, discuss, and present your arguments. You can work on your oral skills, which, as a preparatory exercise for presentations or oral exams, can lead to less exam stress.
Certainly, it is tempting to have someone in your study group with a great deal of knowledge. However, you also run the risk of relying too much on a single individual. You can only use later whatever you have first learned on your own. Try to distribute the tasks in the group as equitably as possible and immediately address any disagreements to prevent tensions from arising.
Many students have difficulties with oral examinations, as this type of exam is unfamiliar from their time at school. Sometimes you may also feel that the assessment of your own exam performance is unfair. Often, the problem is not with the examiner, but rather the student's inability to adequately express themselves. In the oral examination, it is not enough to know about a particular subject. You also need to be able to present this knowledge verbally in a persuasive manner. The examiner is only able to evaluate what you say, not what you might otherwise know. To make the best impression, you should therefore polish your rhetorical skills during your studies.