How to Ace Your Worst School Subject

Three Methods:Studying EffectivelyGetting the Most Out of the ClassLooking at the Big Picture

Often, there is one subject in school that you struggle to master. But with enough effort, plus some smart strategies, you can learn to succeed in that subject – whether it’s math, English, physics, history, or anything else.

Method 1
Studying Effectively

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    Ask yourself challenging questions. Struggling to retrieve information, even if you think you don’t know the answer, actually helps you to develop your power of recall.[1]
    • When reading a textbook, turn first to the questions as the end of the chapter and try to answer them. Then, answer them again to yourself as you are reading. A few days later, return to the questions one more time to test your recollection of the material.
    • Before searching for an answer on the internet, pause and try to generate an answer for yourself.
    • When you sit down to study, ask yourself: what have we learned about this week? What are the big ideas that I’m supposed to learn? Refresh your mind before you even open a book or notebook.
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    Restate material in your own words. Translating what you've learned into your own words is a useful test of whether you're absorbing the material. And, it helps to cement it in your mind.[2]
    • After you’ve done a section of reading or listened to a lecture, put it aside. Take out a clean sheet of paper and write down the main points of what you’ve learned. Don’t look back at the original: the idea is to solidify your own understanding.
    • You can practice this while reading complicated text. Pause every page or so, and try to restate the gist in your mind. If you can’t do it, it means you’re not absorbing anything while you read!
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    Break your study sessions up. Don’t try to cram for ten hours straight: instead, do one or two hours every day. [3] Test your memory briefly at the end of each session by asking yourself what you’ve just learned or running through test questions or flashcards.
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    Switch off between the difficult subject and other subjects. This is called “interweaving”: you study one subject for a couple of hours, then turn to an entirely different subject.[4] It might feel more challenging in the moment, as if you’re starting from square one each time you pick up the next subject. In the long run, though, you will absorb much more information.
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    Change locations. Study in a library one day, and a café the next. Learning the same material in different locations helps to anchor it more firmly in your mind.[5]
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    Practice, practice, practice. Do the practice problems at the end of the textbook chapter, even if they’re not assigned. Whereas homework problems can look overwhelming, working your way through drill problems can build familiarity and confidence: this is called practicing in a low-stakes environment.[6] Check your answers to get immediate feedback.
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    Leave time to revisit your work. Aim to finish essays or problem sets ahead of time, and then go over them again the next day with fresh eyes.
    • If you struggle with writing, try reading your work out loud. Listen to yourself: do your words make sense? Reading an essay backwards can reveal typos.[7]

Method 2
Getting the Most Out of the Class

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    Follow the assignments carefully. Most courses are designed to guide you, step by step, through a subject. If you have a syllabus, read it closely and try to follow its directions and suggestions. In other classes, pay attention to the calendar of assignments. Otherwise, you might find yourself trying to tackle an impossible task at the end of the term.
    • Don’t skip class.[8] In class, focus on understanding what’s being said rather than writing every word down in your notes.
    • Don’t try to multitask in class. Close any distractions such as e-mail or social media. This kind of multitasking undermines your learning.[9]
    • Attend any extra test-preparation or study sessions offered.
    • Complete all the assignments in order and on time. Take on suggested reading or supplementary problems if possible.
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    Study with friends.[10] Sometimes, you may overestimate how easy everyone else finds a particular class or subject. Studying with friends can offer moral support. In addition, you may understand a particular concept better if you hear someone else explain it.
    • Talk with your study group about what confuses you. Articulating the problem is frequently the first step to solving it.
    • Choose a study group that suits you. You want a group where you can learn, but not feel overwhelmed or intimidated.
    • Be especially careful not to rely too heavily on friends who find the subject easy. In the end, you will need to learn the material thoroughly for yourself.
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    Explain the material to someone who isn’t in your class. Talk to a roommate, a friend, or a sibling, and try to teach them the subject to the best of your ability.
    • Grab a whiteboard or large piece of paper so that you can sketch out concepts.
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    Seek out different ways of absorbing material. Learning the same material through different modes can increase retention.[11] If a particular style of learning appeals to you, make studying more pleasant by finding multiple ways to learn through that style.
    • If you learn well by listening to someone explain something, try looking up online lectures or demonstrations on the topics that confuse you.
    • Go to the library and check out another textbook on the topic. Does this one explain it in a way that is easier to understand?
    • If there are multiple sections or recitations for the class, check them all out. Some teachers will be a better fit for you than others.
    • Is there a movie or novel that relates to your difficult subject? Set aside some time for it. A dry history textbook might be more engaging after you’ve watched a movie set in the same time and place, for example.
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    Get to know your teacher.[12] Visit office hours and ask questions. Don’t be afraid: your teacher wants to help you understand. Be prepared to explain what you’ve done to figure out the answers on your own, and where you got stuck: this will help your teacher to see that you’re trying hard and it might help them to understand what’s causing you trouble.
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    Find out if you have a learning disability. Do you find it difficult in general to read, or to remember, or to follow directions or stay organized? It might not just be the one subject: it’s possible you have a learning disability.[13] Talk to a teacher or a guidance counselor. With appropriate support, people with learning disabilities can be highly successful in academics.

Method 3
Looking at the Big Picture

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    Get enough rest. Few teenagers get the nine hours of sleep per night recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.[14] But fatigue dramatically hinders brain function. It’s far better to get a good night’s sleep than to go through those flash cards one more time.
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    Take breaks in your work to allow for recovery and flashes of insight. When you’ve been working on a difficult problem and feel stuck, take break. Go for a walk, make soup, or do some yoga. Your brain may be puzzling out the problem in the background, allowing for a flash of insight that will move you forward.[15]
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    Manage distractions. Don’t let your struggle with the subject lead you into endless procrastination.
    • Set a timer for twenty or thirty minutes. Work steadily for that time and then allow yourself five minutes to relax and recover. Repeat.[16]
    • Turn off the internet, if possible, while working on your computer in order to focus on the task at hand.
    • Close your computer altogether and try working on the subject with pen and paper, away from any digital devices.
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    Try different things. No matter what anyone says, there’s no one, single way to learn a subject. Play around with different study techniques, different ways of taking notes, and different approaches to solving problems. The goal is not only to learn the subject, but to become a better, more effective student overall.
    • For example, notice how you respond to different noise levels. Some people work best in quiet, while others prefer the hum of activity around them.[17]
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    Don’t let the subject intimidate you. When you’ve struggled with a subject for a while, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Try to cultivate a sense of curiosity instead.
    • Confusion is a sign of “beginner’s mind,” which is a state that can lead to profound insights and learning. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s a necessary part of creativity.[18]
    • Learn more about the subject in other contexts. Read newspaper articles about how the subject is applied in the larger world. Ask your teacher why they are passionate about the topic. Seeing real-life applications might help kindle your interest in the subject.
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    Reward your hard work and recognize your achievements. Plan small treats for yourself along the way. Once you finish a difficult reading, for example, eat something tasty or go outside and play a game. At the end of the semester, throw yourself a party! People who reward themselves actually gain in self-control.[19]

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Categories: Learning Techniques and Student Skills | Improving And Maintaining Grades | Translation to Spanish