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Adventure Studying: An Unconventional New Approach to Exam Preperation

Exam advice week here at Study Hacks is winding down. So sad! Next week it’s back to the normal mix…

An Inspiring SpaceICA Mediatheque

Two days ago, I spent an afternoon roaming Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which, in its new building, is situated right on the harbor. While exploring the main exhibition space on the the fourth floor, I stumbled into a room they call the mediatheque. It was stunning. The ICA’s architecture has the fourth floor cantilevered out over the water of the harbor. This particular room hung off the bottom of this ledge, and featured a steep set of descending tiers. At the bottom was a full-length picture window through which only water is visible. (See the picture above.)

The full effect is hard to describe. You lose your sense of height and location in space. Are you in a ship? In a building? Are you a few feet above the water or hundreds? Very Zen.

My first thought: this would be a damn good place to work on a paper.

You Can’t Do That!

For many students, this thought reeks of heresy. Conventional wisdom says: studying happens on campus, or, if you’re feeling particularly crazy, maybe in a Starbucks near campus. And that’s it. It is supposed to be a grind that takes place in in the same old boring libraries surrounded by the same old boring people. And by the end, with your eyes rimmed red with exhaustion, and your skin sallow and whitened from fluorescent saturation, you can grin, feebly, and announce: I survived…

Here’s my question: does it have to be like this?

Beyond the Ordinary

At Dartmouth, I frequently sought ways to challenge this conventional wisdom. When I would see the hooded sweat-shirted masses trudging toward the library at the beginning of finals period, I would turn and run in the opposite direction. I was known to drive 20 minutes away from campus to study at bookstore where no one knew or cared that my school had exams. I would sometimes tackle thorny take-home exam questions while walking the banks of the Connecticut river. Anything to avoid the cinder-blocked study lounges that most students believed — bafflingly — that they were contractually bound to inhabit during this period.

Introducing Adventure Studying

I call this tactic: adventure studying. The basic idea is simple. Our minds crave novelty. If you work on exam preparation and paper writing in novel environments, it becomes easier to engage the material, be more creative, form stronger comprehension, and, overall, dare I say it, perhaps even enjoy the process.

My Challenge to You

I’m embarrassed, however, that as an undergraduate I didn’t have the confidence to push adventure studying as far as I should have. I want you to make up for my shortcoming. I want you to push the adventure studying concept to its limits. What is the most outrageously exotic yet undeniably perfect location where you can migrate your exam preparation or final exam writing? Try it.

Ignore ingrained student traditions of camping out in libraries and study lounges. Redefine finals period to be a source of personal reflection and novelty and intellectual adventure.

Some examples of adventure studying possibilities:

  1. If you have a car, spend a day reviewing in a completely different town. Preferably one that is small, and idyllic, and more than 30 minutes from campus. Switch between little cafes, the public library, and parks. Meet the locals.
  2. If you’re near a body of water and live somewhere reasonably warm: spend a day reviewing in your bathing suit. Cycle through: reviewing; napping; swimming; then back to reviewing. I’ve never tried running through flashcards at the end of an ocean-battered jetty; but I imagine it’s not a bad way to learn those art history dates.
  3. Head to the nearest big city and camp out at museum. Find your own local equivalent of the ICA mediatheque room.
  4. If your family owns a vacation house that has been opened for the season: camp out for a couple days. Bring a friend. Study during the day, have philosophical, semi-incoherent conversations at night. (Don’t, however, go late-night drunken skinny-dipping. According to the movies this will lead to you getting eaten by a shark.)
  5. Load up some quiz-and-recall study guides in your backpack and hike some place isolated and wild. Switch between studying and wandering and reading and zoning out in a Thoreau-esque state of blissfulness; like Into the Wild — but, hopefully, with less death. Who says you can’t review on a 5000 foot summit? It’s better than the library basement.

The Golden Rule of Study Advice

I’ll let you in on a critical secret: no one cares how or where you study. You don’t have to punch a time card when you enter the library. The dean doesn’t track how you spent your day. Take 100% advantage of this reality.

The Tomb at The MetJust because it’s “tradition” to spend the week before exams holed up in the library in some macho display of academic self-flagellation, this doesn’t mean that you have to follow this path. Why can’t you study alone on the beach? Or in your parent’s cabin in Maine? Or sitting on a bench near that crazy, completely enclosed Egyptian Tomb they have setup at the Met?

The Zen Valedictorian Tackles Finals

You might have noticed that I tagged this article with “The Zen Valedictorian.” I think the adventure studying concept fits nicely with the ZV philosophy. It’s about the larger goal of constructing the college experience you want, not stumbling through the path of least resistance.

If you take up the adventure studying challenge — and I hope you do — keep me posted. We want to hear about your adventures. I’ll share the best with the full gang. Bonus points for pictures.

34 thoughts on “Adventure Studying: An Unconventional New Approach to Exam Preperation”

  1. I agree. Awesome post. This adventure studying sounds like a great idea. I always have hard time reviewing and preparing for my test at the libraries and other common study spots that students go to. I will try this and keep you posted. By the way, Thanks for sharing your study tips. I’ve been reading your blogs for a while and now starting to read your book (“How to become a Straight-A Student”) and I have to say it changed the way I study in college. Keep up the good work.

  2. Hey Cal, awesome post! I just want to ask a few questions: first, you said earlier that you made yourself unavailable by retreating to deserted nooks of remote campus libraries. Which, of course, are not quite like a mountain peak or a beach. Second, and this is more important than inquiring after your personal habits: wouldn’t exotic places give you the urge to go exploring and ignore those class notes, the sight of which makes you hyperventilate? (OK, not you, it’s just me)

    While I wait for your reply, I’ll make sure to try your tip tomorrow. We’re lucky to have a beautiful New England forest right behind the campus:)

  3. The adventure studying idea definitely works. I go to school near Dallas, and I love going to White Rock Lake in the middle of the city to study for exams. The scenery, beautiful mansions, beautiful girls and the animals are a plus (not the snakes though). And its a wonderful experience to find such a tranquil place in the center of a bustling city.

  4. I agree that this works. I often do this, in fact, and it makes studying easier. There’s less pressure when you aren’t surrounded by crowds of other students studying in a panic.

    I once studied on top of a waterfall while it was drizzling. Another memorable place was a gazebo by the beach. My favorite place to study is in front of a fishpond these days. The sound of fish jumping out of the water wakes me up. 😀

    Believe it or not, this concept really improved my grades.

  5. Hey Cal, awesome post! I just want to ask a few questions: first, you said earlier that you made yourself unavailable by retreating to deserted nooks of remote campus libraries. Which, of course, are not quite like a mountain peak or a beach. Second, and this is more important than inquiring after your personal habits: wouldn’t exotic places give you the urge to go exploring and ignore those class notes, the sight of which makes you hyperventilate? (OK, not you, it’s just me)

    The full out adventure studying expedition is really something for finals period — a time when you have a few days free from an responsibility except studying. During the term, you might not always have time to escape far from campus, so, at these points, cue deserted nooks and uninhabited floors of remote libraries. Indeed, as I write this, I’m about to head out to a cool little upper-floor desk, in front of a picture window, that I just discovered in the architecture library.

  6. I’ve found that groupwork suits me best for my studying (engineering and almost entirely mathematical). In traditional surroundings, there is a risk of ‘subconsciously’ taking yourself to worst distractions and this would certainly be avoided in unfamiliar territory.

  7. I never knew that what I was doing was adventure studying until now! My first spot was a small wooden table in the second story window of this huge house some people converted to a coffee house. I learned two languages and probably earned my undergrad degree at this table. Then I moved to Massachusetts and figured out some of my best paper writing occurs on the couches of the mezzanine level of Boston’s Park Plaza hotel. My GRE vocab was learned walking along the Essex River and on the beaches of the North Shore. My best seminar paper (and now conference paper) was hatched and largely developed while riding the commuter rail in and out of Boston. Now I’m starting a PhD in the fall and looking forward to finding my new spots. Adventure studying/writing for life!

    Advice: By scanning your books and articles to PDF you can sit in random lobbies without looking like you’re camping out to write a paper. You’re no different than the business man checking his email! Not only will you blend in, but your back will thank you for not lugging books around.

  8. @Eric:

    Excellent! As I might imagine, the experience is completely different when you substitute a luxury hotel or the beach for the first-floor study lounge of a library.

  9. This sounds like a really great and refreshing idea! I really have to try this out sometime, I find that studying in the same two places (in my messy room at my desk, and at the school library) is starting to get boring… and even worse, more distracting than ever!! I’m not really sure as to where else I should study. Whenever I study somewhere else out of my comfort zone, I feel like I can’t do all of my studying in that one place, but only in the my designated two locations.

  10. I absolutely love adventure studying . The different always interests me 🙂
    Just go to somewhere else, get your job done. People just care about your result. Don’t mess around with their stories, gossips 🙂
    Thanks so much Cal

  11. Just recently started doing this after my college years because I’ve been self-reviewing for my board exam this coming July. This is an interesting idea, if only I have a car to go to places that are nice to hang out but sadly I haven’t discovered places that are good for studying (would love the beach but its too far!)
    So I just hang-out at our garden, its a good start. The typical four-corner room is really boring
    Love your adventure studying ?

  12. I agree that this *sounds* like an amazing idea, but maybe sounds is all. It would be lovely if it were true, but I have seen research that suggests that adding things to memory (which is what pre-exam reviewing is) works best in familiar surroundings. Getting away helps with stress relief as does avoiding seeing others working and stressing more than you, but familiar surroundings may let your brain look for inspiration in your notes.

  13. Maybe choose an adventurous study spot and turn into something familiar. Maybe 2-3 spots, with each spot projecting a mood for a certain subject in your mind.

  14. If you have everything you need on a laptop or in a notebook, then studying in a tree is great. No one bothers to look up, so they don’t even notice you!

  15. I find this approach very exciting and mentally stimulating! This summer I have tackled a long list of non-fiction books and scholarship essays by adventure studying in many different Starbucks in the LA area. The farthest I’ve traveled is an hour away to a Starbucks in Costa Mesa; a place where I will spend my time productively and be reluctant to leave. Next up, West LA!

  16. I adventure study around the library too! I move to a new spot every hour.
    I was taught this trick when I got my figure skating coach certification. We were told to send the little kids to a new teacher in a new corner of the ice every 10 minutes. The thrill of a new person/place makes the kids forget that they are cold/tired/want mommy

  17. i studied at the BPL reading room, and the theology school at BU, both quiet and incredible spaces. rooftops too were nice. but alas for many of you, that was in the early 80’s before all this technological white noise.


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