LTC Brechin, USAF, Ret.
Academic Success at the U.S. Service Academies
Staring at the book and hoping for the best does not work . . .
When I was a cadet, and later as a teacher at the U.S Air Force Academy, we had the "How to Study" Program (HTSP) for our students. Fortunately, I did not need the program, as I learned 'how to study' in high school. I became better at it as an AF cadet.
As an instructor, I found that many cadets did not have to 'study' in high school. They were very bright so many topics in school came easily with little work or effort. However, as cadets, with very full schedules of academics, athletics and military duties, a number of the cadets hit a 'wall' and experienced stress, struggles and failures. HTSP provided the tools to allow many of these cadets to succeed.
My advice to you is to learn personal time management and effective study skills today while you are in high school. You may not 'need' them now, but you will!
In short, here are my time management and study habits recommendations:
Take control of your calendar and plan your week.
Review each class, and record what is required for each one.
Reserve time in your calendar to complete your work.
Review your plans daily (before you go to bed).
When you study, find a good place and minimize distractions.
Conduct effective study sessions by setting goals, focusing and taking breaks.
Space out your studies.
Study with a group.
Take practice tests.
Let's take a few moments to dig into each of my recommendations . . .
THE FIRST STEP IS TO 'CONTROL YOUR CALENDAR.'
Plan your week
Use the same time each week to sit down and review your calendar. Sunday evenings are an ideal time to take 30 to 45 minutes to make these plans.
Review each class, and record what is required for each one
Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, calls these requirements, the "Big Rocks." They represent the most important items to accomplish during the week so these tasks and assignments should be noted first during your planning to allow sufficient time to finish each one.
Reserve time in your calendar to complete your work
Look at each assignment and reserve time during the weekend or during the weekdays to complete the work. Prioritize the most critical items in case you 'run out' of calendar time. It will happen often as a cadet or midshipman.
As a cadet, you will need to use your weekends for reading many of your weekly assignments. Each course syllabus provides all of the details to allow you, in advance, to read your history assignments, English pages and other homework that you may be able to accomplish 'early.' By doing this work, it will allow you to save the three-hour study periods during the week for math, engineering or science homework that often requires the previous lesson to accomplish the next lesson's assignment.
You must be aware of your deadlines and plan the timing necessary to complete your assignments. As a cadet, I would often finish writing assignments early and ask the instructor if they would review it with me for additional improvements or other changes. It was one of my 'little tricks' to making Dean's List. Remember it takes deliberate planning to accomplish homework on time and early.
Review your plans daily (before you go to bed)
Waking up with a plan will make you more productive. Integrating all of your tasks into your daily schedule, including school work, is an important part of being a cadet or midshipman.
Now that you have made the time to complete your work and prepare for classes, you must use your study time effectively.
GOOD STUDY HABITS SHOULD INCLUDE . . .
Finding a good place to study and minimize distractions
For me and other cadets, that AFA library was an ideal location to study. It was quiet with dedicated cubicles to allow someone to avoid the distractions of rooming with others cadets in the squadron. Finding and using a consistent place to study is a great way to create 'study habits.'
Two distractions (that we did not have at the time) are your cell phone and the local WiFi network. You must learn to put away your phone and turn off notifications. If you do not need the WiFi network with your computer, then you should disconnect to avoid inadvertently roaming into internet distractions.
Effective study sessions: set goals, focus and take breaks
Define what you want to accomplish with each study session. I suggest starting with your most challenging subject first. Focus on 45 to 50 minute segments followed by a 10 minute break. Take a walk, do some push-ups, get some fresh air, or similar, during your break. Then, start your next 'segment.'
Your segments should be focused. In the HTS Program at the AF Academy, students used a timer to practice and improve their focus. The timer was stopped each time the student broke concentration and restarted when they re-engaged with the study materials. The goal was to improve a students ability to focus for longer periods of time. It was a great way to practice and strengthen this important study habit 'skill.'
When studying for a test, collect and organize your notes and other materials. Conduct your reviews by topic using the course syllabus. Note the defined learning objectives for each lesson covered by the test as they will provide a roadmap for your learning and study.
As a former AF Academy Physics (Associate) Professor, I can tell you that to be successful in STEM courses, you must 'work' the problems. You must be an "active learner"! Read the textbook and follow each example that the author presents to you. Stop and use a pencil and paper to repeat the process of solving the problem. Ensure that you understand the steps and the 'how & why' of each one. Ideally, you would reverse the problem, and start with the 'result' and solve for the initial conditions set by the author.
Spacing out your studies
Plan multiple study 'segments' to help you learn and retain information. It is widely understood that students retain material when it is read, reviewed and studied over separate and multiple periods of time. Long 'cram' sessions are less effective as it is more difficult to concentrate and focus over the duration.
Allow yourself a 'reward' when you keep on schedule and complete your work. A small reward, like a candy bar or a quick video game session, is great. For longer sessions and bigger goals reached, allow yourself to have some time with friends or a date night. As a cadet, I often used weekends to read and complete my assignments, and then I would allow myself to head 'downtown' on Saturday evening as a reward.
Studying with a group
Periodic sessions with others may help you work through difficult assignments, reinforce your learning, provide encouragement and make learning more enjoyable. My roommate and I were Physics majors in our junior and senior years at the Academy. Our work together was great reinforcement and provided some valuable assistance during my time as a cadet.
Taking practice tests
Testing yourself is a good method of checking on your learning and preparations. It can be quite effective. If you don't have access to any practice tests, try creating flashcards, composing your own questions, searching online for practice questions and asking your study partners to test you.
The following articles are some very good resources for you discussing good study habits and your approach to making time to study and completing your academic assignments. They are:
Studying 101: Study Smarter Not Harder from The Learning Center at the University of North Carolina
10 Habits of Highly Effective Students by Becton Loveless
11 Good Study Habits to Develop from Coursera
Time management and strong study habits will be critical skills for you to have when you become a cadet or a midshipman. I strongly encourage you to develop and practice these skills now while you are in high school. 'Sow' these habits and you will 'reap' a destiny!
[I would welcome a chance to discuss details with you. I offer coaching services to pace and prepare you (and your parents!) for the entire Academy application process . . . along with the some advice around your study habits! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or 503.515.7406]