13 Tricks for Reading Boring Assignments

Summer is winding down. The grass is turning brown, foreshadowing the leaves’ imminent descent. Whiffs of sunscreen are slowly being replaced by the scents of paper, new books (!), and all those suit cases that have been moldering in the attic. In other words, school is around the corner.

This semester will be the start of my senior year of college. I go to a liberal arts school and because of the way I’ve tackled the requirements, my final two semesters will consist almost entirely of classes within my major, English. In other words, the next six months will consist of thousands of pages of reading. In preparation of this, I’ve been compiling a list of 13 Tricks for Reading Boring Assignmentstips and tricks I’ve learned to help me–and just maybe all you beautiful, dear readers as well–in the coming months.

  1. Get your syllabus early and start reading over the summer. Yeah, I know. Who wants to spend their free time doing work that isn’t due for a long time? No one. But here’s the deal: it gives you a leg up. You establish a connection with the professor from the get-go and make it SO much easier on yourself in the future. Even if what you’ve read isn’t due for a long time, relearning is quicker than learning the first go round. And if you do choose to reread, I can guarantee that you will see new things, make new connections, and have more ideas for that paper due around the corner.
  2. Make your own reading assignments after the first day of class and start reading that 900 page classic that you’re hypothetically scheduled to read in a week. If it sounds like I’m speaking from experience with this one, it’s because I am. My British Victorian Literature class was supposed to read Middlemarch in a week. Yeah-no. I can assure you that this plan did not match up with reality, and it made my life miserable for a time, since I was scheduled to lead class discussion for the last section. Please, please, please make something positive come out of that experience. For me. For you. For–let’s be honest–your grade. A syllabus contains all the due dates but it’s up to you to make sure you get it done. Forward planning and your own REALISTIC and MANAGEABLE schedule makes all the difference. Having blind faith that you can get all the homework done in the day(s) between classes will lead to sticky moments.
  3. Studying in laundry rooms is awesome and here is why: you’ve got your white noise; you’ve got unique smells (which helps your brain process new material and, if you wear, say, a freshly laundered shirt at test time, the scent will call that information to the forefront again); you’re there when your laundry is done so you don’t hold everyone else’s laundry up (and prevent disgruntled students from handling and displaying your, ahem, intimates when they scoop ’em out and plop ’em on top of the washer); AND you kill two birds with one stone. Who wants to study? Who wants to do laundry? No one. Minimize the time. Double task. Reap the multitude of rewards. You can spend your free time worshipping me, and all my sage wisdom. Or, you know, binge watching Netflix. Whatever.
  4. Read in a public space. See above for an excellent suggestion of said public place. Otherwise, study lounges are great, dining halls work, the library is stupendous, or even go out to a café and study whilst drinking that sweet, sweet nectar that is coffee. The noise should ideally a) keep you awake, and b) provide white noise that is shown to help those creative and productive juices flow. This leads me to…
  5. White noise generators are your friend. My favorite is Coffitivity. It’s free. It streams, so you don’t have to download anything. You can check out their site for all the empirical evidence that shows how fabulous white noise is. Or, you can search for your own favorite generator. There are plenty.
  6. To keep yourself from falling asleep, paint your nails. So you don’t feel like going out and you’re at home, you’re reading a dry-as-dust textbook, nanoseconds away from drooling on the diagram demonstrating the differences between citation styles. There are pages to go before you can sleep. Here is my no-longer-so-super-secret, not-patent-pending trick: I paint my nails. I don’t know about you guys, but it is my goal in life, it is on my bucket list, it is my dream of dreams, to one day have my nails dry before they get messed up. To go ONE STINKIN’ DAY without bubbles or unwanted textures or chips. Part of that process means that I absolutely can NOT fall asleep with wet nails. Plus, who wants to sleep with that scent right under their nose? (Oh, and, FYI, color association works as scent association does. Wear the same color to make it easier for your brain to make connections between study time and test time.) Also, this is one activity you can do that falls in the golden study ratio of…
  7. 15 minutes on, 3 minutes off OR 30 minutes on, 6 minutes off. Last year my roommate learned this in one of her Psychology classes and it revolutionized our study habits. If you study for 15 minutes, take a 3 minute break. If you choose to study for 30 minutes, double your break to 6 minutes. I’ve found that for sleep-inducive reading, the 15/3 option is better, but the opposite is true for writing a paper. Try them out and see what works for you. Don’t know what you can do in 3 minutes? Well, painting a layer of fingernail polish works. Other options include: dancing and singing along to a song (Oppa Gangnam Style, YMCA, 80s classics, The Cha Cha Slide, and Beyoncé are some of my favorites… this is no time for dignity–have fun and get the blood moving!); stretching; drink a glass of water; do a quick tidy up of your work space; bathroom break; make your bed; or plan tomorrow’s outfit.
  8. Pace and read. Continuing the theme of moving around to stay awake, consider pacing and reading. When I was in high school I discovered that pacing while going through flash cards helped immensely with recall. It works with reading longer articles and books in a pinch.
  9. Leave gummy bears at the bottom of each page. I am not above an enticing bribe. Carrots–or gummy bears, as the case may be–can be a perfectly valid way to get you through a tough assignment.
  10. Highlight! (Or tabs, or notes.) Understanding and interacting with the text is, ultimately, the goal of the entire exercise. Facilitate that process by taking your conversation and making it visual. Highlight and write in the margin or, if the idea of that makes you squirm, stock up on tabs and sticky notes and use them! Give those books some color! Take ’em back to the 20s with a fringe skirt of paper! Buff up your notes with connections and quotes you’ve found. Write key things down to solidify the concepts.
  11. Books on tape or audio books can get the job done. Remember the Middlemarch fiasco? I pulled it off by getting the book on tape and listening to it on my drive back to school. Since then, I’ve become a fan of audio books. They allow you to be mobile and do homework at the same time. Or, you can listen while keeping your hands free to simultaneously take notes. Sometimes my head is so crowded that if I try to read, I’ll spend more time daydreaming than being productive. By listening to someone else’s voice, it can get you out of that state. It’s much harder to go back to the right spot and “re-listen” than it is to re-read, so I find myself paying closer attention when I know that I have to get the information the first time, no do-overs.
  12. Sometimes you just gotta skim. While the point of this list is to minimize this from happening, sometimes it’s unavoidable. It’s not the end of the world. Crazy weeks happen. Life intervenes. Breathe, prioritize, and plug along.
  13. Librarians can be super helpful.  This falls more under the finding stuff to read category than the how to read list that I’ve got going, but it deserves to be said. When it comes to papers requiring research, and lots of it, librarians are Da Bomb. Really, really, really. It is their job to know how to look up material, and how to teach you to look up material. USE THIS RESOURCE. My university’s library offers one-on-one sessions where a librarian will help you dig up sources. I only learned about this last semester. Let me tell you, I wish I’d known about it sooner. Check to see your school has similar, or different but equally awesome, options.

What are some other study tips you have? Thought of a good song to add to my dance break playlist? I’d love to hear from you!

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