Dr. Malleson, the Director of the University of London Research Unit for Student Problems, tries to answer this question. The advice he gives is directed at university and college students, who spend less time in class and more in private study.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about studying. Most students have not been taught the principles behind effective working. Imagine a graph showing the extent to which a person learns against the number of hours he works in a day. If he doesn’t do any work, he learns nothing. By doing two hours’ work, he learns about twice as much. If he works more, he’ll learn even more. However, if he tries to do twenty-three and a half hours’ work in one day, he will be so exhausted that he’ll hardly remember anything: what he learns will be very little. If he does less work, he’d learn more.
Now regardless of the exact shape of the graph’s curve made by joining these points, it must have a crest. Point ‘x’ is the maximum anyone can learn in a day. And this represents the optimum, the best amount of work to do. It is the best possible compromise between adequate spending of time on books and fatigue. Fatigue is an absolutely real thing; one cannot escape from or ignore it. If you try to ignore it and press yourself to work past the optimum (and any fool can prop his eyelids up and do fourteen hours a day), you will only get on this downward slope and achieve less than the best and then get exhausted and lose your power of concentration.
The best skill a student can have is getting one’s daily study as near to the optimum point as possible. It can not be defined what the exact optimum point is. It differs for the type of work, it differs from person to person, and even in the same person it varies from week to week. You must try to find your own. Every day while study, bear this principle of the optimum in mind, when you feel yourself getting fatigued. If you find yourself repeatedly reading over the same paragraph and not taking it in, that’s a pretty good sign you’ve reached the crest for the day and should stop.
Most ordinary students find their optimum at about five hours a day. Yours may be a little more or a little less-but if you get in five hours’ good work a day, you will be doing well.
Now, what are you doing with yourself when you’re not working? Before examinations some students do nothing at all except sit in a chair and worry. Here is another misunderstanding. People often think that the mind works like body; it does not. If one wants to conserve physical energy to cut the maximum amount of firewood, they would lie flat on a bed and rest when not chopping the wood. But the mind cannot rest. Even in sleep you dream, even if you forget your dreams. The mind is always turning. It gets its relaxation only by variety. That is what makes the mind rest.
When you’ve finished your optimum number of hours you must stop. You must not then sit around in the chair thinking about the work – that only tires you without any learning. You must get out and do something. It doesn’t matter what as long as you are actively doing something else but work.
Zia Ullah Shah