Studying alone is a challenge for many students and learners in general. Some of them face low motivation issues while others lack an effective study method. The absence of teachers, schoolmates, or study companions means that you have to rely entirely on your will and on your organization skills to get the job done. This article discusses how to study by yourself. We will analyze the major obstacles learners usually face when studying alone and the best ways to overcome them and to maximize your results.
Most learners with planning problems fall into these three categories:
- Learners who don’t plan enough
- Learners who plan excessively
- Learners who don’t plan adequately
Let’s analyze each one of these cases.
1) Too little planning – Some learners approach their studies in a completely spontaneous manner and avoid setting any daily, weekly, and monthly objectives. Their attitude towards studying is the same as someone who plans to read a new book for leisure.
While this approach reduces stress (which can help you better internalize what you study), it makes it more difficult to organize concepts in your head and to meet deadlines. This is especially true for those study programs with frequent tests and examinations (every month, every trimester, or every semester).
Therefore, it is essential to set realistic short-term, medium-term, and long-term study objectives. Try to estimate in advance how many hours a day you can spend studying and how much you can realistically learn in those hours. Also, decide in advance which day(s) of the week you are going to “take off” from studying.
Try also to balance the number of hours you plan to dedicate to studying theoretical notions and the number of hours you will spend doing practical exercises (when they are present).
Example: Lisa is a university student. She is studying for an Economics course and her exam is 3 months aways. Her main textbook is 500 pages long, and it includes both theoretical notions and exercises. She also has to study 4 separate papers (20 pages each). Overall, she has to read, understand, and internalize 580 pages of content. She has a part-time job in the morning, therefore she can only study in the afternoon. Moreover, she plans to take one day off studying every week (12 days off over a three-month period). She wants to finish her book and additional papers 10 days before the final exam. This would give her 10 days to revise all that she has learned. This means that she has 68 days to complete the course textbook and additional papers and that she should study 9 pages a day. She decides that she will study 6 hours a day (from 13:30 to 19:30). She also plans to study 2 pages per hour and to use the remaining hour and a half for revising and repeating what she learned. This plan is certainly realistic and it will allow Lisa to master the subject and to face the exam with enough peace of mind.
2) Too much planning – On the opposite side of the spectrum, we find those learners who are very good at creating a plan but who often find themselves unable to stick to it. This may be due to a lack of motivation or to the fact that their plain is unrealistic.
You should always be honest with yourself when planning. Understand in advance how many hours you can study each day, how much learning material you can process in one hour, and how many days a week you need to take a break from studying.
Creating a plan that’s compatible with your schedule and pace of learning is essential to avoid frustration, disappointment, and inability to meet deadlines.
Example: Tom is a French-language student. Two months from now he will fly to Paris and spend one entire month in the French capital. He has only two months to improve his French. He enrolls in an online French class which includes 15 video lectures. At the end of each lecture, he has to take a 12-minute test. He has a full-time job and he can only study in the evening or during the weekend. He plans to study for 1 hour every evening, right after work. He also plans to study for 3 additional hours on both Saturday and Sunday. He doesn’t take into account the fact that he is often very stressed and tired after a long day at the office. This makes his evening study sessions very unproductive, and he ends up taking the entire weekend off because he ends to rest and relax. Tom’s plans were definitely unrealistic because they didn’t take into account his mental and emotional state after a day at work. He should have either studied during the weekends exclusively or opted for a lighter course.
3) Inadequate Planning – When creating a plan, you should also take into account your course structure and which study method best fits that particular subject.
Some subjects (like law) require a lot of memorization, so you should determine in advance how many hours a day you need to repeat out loud what you learned.
Other subjects (like music) require you to balance the time you spend learning theoretical notions and the time you spend exercising.
Then there are those subjects (like business or marketing) that require an open mindset and the ability to reflect on the notions and concepts you’re studying and on their practical implication in real-life scenarios.
Your plan should also take into account your course structure.
Are you studying for an exam? Then you should probably complete your textbook several days before the exam and spend the remaining time revising what you learned and reviewing old exams (when available).
Are you learning a new language? Then you should also plan how much time you will dedicate to complementary learning activities (i.e. reading foreign newspapers, watching foreign movies, talking with native speakers online).
Example: Mike is learning how to play the guitar. He has spent the last month learning new songs by watching practical video tutorials, but he hasn’t studied a lot of music theory, which is slowing his learning process down because he can’t move on to more advanced songs. He decides to revise his study plan for the following month and to balance the number of daily hours dedicated to studying music theory and the number of hours during which he will learn and practicing new songs.
Low motivation is probably the biggest obstacle learners face when studying on their own. You have a study plan for that particular course, you know how many hours a day you should spend studying the theory and/or doing exercises, but you just can’t get yourself to do it.
So how do you overcome low motivation?
1) Create a micro-plan for the day – Splitting your daily study session into smaller chunks and taking short breaks in-between can help you make studying less demotivating.
Each chunk can equal a certain number of pages/paragraphs or a certain number of hours/minutes.
It also helps to do something relaxing during each break (like listening to a song or just laying on your bed with your eyes closed for some minutes).
Example: Sandra should study 30 pages a day if she wants to complete the textbook before the next examination. She divides these 30 pages into 6 smaller checks of 5 pages each. She will study 5 pages, take a 10-minute break, and then move on to the next 5 pages. When she has completed all 30 pages, she’ll make a final 20-minute break before repeating what she has learned throughout her entire daily study session.
2) Get used to doing things you don’t like – It would be great if all activities we do in life were as exciting as watching a movie with our friends or playing with our dog.
Sadly, we often have to venture out of our comfort zone and complete tasks we don’t particularly like.
Throughout your day, get used to doing small tasks that are useful but that you don’t necessarily enjoy.
This will strengthen your willpower and you will notice the benefits when studying alone.
3) Find your own source of enthusiasm – Enthusiasm is like a turbocharger. It’s an unstoppable source of energy that gets you excited about certain activities or tasks because of an implied emotional connection.
People who are able to connect the task at hand to an inner source of enthusiasm can “put wings on their feet” and achieve much more and with much less effort.
For some learners, the prospect of starting a career in a field they love can be a source of enthusiasm.
For others, the idea of improving their social status can be a source of enthusiasm.
For somebody, simply getting to the end of the week knowing “they have done their homework” so that they can go out partying with their friends can be enough to motivate them.
What’s your own source of enthusiasm, and how can you connect it to your current studies?
Example: Kevin is a graduate student who is studying for a Master of Science in Computer Science. His biggest dream is to work for a top software company and to develop an innovative app. When his motivation is down, he stops for a couple of minutes and thinks about how many doors will open after he completes his Master’s degree. This thought instantly gives him a positive feeling and increases his current motivation level.
4) Surround yourself with positive examples – Being surrounded by inspiring people who achieved their goals in life or in a specific area of expertise can be a very motivating factor.
If you know one or more such people, consider spending more time around them. Make them a part of your life. Their “aura” will have great positive effects on your will to achieve the goals you have set for yourself.
Such inspiration can also be drawn from people you don’t know in person but whose influence you can feel when you read a book they wrote, when you watch a video of a motivational speech they gave or when you learn about their lives, how they overcame major obstacles and what contribution they gave to others or the world.
5) Read motivational quotes – Let the words of famous achievers inspire you. Did you check our article on motivational quotes for students?
So, you have set up your study plan, you have the right amount of motivation but you are having problems assimilating new notions and concepts without the help of a teacher or study partner.
This normally means your study method is not the right one for you or for the subject you are studying.
Here are some tips that can help you overcome these sorts of obstacles.
1) Reflecting – This may sound obvious, but it’s not. A lot of students see the learning process as the accumulation of notions they don’t fully understand. They are fine as long as they can re-write them on their exam paper or repeat them like parrots at the next oral exam.
After reading a chapter, a paragraph, a passage, or a case study from your textbook or any other learning resource, you should take your time to reflect on what you have just read, on its connections with other notions you have learned and on its implications in a practical situation.
Don’t just see what you read as a “bunch of words” but try to visualize what the text is actually trying to convey in real-life terms.
Example: Kate is a college student who enrolled in a history class. She is very good at memorizing things and she is confident that repeating what the history textbook says is enough to get a good grade at her next oral exam. During the examination, the teacher stops her and asks her: “What long-term impact do you think the French revolution had on the internal politics of other European countries?”. She finds herself unable to answer this question because during her study she never practiced reflection and she is not able to think of historical events in an interdependent way.
2) Taking Notes Effectively + Paraphrasing – When reading a book and taking notes. a lot of students tend to summarize each sentence they read and to transcribe it.
By doing this, they often miss the basic concepts and notions that chapter or paragraph is trying to convey.
Rather than writing a shorter version of what your textbook says, you should rather extrapolate the “useful knowledge” contained in that paragraph.
It’s also very helpful to you use your own words to explain that concept. Once you can say what’s written on the book with your own words, you have taken a major step towards assimilation that concept. It has become “yours”.
While taking notes, you should also highlight and understand what connections are there between the concepts you learned. Using arrows and different text colors is a very effective way of doing this.
Example: The following is an excerpt from an article on the history of the internet on the website internetsociety.org:
Here is how these concepts can be paraphrased and how the connections between them can be highlighted by using arrows and different colors:
3) Don’t be afraid to consult other sources – This is especially true for those who study very technical studies.
Let’s say your textbook includes a lot of practical exercises and study cases. There can be notions and concepts you don’t fully understand and this can prevent you from completing certain exercises.
In this case, you shouldn’t hesitate to use additional sources to find a solution to that problem. You shouldn’t see this as a “betrayal” of your official textbook. Remember that a textbook is just one of the several tools you use to improve your knowledge and skills.
The internet is full of tutorials, guides, courses, and also student forums and groups where you can ask questions and advice to people that are not physically present.
Example: Matt is studying by distance learning for a Master of Science in Statistics.
He has finished studying the theory, but he doesn’t understand how a certain exercise can be solved. He looks online, and he finds three forums for online students. So he asks his question on all of these forums.
Three days later he has received six answers and two of these help him to finally solve the exercise.
Studying Remotely? Avoid Isolation.
We dedicate this last section to those who study remotely (for example an online course or a distance-learning degree). One specific risk these learners often face is to see their daily number of social interactions drop drastically.
While students who enroll in ordinary academic or professional courses naturally run into professors, students, and course advisors throughout their day, those who study by distance learning don’t.
It’s important not to underestimate the negative impact that social isolation can have on your performance as a learner. We are social beings and our brain needs to be around others to work effectively.
Consider studying at the library or at a coworking place. If there aren’t any nearby, take a break from your study from time to time and take a short walk at the park or around your town.
These small things can help you stay relaxed and in tune with your social environment, which can only have a positive effect on your ability to learn new things.
(Last updated on July 1, 2020)