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How To Get Back Into Study After Working Full-Time

Retrain your brain.

by VICE Staff
13 February 2018, 4:34am

Illustration by Ashley Goodall

This article is supported by Swinburne University of Technology, who can help set your career up for the future. In this series, we look at aspects of uni life.

Frankly, I’m not even sure how to study. Studying for me used to mean just reading things and trying not to forget them, and then reading them again because I’d forgotten them. But is that studying? Is that actual learning? Now that I’ve been working full-time for years and feel like my collegiate days are long-gone, would I even have what it takes to do that all over again and go back to uni?

I asked an expert for some tips about how to get back into study after being in the workforce. And not just any expert, but a neuroscientist/author/TEDx speaker who understands how to get the most out of our hardware: Dr Sarah McKay.

Dr McKay starts by telling me that she doesn’t believe in the hype around genius, and that success relies far more more on dedication. “Practice will always trump talent,” she says. “Very few innately brilliant people succeed, compared to the people who just put in the time and effort.”

This is great news for me. But when the last few years of adulthood have revolved around the ins and outs of 9-5 life—spreadsheets, WIPs, and water cooler banter with Sharon from accounts—how are you supposed to pay attention in a three-hour lecture or write a freakin’ thesis?

The word, people, is REFIRE. According to modern neuroscience, this is an acronym describing the most intensive, efficient method for learning.

The first R stands for reason. Dr McKay explains that it’s important to be clear in your own head about your motivations for wanting to go back to uni in the first place. “So you’re going back to uni after a number of years being immersed in a completely different, working environment. You want to eliminate that fear by being clear on why you’re doing it and what your goal is; you want to be clear on your motivation.”

The next letter is for engage. This is particularly important as it’s about involving yourself in what you’re learning—not just showing up to classes or re-reading the same paragraph ten times over. “Make acronyms to help you memorise things,” she suggests. “And try to get regular feedback from your mentor or lecturer. Again, understanding your goals will push you to do that.”

I applied this over a week to a current personal struggle: organisation. Being organised isn’t naturally my schtick. But in the week I wrote this article I tried to become more organised. I filled out my calendar with each and every event or task, and then arrived five minutes early for everything. As I was going, I asked people for feedback. It was pretty awkward as I basically just ended up asking my boss, “How organised do you feel I’m being this week?”

And the feedback wasn’t even that great: “I can see you’re trying.” Actually, the feedback was so embarrassing that it made me try harder. And I’m not sure if this was Dr McKay’s intended result, but I became more engaged due to a fear of judgment. So there you go.

F is for feel, which is about monitoring your progress by keeping tabs on your emotions. “You want that sweet spot between fear and arousal,” she said, which sounds kind of sexy but actually means that observing levels of stress or boredom is a simple ways to gauge the success of your study approach. “If you have a low level of neural stimulation and no cortisol in your system, you’re not going to be learning. If that’s the case, reassess your goals and change your goalposts.”

After that came my personal favourite: I for imagine. This is a classic case of imagining yourself succeeding at whatever you’re trying to do—whether that's folding a fitted sheet or nailing an impossibly tight parallel park—which of course also comes in handy with exam preparation. It’s all about rehearsing for an event simply by visualising each step in the process.

Then, for the same reason that practicing a scenario in your mind is effective, so is actually practicing the skill. So R is for repeat. It’s that notion of doing something again and again and again and again until it becomes second nature.

“This is where neural plasticity comes into it,” says Dr McKay. “It’s this idea that circuits that are continually stimulated over and over again until they strengthen. And this is why the kid who shoots 100 hoops every day may not be the most naturally gifted on the court, but why that kid is the one who’ll win the game.”

To complete the word REFIRE, we finish with E, and this time with the word extend. “This is about pushing yourself past your comfort zone because you’re not going to improve by just repeating the same task over and over.”

This feels like an important point, because I guess it underpins the whole idea of going back to uni after being A Young Professional. After talking with Dr McKay, it seems modern science backs the notion that brute tenacity punches harder than god-given aptitude. Usually I hate that kind of inspirational garbage, but to my mind science makes it persuasive, and also because Dr McKay pointed out at the end of our conversation: “Our brains are like muscles. The more we work them, the more we can change anything.”

This guide to remembering how to use your brain is supported by Swinburne University of Technology. If you’re ready to suss out new career options, find out about the degrees here. You can see the rest of the content in this series here.

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

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