This article is based on a question I received from a reader. While it might normally be put in the Q/A category, I think this topic opens up an interesting learning opportunity in general. This article is not only about how to study vocabulary.
Vocabulary just happens to be the subject. The more important take away from this article is the methodology used to reach the recommended strategies.
When you’re considering how to study vocabulary, or absolutely anything, the first thing you need to look into is the real goals you’re trying to reach.
Studying doesn’t always mean the same thing in different classes. In math class, studying may come down to getting good at following a certain procedure (and knowing what to do when it goes different than usual.) In history class, studying may be learning the story behind a certain historical event. When you’re looking to study vocabulary, the goal is typically to recognize the meaning of words when you see them.
There are a few major factors to consider when studying vocabulary. If you’re just studying a list of words that you already have then this is a relatively mundane memorization task. If you’re like a good percentage of students reading this, you want to study vocabulary that will be randomly selected (like on the SATs.) In this situation, you can’t know exactly which words you need to memorize. That adds an important complicating factor.
Lets face it, it’s impossible to study any notable percentage of the English language (or virtually any language for that matter.) There are just too many potential words. Even if you memorized a whole dictionary you’d end up short of all the words in English. It’s an impossible feat. That brings you to what should be your first concern when studying anything.
What Do You Really Need To Know
Memorizing a list of words is okay but when it comes to vocabulary, it’s often a much better use of your time to spend it less on memorizing individual words and more on memorizing “root” words.
By root, I’m not necessarily only referring to the traditional use of the word. By the root of the word, I’m referring to the basic sounds that tend to mean similar things.
If I were to make up a word like “Audioligraphy,” you could pretty quickly guess that the word has something to do with audio, or sounds, or music. If I gave you a multiple choice test asking what it’s meaning was, it’s unlikely you’d mix the word up for something related to something else. Many words work like that.
If you can learn the roots of words, you’re much more likely to be able to guess the actual meaning of the word. For a multiple choice test, that’s usually enough to give you a solid guess at the answer. Since the roots of words can be involved in multiple words, each one that you memorize is nearly the equivalent to learning multiple actual words.
If you’re learning a common second language, this often fits well with verb endings. Each verb ending may be a different word but most of what you need to know is in the root of the word. Once you master the root of the word, you can just cut and paste the root ending to figure of the meaning of the word. If you haven’t spent much time working in foreign languages then that might not make sense to you.
It’s pointless to waste your time trying to study every individual potential word when you can focus your energy on learning the catch all roots to different words. That’s why contestants in spelling competitions spend so much time focusing on what language a particular word was derived from. Instead of having to know how every single word is spelled, they focus on making as educated a guess as possible knowing that different original languages tend to have words spelled in distinctive ways.
There are tricks like this when you’re going to study just about everything. Things and concepts aren’t created arbitrarily. They’re conceptualized by people in certain categories. If you can figure out what those categories are, it becomes much easier to create an efficient study plan.
One Bite At A Time
I’m sure you’ve heard this idea before.
When you have a big task, the way you approach it can make a big difference in your ability to complete it. For example, if you need to memorize 1,000 words for class, you can think about it in a number of different ways.
You can think “I need to memorize 1,000 words.” If you’re like most students, that sounds like a pretty intimidating task. After thinking that, it’s likely you’ll start stressing out about how difficult it will be. Instead of thinking that way, you might try to find a less intimidating chunking system.
Instead of thinking of the 1,000 individual words, you might think “I need to memorize 20 lists of 50 words.” For most people, that’s a more attainable goal. Sure… it’s the same objectively but you can imagine spending a few session to memorize 50 words.
Completing a single list isn’t quite as intimidating. Of course, you could make it 10 lists of 100 or 100 lists of 10 words. How you choose to chunk that really comes down to you picking the chunk that’s least intimidating to you.
That’s not the only way to chunk things down though. That’s how to study vocabulary. What if that list of words could be categorized by part of speech. So… nouns would be their own category, verbs would be their own category, and so on. This might only split the list into a few categories but the categories end up being much less arbitrary.
That makes studying the list of words easier. Your brain will unintentionally link extra information into the memorization process. Those extra links can make the difference between remembering it and fumbling around trying to remember it.
Making It A Reality
Once you’re able to define the most important information to remember and you break that into manageable chunks, it’s time to make sure that you can complete the steps to mastering it. The only way you can be sure you’ll learn what you need to know is if you make a plan to actually achieve it. Too many students never plan out their studying. They intend to study but they get caught up in a routine of putting it off until later.
The just keep putting it off until it never gets done (or it barely gets done last minute.) Your plan needs to include some kind of a schedule.
When you need to study something, you should always have a super basic study schedule. A study schedule isn’t about discipline. It’s about not needing discipline. It’s more about a habit. Forcing yourself to study is tough but once you get on a study schedule your studying becomes a habit.
Once you have a habit, it starts to become hard to not follow through with that habit. A study schedule lets that habit develop.
Sure, promising to study sometime in the future is good in theory but the problem is, you never know when you’re falling behind. If you promise to study every single night (even if it’s just for a few minutes a night,) then on the night after you make that commitment, you’ll know whether you’re failing to achieve your goal or not.
If you’re like most students who don’t have a plan, you get to say, “well… I was too busy. I’ll do it tomorrow night,” and pretend that you’re still committed.
When you miss an explicitly planned session, you know it.
If you’re wondering how to study vocabulary, or absolutely anything, you don’t need a super complicated strategy from any site. Sure… I highly recommend the 15 minute study strategy (15MSS) described on this blog but you don’t need to overthink any of this information. That doesn’t include homework time. To learn more about how to speed up homework you should read 9 Strategies To Make Homework A Breeze (Cliche Free). There is no way any writer could create your ideal strategy for studying. Your classes are too personal for anyone to be able to design a study strategy specifically for. Instead of relying on someone else to tweak your strategy into perfection, try following these steps to make your session ideal for your own requirements.
- Define the most efficient information that you can focus your studying on.
- Break that information down into manageable chunks.
- Create a plan that you can follow through with or fail (either way you’re better off than if you didn’t have a plan to begin with. If you failed to follow through with a plan then you can at least learn something.)
Do you want to know how to study in less than 15 minutes a night? That’s what this blog is all about. Be sure to read the archives, follow along, and check out the ebooks in the sidebar for all the details.
This is an absolutely essential read for anyone on this blog.
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