Burning the Midnight Oil: Or, How to Make the Most of Your Studying

By Dr. Steven C. Scheer, Ph.D.

The phrase “burning the midnight oil” is as old as the hills. Some phrases like that go back to a former time before the days of electricity, when kerosene lamps were used. These lamps burned oil (and they still do). So the idea of burning midnight oil means reading or writing in the wee hours. Studying, in short.

Young people are notorious for staying up late and sleeping in. Older people going back to college, on the other hand, usually hold down day jobs, which makes it necessary for them to study late in the evening. In either case, I am talking about making the most of your time set aside for studying.

There are three factors involved here: (1), listening well. This means both when listening to a live lecture – online or offline – or to when it comes to reading. Reading is a kind of listening to, except here the speaker is a writer and you are keeping your eyes rather than your ears open. I shall have more to say about this in future columns. Let’s just say now that you really have to pay attention. Otherwise you are not going to pick up much.

(2), This second factor is the other side of the coin. Yes, reading is what I am talking about now. When you are reading, it’s important that you don’t drift off into daydreams. I likened reading to a kind of listening above. So let me ask you a simple question now: when you are listening to a friend, do you drift into daydreams? You are very likely to hand on to his or her every word. You must do the same thing when you read. Especially, when the reading in question is not just for fun, but for preparing yourself for a big test. If you pay attention as if your life depended on it, you are likely to retain much of what you read.

(3), Taking notes in either case is the final factor. But how should you do this to really be to your advantage? Try to distinguish between main points and supporting elements. What’s the big idea? And what’s evidence for it? If you get the main idea, it will be easy to remember the details that go with it. Don’t get bogged down in the details. See the forest itself, in spite of the trees.

The whole point of studying is to gain knowledge. First in order to pass tests, but later in order to apply that knowledge in your future career. Doctors and lawyers and other professionals can’t forget what they learn. Neither can engineers or plumbers or electricians. No one can really afford to lose their hard-earned knowledge.

To keep your hard-earned knowledge, you need to make sure that it moves from your short-term to your long-term memory. There are ways of doing this. One is by means of repetition. If you have a recording of a lecture, listen to it more than once. If you learned something by reading it, read it again and again.

A sure-fire way to make sure that you will remember what you have learned is to keep in mind what I had said earlier about distinguishing main ideas from supporting evidence. If you understand a main idea, what something is for, for example, you are more likely to remember the details, what that something is usually used for.

If you study well (and keep these tips handy), you will do well on the tests you take. There is one more thing I’d like to touch upon here right now. Questions imply the answers necessary to respond to them correctly. No, they don’t contain them, but they do imply them.

Suppose I ask you for the time of day. How does my question imply the correct answer? Obviously, it immediately makes you look at your watch.  Or if you don’t have a watch, you are likely to say either that you don’t know or that the last time you knew it was pushing high noon. See how that works?

Let’s take a more germane example: you are taking a test in history. Your essay question is, “What were some of the causes of the French Revolution?” How does this question imply the correct answer? Well, does it not ask you to think back to what led up to that famous revolution? Things like the people’s dissatisfaction with the abuses committed against them by royalty and the aristocracy?

The point is that if you have studied, your mind will kick in as soon as it needs to fall back on the knowledge you have acquired. That’s just how your mind works. So burn that proverbial midnight oil well, and you will do just fine. 

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