We’re back with Part 2 of the blog series on how to organise your study session.

  1. Revision of old content
  2. Learning new material
  3. Active practice
  4. Take a break

This blog post will focus on learning new material, and how we can make this learning process as easy as possible.


Before the study session

When study actually begins

Unless you’ve self-learned the new content for the academic semester, the learning process doesn’t begin when you sit down for your average Wednesday study session. The learning process starts in class when you’re first presented with the new material.

I do these three things before or in class to make my study sessions easier and more productive down the track.


1. Pre-read

Spend 5 minutes flicking through the pages in the textbook and/or the lecture slides.

If you don’t pre-read, everything seems difficult. You get overwhelmed. As a result, you don’t know what’s meant to be easy content that you can breeze through later on, and what’s actually the challenging content that you need to spend the bulk of your study session on.


2. Record things you don’t understand

Know what you don’t know.

I write down all the WTF questions that spring into my mind during class in the margins of my notes. You can use a notepad, post-it notes, a Word doc, or anything else. I recently started doing this, and it has been extremely helpful. I’ll explain why in a second.

Questions in the margin


3. Mark what’s important

Draw a big fat circle around important stuff. Or draw a pretty star. Or be boring like me and write IMPORTANT next to it.

Important points in notes

Yes, that’s a “WTF is that symbol?” Thanks to my margin reminder, I now know it means “subset of”!


The reason for putting in a little extra effort in class and doing these three things is this:

You know what you need to focus on during the study session.


During the study session

When you sit down for your study session, you’ve already sorted all the class material into two categories:

What to study and what not to study


For the next hour or so, I do these three things:

  1. I skim through my class notes quickly. (5 to 10 minutes)
  2. I answer all the weird questions I have in the margins. (5 minutes)
  3. Then I focus on digesting the important material. (rest of the study session)


Techniques to learn important material

I use a combination of all of these methods to understand and memorise material, in that order.

  • Always understand the concept first.
  • Then memorise.
What to do When to do it What subjects?
In-depth notes using textbooks and syllabus When you are just starting on a new topic and need to be exposed to all the relevant information.

When you’ve been doing the topic for a while, but you don’t feel confident about the details. In-depth notes are essential if the topic contains lots of details.

Also, make your own notes.

Flash cards also count in this category. They are most useful for fact-based subjects like second languages and science. I recommend Anki for electronic flash cards that also manage your revision schedule.


Second language


Practice essays When you’ve made decent notes and have a decent understanding of the topic, but you haven’t mastered the topic yet. Physically writing essays force you to prove your perspective and clarify vague ideas, because no one likes to sound dumb on paper.

Essential for exams. Helps you see exactly where your understanding is suffering. Also, physically writing stuff with a pen is hard. Get used to it.


English / Language



Practice questions When you’ve made some notes on the topic. Notes do not have to be perfect or complete.

Active practice plus writing notes accelerates understanding because you realise how theory is applied to practice. Add practical tips and advice to your existing notes.



Mind maps

(i.e. scribble words and arrows on a page, and label the arrows with relationships)

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the topic’s broadness.

If there are numerous interrelated concepts and theories. Mind maps force you to think about the relationships between different things.

If you want to gain an intuitive understanding of the concepts.







Knowing when you’ve ‘got it’

How do I know if I’ve truly learned or mastered a topic?

  • If you can quickly draw a mind map of all the points in the syllabus without looking.
  • If you can solve practice questions (specifically maths and science) in half the recommended exam time. Also aim to solve the question by understanding how it works behind-the-scenes, and not just vomiting random formulas.
  • If you find QuestionBank or past paper questions easy. Yes, even the hard questions.


Once I’ve mastered a concept or topic, does that mean I can stop using these learning methods?

No. You’ll quickly lose your mastery. On top of regular revision we which covered in Part 1, you also need to consistently use the above learning techniques throughout the IB course in order to maintain the knowledge in your brain.


Optimising your focus

As you get more comfortable with the material, your study sessions will need evolve with your ability.

Over time, you should:

  • Rely less on your initial notes.
  • Dedicate more of your study time on active recall (mind maps, essays, any activity that will keep your memory active) and application (exam questions, textbook questions).


And that’s it for this blog post!

Comment and let me know if there were any aspects I missed, or if you have any thoughts, questions, complaints or input! Stay tuned for the next blog post in this series on how to organise your study session.