Most kids love the idea of staying home from school for a day. But that delighted feeling swiftly disappears when you’re sick in bed all day every day.
During most of my high school years, I was too ill to go to class. Even the simplest parts of a normal school day tested my endurance: the constant pain from sitting behind a desk, listening to the teacher’s instructions with a foggy brain, taking written tests with inflamed shoulders, the everlasting fatigue that influenced every aspect of my life.
So ever since I was 15, I had to rely solely on self-study from home to earn my high school diploma and later my Psychology degree from the Dutch Open University.
But getting an education when you’re chronically ill comes with its own set of problems, even if you’re able to attend class. For some sick students, a full-time schedule might be too demanding. Others could have severe trouble with concentration, memory and ‘mental stamina’ due to their symptoms or side-effects of medication.
If you’re a young student with chronic illness or disabilities, what are you to do?
First and foremost, get informed about the possibilities. What are the available options to facilitate studying at your school or uni? Do you need modifications or special aids? Could you get extensions on tests and papers or personal examination arrangements if necessary? Can you join some classes from your bed via Skype sessions? Set up an appointment with the principal, students services department or disabilities centre to explore your options.
If attending a regular college or university is too taxing, you could look into institutions that enable distance-studying such as Open University or certified online courses.
However, because there are so many individual differences when it comes to health, abilities and regulations per country, this article will solely focus on how to study smarter, not harder, when you’re chronically ill.
And although the advice below mainly deals with getting a formal education (secondary or high school, college, university), that doesn’t mean that these tips only apply to young students. In our rapidly changing world, we all need to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in our field. So if your health problems are getting in the way of learning new skills for your current job or retraining for a new career, implement those study strategies that are relevant to your situation.
23 Scientifically Proven Study Strategies
The first step to scholastic success is to create a realistic study schedule. To quote Alan Lakein: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
- Break down big projects into concise and doable tasks. Split writing a long paper or cramming for finals into well-defined chunks of work and plan how much time you’ll need to accomplish each task. For example, instead of thinking “Today I’m going to study for my history exam“, say “Between 3pm and 5pm, I will read Chapter 10 to 12 on World War II and memorize all the significant data and events mentioned“. Having a specific and achievable game plan helps to use your time and energy wisely instead of fiddling around wondering which assignment you should try to tackle next. Plus, it’s a lot easier to establish what you’ve achieved and how much you still have left to do.
- Schedule breaks. Our brains have a hard time concentrating on one thing for more than 45 minutes. What’s more, the natural ebb and flow of our energy throughout the day works in 90-minute cycles, which is called ‘ultradian rhythm’. Whatever the length of time that you are able to fully focus (which may be short due to your health problems, and that’s ok!), plan breaks in between your tasks to recharge.
- Leave enough time for revisions. When you’ve got an important exam, you should count on more than one study session to retain the material instead of trying to cram it all in in one sitting. According to research, the optimal interval for learning new information is two study periods 1 or 2 days apart.
- Build in time buffers. You will have days when pain, fatigue or flare ups will get in the way of your best laid plans. Getting stressed out over deadlines and pulling all-nighters is the last thing you need when you’re already struggling with studying. So leave extra time in your schedule for (somewhat) unexpected hick-ups.
- Study during your peak mental hours. Reserve the time of day when you feel your best to work on the most important, high-focus tasks. If you feel most active and alert in the morning, don’t waste your precious energy on trivial things like mindless browsing during that time, but concentrate on what you’d like to accomplish that day. Save tasks that require less brain power (project-related email, planning or minor research) for moments when you’re likely to be tired. As explained in ‘The Power of Full Engagement’, the key to high performance is managing energy, not time.
2. Setting the Scene
Next, set up a productive workspace:
- Depending on your health, chose a workspace that puts little strain on your body but does get you in the right head space for a focused study session. For that reason, as well as keeping a good ‘sleep hygiene’, studying in bed is not recommended unless you’re not able to sit up for a while.
- Give your workstation an ergonomic makeover. Make a one-time effort to set up your desk and keyboard in the right position and adjust your office chair to best support your body during your study sessions. You could also consider whether you need to make more personalised modifications to create an optimal learning environment for you.
- Moving around before sitting down helps to increase the blood flow to your brain. Don’t do anything too tiring – you need your energy for studying – but try some gentle stretching or go for a short walk.
- Remove distractions. Staying focused on difficult material is hard enough as it is without constant interruptions from friends, social media updates or physical distractions. So as boring as it sounds, it pays off to keep your desk clutter-free and turn off your notifications while you’re hitting the books.
- Create a short ritual you can do before every study session to easily get into a state of ‘flow’. Do you like to put on easy listening music or sip a cup of green tea as you’re working on your essay? When you’re building good study habits, the little behaviours you associate with studying can serve as cues that trigger the necessary actions and mindset. So even something as simple as sitting down with a latte and putting on your headphones before you hit the books could signal to your mind that it’s time to get focused and work.
3. Optimising Your Unique Learning Style
What’s the easiest way for you to absorb new information?
Everyone has their own learning style. Some people best recall the lecture they’ve heard, while others vividly remember passages and images from text books. Or maybe you’re like me, and writing things down is the best way to internalize information for you.
Whether you’re more of a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner, it can be helpful to experiment with different study methods. When you understand how your mind prefers to process, store and retrieve information, you can make the most of your study sessions. Also, the more ways you experience the material, the more connections your brain makes to access the information.
And in the case of chronic illness, it can come in handy to be able to fall back on other learning styles when a (temporary) handicap gets in the way of your normal study routine. For example, when severe inflamed joints once prevented me from writing an abstract, I crammed the achievements of the pioneers of psychology by repeatedly reading highlighted texts out loud, to tap into both my visual and auditory memory.
What kind of study methods could you try out to optimize your unique learning style?
- Make visual connections between ideas with mind mapping. Instead of linearly writing an abstract, mind mapping works with jotting down key words and concepts around a central thought.
- Stimulate your auditory memory by making audio – recordings of lectures (with permission from your professor of course!), reading aloud, giving a presentation or verbally answering questions from practice tests. You could even watch educational videos to get more familiar with your subject, although that obviously won’t be enough to pass your exams!
- Fully engage yourself in a learning activity: run tests in a science lab, go on a field trip or create an art project around your subject. You can also embrace your kinesthetic side by taking notes by hand or practicing new skills hands-on.
4. Finding Your Flow: Tips to Increase Your Attention Span
When you’re feeling unwell or you’re experiencing side-effects from medications like drowsiness or brain fog, it can be hard to work up the focus you need to study. Luckily, there are some things you can do to improve your attention:
- Reduce your stress levels. You only have a limited capacity to focus, and you don’t want your worries to eat away at your attention span. Easier said than done when you’ve got deadlines and exams coming up, I know! But taking a moment to relax and recharge will help you out in the long run. You can also try these 7 psychological tricks to change the way you look at stressful events you can’t avoid.
- Only do one thing at a time. When you’ve got a lot of work to do, it’s tempting to multitask. But research has repeatedly shown that we’re biologically incapable of processing multiple attention-rich inputs simultaneously. Constantly switching between tasks drains your brain power and actually costs you more time. So stop the mental juggling if you want to study smarter, not harder.
- On that same note, try to limit interruptions by putting your phone on airplane mode and setting up your workplace where people won’t disturb you.
- “Meditation is weightlifting for the mind.” I can’t remember where I read that quote, but it should come as no surprise that the habit of quieting the constant chatter in your head and learning to concentrate will sharpen your study skills. And as a bonus, meditating regularly is also a proven method to relieve stress and anxiety.
- Use classic conditioning techniques to increase your attention span. As I mentioned earlier, you can prime your mind to quickly get into the ‘zone’ by using contextual cues, like making a habit of doing all your ‘deep work’ in the library or putting on instrumental music during study sessions.
5. Study Hacks
- Use storytelling to enhance learning. Throughout history, people have used stories to pass on knowledge and give meaning to stale facts. A narrative structure helps us to absorb information and connect new ideas with our own experiences. One way to apply the power of stories when studying is using vivid metaphors to relate theoretical concepts to your existing knowledge. Another trick is to come up with real life examples to easily retain and recall abstract information.
- If you’re physically able, try taking notes by hand instead of typing. Studies show that you learn more effectively and remember conceptual information better over the long term when you use pen and paper instead of your laptop. Forming letters with your hand seems to engage the brain more than pressing letters on a keyboard. Longhand writing also forces you to carefully select which important information you have to include in your notes, thus stimulating processing. Does the mere thought of putting an abstract on paper give you writer’s cramp? Give mind mapping a go (see above) or just jot down key points like definitions of concept, dates and formulas.
- Trouble getting started with studying and/or single tasking? Try the Pomodoro technique. With this method, you set a timer to focus on one assignment for 25 minutes and when the alarm goes off you take a 5 minute break. You could repeat this sequence 3 times, after which you relax for 30 minutes. But of course you can use this principle to choose any length of time you feel comfortable with to concentrate on the single task at hand.
- Alternate between different types of tasks that each tap into other parts of the brain. For example, after an hour of memorizing data for an upcoming test you could switch to doing some research or roughly outlining your paper instead of cramming Spanish expressions next.
- Take real breaks. Give your mind a proper rest by doing something physical during your breaks rather than checking your email or watching YouTube, which also depletes your brain power instead of restoring it. A great way to ease brain fatigue is taking a walk in the park. Recent research shows that visiting green spaces lowers your stress levels and improves your concentration.
- Get enough sleep before a test. Especially with chronic illness, getting a good night sleep is important to increase your chances of being able to focus, have less pain or symptoms flaring up. What’s more, sleep also plays a vital part in retaining facts and comprehension. So create a realistic study schedule (that leaves enough room for bad days) to avoid pulling an all-nighter before your exam.
- Make sure you have plenty of support, determination and discipline. Doing well in school is hard when you’re struggling with serious health problems, especially when you’re not able to be part of the ‘normal’ high school or college experience. It can be isolating and lonely, when no one really understands what you’re going through. It can take you a frustratingly long time to graduate, even though there’s nothing wrong with your intelligence – it’s just your body that won’t cooperate. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or support. We all need a little encouragement now and then! But even with cheerleaders in your life, you might have days when you feel like giving up. Never lose sight of the big picture, of your ‘why’, but try to take it one step at a time. You will get there in the end.
For more tips on how to study smart, check out the in-depth Study Hacks website from Cal Newport and 50 Tricks to Study Better, Faster and With Less Stress by Scott H. Young.
Do you have any experience with studying with chronic illness? I’d love to hear your story and tried-and-tested tips in the comments!
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