When we think of the word “knowledge”, the accompanying images are often shelves upon shelves of dusty tomes awaiting to see the light of the day. However, this image could not be further away from the truth.  A distinction between information and knowledge needs to be made here: what the books store in them is information, and while this information may have great potential, without it being used by a human mind, it is inert; never to touch the world of living. However, knowledge is a different matter entirely. Knowledge is information transformed from something inert into something with a life on its own, like fire from the coals. In a scholar’s mind, knowledge burns in bright colours; illuminating the world and chasing back shadows of ignorance.

Knowledge is raw power. It has saved lives, toppled tyrants, and started revolutions.

And as university students, the modern equivalent of scholars-in-training, our purpose is to make information into knowledge (straw into gold) through the process of studying. Hopefully, if we did it right, with the knowledge would come the power to save our hides from exams.

In the light of this notion, study efficiency can be interpreted as how efficiently one can transform inert information into active knowledge, and I’ll use an analogy of training swordsmen to demonstrate my point.

When we are handed information during lectures, it’s like being handed a sword, an inert weapon that we can use to defend ourselves in the times of midterm and finals. However, the sword won’t swing itself for us; what we need is knowledge – the combination of how to swing a sword plus the sword itself.

Reading through lecture slides is a lot like drilling on dummies using the same basic attack sequence. Undoubtedly, it has its uses – it gets you started by familiarize you with the weight of the sword. And just like the practice sequences, reading through the lecture slides are easy because the profs made it so – the slides are arranged so that one idea will flow into the next and the previous slide can cue you to what’s coming. Unfortunately, this feeling of familiarity can give us a false sense of security and confidence – just because you can beat the dummy on the practice field doesn’t mean you’ll fare as well when facing real opponents.  On the real exam, the nice, orderly flow of information used in lectures is replaced by questions that seems to jump all over the place. As well, just like the basic attack sequence is useless if the opponents fight in a different style, the novel application questions forces you to improvise, to think on your feet in ways that simply reading the lecture slides can’t prepare you for. Therefore, re-reading (or re-listening to) lecture slides may not be very efficient at raising your score.

We all start with practice dummies, but to get better, we must move on to something more challenging

To improve faster, one would go on to sparring with real-life opponents after getting the hang of the basics. Similarly, to get beyond the superficial understanding of lectures, one needs to do practice questions. Here you’d need to actively recall the relevant information and be able to synthesize and use the information in the context provided by the questions. With enough practice, you can quickly learn to wield your knowledge to solve all kinds of problems –  both in practice and on exam. In Western, many of the first and second year past exams are available either online or in print. These questions can efficiently probe for your area of weakness and  force you and push you in ways you do not expect.

Personally, I’d do a 30/70 divide, where I use 30% of my time to quickly scan over the information covered (e.g., pictures and figures); the rest 70% of time I’d spend on doing practice questions.

If you’d missed it, here’s the IntroductionPart I and Part II to this series! If you find this blog interesting or useful, “like” this post to show your appreciation. If you have anything to say, please don’t hesitate to comment!


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