The Study Dude—Small Wins Add Up

We students might start a course overwhelmed, uncertain, wondering whether we’ll pass. For instance, math classes can create a lot of anxiety. And anyone taking a five-course load needs to get time-efficient fast.

The goal is to do well in a course. A lot of battles will occur along the way. There may be an assignment, a midterm, another assignment, quizzes, and a final exam. A lab or tutorial might also loom. But each of those battles amount to small wins that add up to victory.

The wins boost self-esteem. They raise confidence. They teach us better study habits. They give us the power to push the grades even higher the next class.

The victory is in learning the process that is necessary to succeed. Each small win cements our knowledge of how to succeed. Each small win creates grooves and connections in the brain that transform us into powerhouses of thought.

A small win is basically decomposing a large problem into bite sized pieces. Let’s break down writing an essay into small wins: dissecting the course outline is the starting point. The course outline relays information on due dates, exams, paper topics, and graded weight for each assignment. These bits of information need to be burned into our memory, placed on calendars, in visual view at least once a day.

Papers, like most everything worthy of achieving, need to be broken down into small wins. For instance, once we know the assigned topic for an essay, we should gather books and articles that same day. No hesitation. And then we can plan our papers using a 1:2:0.5 model. Meaning if we have only three-and-a-half weeks to research and write a paper, we should dedicate one week to researching, two weeks to creating an outline and writing, and half a week to editing. Many of us may find that the outlining and writing take up the brunt of the time, so squeezing in some outlining during the research stage can pay off.

But key is to spend a little bit of time each day on the process, dedicating heavier amounts at the beginning of each stage to make headway.

Remember to dedicate as much time as possible to writing an essay, preferably at least a month.

For the research stage, try printing out articles in bulk. Then you can speed read through each article, highlighting salient points. Beside each quote highlighted, write a one to three word summary of its topic in the margin. You’ll likely find patterns will emerge with similar topics.

Next, you can write down each highlighted quote on a cue card or type them all up in an outline. With each cue card or outline entry, it’s vital to include the in-text citation and bibliographic reference.

Now on the back of each cue card there’s room to write the topic in one to three words. That makes it easy to group all the cue cards by similar topics. With enough research, you should end up with at least three piles, each pile focused on a specific topic, each filled with cue cards. Now you just need to see if you can find a common thread to weave the three topics into a three-part thesis statement.

As a caveat, it takes at least sixteen articles and books (mostly articles) to have enough fodder to write an A paper.

Three topics, that’s enough for a thesis statement. For instance, one topic might be “historical context,” another might be “the ultimate revolution,” and a third might be “the role of opposition.” This suggests a thesis statement saying “an effective revolution depends, in part, on three key considerations: (1) it’s historical context, (2) the model of the ultimate revolution, and (3) the role of the opposition.”  For academic writing, you’ll probably want to use hedge language, too, such as “in part” to prevent any assertions from being incorrect.

Whether using the cue card system or a typed up outline, we need to have either method typed and structured in outline format. In the outline, each of the three topics in the thesis statement would contain subheadings, each subheading with three or more quotes. Microsoft Word has an outline view that can help with this if you remember to use it.

Once the outline is structured, the paper writes itself. Just write a sentence before each quote providing context and a sentence after the quote suggesting how it ties into the argument. Then, when the paper is finished, you’ll want to consider two or more rounds of edits. If possible, take a day or two off between each edit, preferably two days. The break lets us approach the paper fresh—and better ensures we don’t overlook mistakes.

As a final caveat, an A paper typically has zero spelling errors and zero grammatical errors. Plus the structure needs to be sound.

Each step has its system, and completing it is a small win. Together, those small wins should add up to a class-act grade.

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