I always get a little nervous at this time of year – It is sixteen weeks until my first exam. We just enjoyed the long holiday season that, at my house, begins in mid-November, and now are settling into a cold, snowy winter. January can leave me feeling a little disengaged from my study process and maybe even in a bit of a panic, especially with four courses to prepare for exams. It is time to consider how I study, what methods work well for me, and how I can make the best use of my time over the next three and a half months. It is important to develop a method to manage the work over the next sixteen weeks, and ensure my time is used wisely.
Some local study colleagues and I have been discussing study strategies and expectations. According to their experience, it is reasonable to expect to cover about one thousand pages per course per week. That seems about right to me, based on my reading schedule so far and the material I need to engage with between now an exam time. It comes out to three to four books per week, and around a few dozen articles per course.
We set our own study agenda. Why would I want to engage with so much material? Because I want to understand a range of scholarship and criticism on the authors and topics I am studying. For me, it is difficult to articulate an opinion on a topic without first engaging with a wide range of scholarship.
‘1,000 Pages per Week’ is a common reading goal and challenge for many students in humanities courses. I am a slow reader. It takes me about six hours to read one hundred pages. Clearly I need a good strategy or I will not be able to engage with the range of materials that ensure a successful exam attempt.
Let me share my study group’s thoughts about rising to the ‘1,000 Pages per Week’ challenge, and the process we came up with for the next sixteen weeks:
1. Know your study strengths and weaknesses. For example:
a. Strength: I read slowly but really enjoy close reading of primary texts. My focus will be on close reading of short passages and using them to illustrate points of criticism.
b. Weakness: I often have not engaged with enough of a range of scholarship to fully develop a considered essay. Focusing my reading time on critical essays and scholarship can improve my engagement with exam questions.
2. Follow the ‘Odd Man’ strategy. This means I can focus on two or three courses and apply my reading to the remaining ones, or depend on discussion groups for one course on weeks with heavy reading in the others. Or the novels and scholarship I am researching for three of my units can also be used in ‘The Novel,’ and I can also use specific research from ‘The Novel’ course in other units.
3. Focused, in-depth study is more productive than superficial reading. For example, I can study one or two narrative strategies in all four of my courses and really master the topic, and research the same theme, like gender, in all four courses.
4. If you have study partners, read each other’s working papers.
5. Participate in discussion groups.
6. I do not have to read every word. Learn to skim and summarize material. For me, this is an acquired skill and not something that comes naturally. Some people do better reading every word, but I am not one of them. Unfortunately skimming was not easy at first. And it is difficult to summarize if I am hanging on every word and taking too many notes. One way to approach the task is to be in the habit of answering these questions when reading scholarship:
a. What is the author’s research question?
b. What is the argument?
c. What method is used to answer the question?
d. What evidence is used to support the claims?
The answers to a, b, and c can usually be located in the first few pages of an article. Skim the rest of the article to locate the supporting evidence.
7. Summarize new material in every study session, at the end of each article or reading of a primary text. About a third of my study time each day is dedicated to summarizing my reading. This helps me really learn the topics.
8. Rely on the index to narrow my reading focus and cover a wider range of scholarship.
9. Read and engage with everything that is assigned.
That’s the plan to use my time wisely for the next sixteen weeks. It is going to be demanding, require a great deal of discipline, and a lot of energy. These courses are very important to me, and I want to engage with the material. Studying in our program is a unique opportunity and I want to make the most of it, and improve my 2014 exam results just as I did in 2013. 1,000 pages per week – we’re going for it!
Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes. She lives in Pittsburgh in the United States.