How to Start Studying – A Guide For Unmotivated Students

Nov 13, 2017NCEA, Study Tips

Often the hardest part of study is starting.

Studying for exams is a big task. Just the thought of study can be daunting for students. When faced with the overwhelming task of studying a year’s worth of content in time for exams, it may seem easier for students to avoid the task, rather than knuckling down and studying.

For students avoiding starting study, check out the following tips:

Create a study formula

I bet if you asked your child if they had a plan to study, they would say “yes!”. And they’d be right. No doubt they have some sort of idea of when and what to study.

However, the majority of students overlook the most important part of a study plan: how they are going to study.

A study formula is a simple list of steps that your child can make to outline the processes they’re going to take when they study. The list should start simple (4-5 things), but over time it should become more complex.

Just like a workout plan at the gym or for sport, it will give students a clear direction of what action to take, making study much more efficient.

Over time, students can experiment with new study methods, and add them in to optimise the system.

Below is an example study formula that your child could use when studying:


  1. Download the “Achievement Standard” from the NCEA website
  2. Turn this into a checklist for what you already know and what you need to know
  3. Break the checklist into main themes using a mind map
  4. For each theme, make a summary sheet
  5. After that, break down the key points of each summary and put these onto flash cards
  6. Read through your notes and ensure you understand them, and then hit the flash cards
  7. Test yourself on all of them first, then make two piles, one that’s wrong and one that’s right. Then redo the wrong pile again
  8. Get someone else to test you
  9. Practice exam papers – test yourself using exam papers from the past 2-3 years and time yourself
  10. Work through the answers
  11. Write a sheet of all tips/tricks i.e. things you got wrong in the practice exam papers
  12. Redo exam paper and make model answers
  13. Adjust flashcards if necessary i.e. make new ones based on the exam papers
  14. Re-test all your flashcards

From here, all students have to do is work through their checklist, which is far less stressful that not knowing where to start.

Having a study formula, will give students more direction, motivation and efficiency when studying.

Chunk concepts when studying

Cognitive overload – another reason that so many students fall victim to ‘study avoidance’.

Cognitive overload is a bit of a technical term, so it’s best explained with an analogy. Think of your brain as computer. If you open up too many tabs, what happens?

It starts to freeze.

Something similar happens in our brains when we’re overwhelmed with information.

When our understanding of basic concepts isn’t fully developed, understanding these concepts takes up a lot of “processing power” from our brain. This increases the brain’s cognitive load, meaning there’s not enough room for the higher level thinking needed for the more difficult excellence questions.

This is why students who want excellences, but don’t focus on the achieved content, rarely get the marks they feel that they are capable of. If they spend time understanding the basics, they can free up the cognitive load needed to attack excellence questions.

So, how can students ensure that they can reduce their cognitive load, and nail the more difficult concepts?

The key is chunking:

Chunking involves breaking down a complex concept into small chunks and then learning each chunk thoroughly before moving to the next one. This will not only help students understand tricky concepts, but it will also help them achieve those top grades.

The best way to chunk a concept is:


    • Look over the concept, get a ‘big picture’ view.
    • Make a list of all the skills you need to know – look for steps, skills, key words or other parts.
    • Organise them into a sequence of chunks, and make sure to learn them inside out.
    • Once it’s automatic, move onto the next chunk.
    • Tie all the chunks together and think about how they connect.

Breaking down concepts into bite-sized pieces, will reduce your child’s cognitive load and make studying a lot more effortless.

Remind your child not underestimate the power of knowing the basics!

Next time your child opens their notes and immediately feels overwhelmed, remind them that the key to beating this daunting feeling is not avoiding study. Encourage them to try the above strategies now. They’ll thank themselves when it comes to exam time!

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