I am studying for a qualification in eye care. I read all of the copies of slides the lecturers give me but nothing seems to stick in my mind. I’m struggling to understand things and only just passed my first exams last week. What should I do? 

 I worked in higher education for 25 years and 20 of those were as a lecturer.  

 Unfortunately, university and college faculty don’t highlight that it’s not enough to memorize bullet points on a Powerpoint slide. Deeper understanding is required and that comes from two things: reading properly set out narrative in books and research papers and from properly engaging with the information in books and papers. It’s not enough to read. To convert information to knowledge you need to engage with the words. 

 My lowest point as a lecturer came when a student complained ‘I don’t see why I should be expected to read nearly a whole book to complete this course.’ Very sad, but partially my fault for not explaining clearly enough that reading narrative in book chapters was an important part of learning. 

 Here is the advice I give to those of you studying for new qualifications or thinking about doing so. 

 Review your notes every evening and at the weekends. 

Look up words you don’t know and write down their meaning.  

Interact with the words. 

Form a 2-3 person study group and asked members about concepts you don’t understand.  

Make appointments with staff. 

Get hold of past exam questions and write out model answers.  

Review your work. 

Reflect on things that went well and understand why they went well. 

Reflect on things that went badly and why they went badly. Develop a process to avoid this happening again. 

 The biggest mistake is to think that reading is enough. Some students complain to me. They ask why they get poor exam marks when they read a lot. Reading is not enough. You have to interact with the words, underline, highlight, look up words, ask when you are unsure. Add your own notes. Make flashcards. Look at videos. Practice techniques outside of the lab with your friends.

Review. Get to understand. Memorising is not enough. If you understand, you can apply your knowledge to a wider range of problems. In practice reading the manual is not enough. You have to practice the technique. Practice might not make perfect but it definitely makes better. Get good at it by doing it. 

 I think the tried and test method of learning, engagement, practice, review, and reflection are the key to learning. 

People often don’t think they can afford the time to reflect to sit quietly with no distractions and think about what happened. Play it back in your mind. They can’t afford not to reflect. 

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