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How to get ahead in your studies during lockdown

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: one explanation for the toilet paper shortages. Image: Psychology Wiki

Excelling academically isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for many people during a crisis, and rightly so. It’s a scary period, and first priorities immediately become safety, food, shelter and other necessities low on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs e.g. toilet paper.

But once we’re in the swing of things during a lockdown, as we are here in New Zealand and over half of the world, there comes the opportunity to not just survive in a lockdown, but thrive in it.

My own context

As a doctor having just started my specialist training in Radiology, I’ve been studying for my anatomy and physics exams, which just like the rest of the medical world’s exams, got cancelled because of COVID-19.

While it’s easy to become complacent during these times, this is core knowledge, and knowing it well is not only for passing my exams, but doing my job effectively to help save lives. Similarly, the study you put in now will not only help you achieve your career aspirations, but help you in every aspect of life by learning to learn more effectively.

I’ve been working on improving my learning since high school, where I was Dux at Westlake Boys High School, before continuing to optimise this through medical school on a scholarship at The University of Auckland. Along the way, I’ve shared this info with any interested students and have since helped thousands of students with their studies and hundreds get into medical school.

Your opportunity

School classrooms are designed to go at the pace of an average student, not taking into account your own learning style and pace. University is a little better with lectures often covering content at a more reasonable pace, though as any uni student will know, the majority of time spent on campus is usually not academic.

One of the most freeing experiences of mine in high school was taking Maths offline as an extra subject on top of my classes, because it allowed me to develop my own learning techniques to make myself a lot more efficient. Another excellent opportunity was taking NZQA Scholarship exams while studying the CIE Cambridge curriculum – essentially forcing me to study whole subjects in a matter of days after my Cambridge exams.

This lockdown gives you a chance not just to cover the topics you would have normally covered, but also potentially covering your whole curriculum at a superficial level, making the content a lot easier to absorb when going through it again later.

Core non-study activities

While it’s tempting to jump into specific study techniques, this will likely contribute less than 20% of your results. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you see it, the core steps to studying effectively are also to any productivity generally, and are much less about your study/work time than how you spend the time around it.


Sleeping enough plays a key role in learning and memory, with most of us requiring 7-9 hours of sleep per day. Now’s a great time to test your own daily requirement by not using an alarm in combination with good sleep hygiene. Once you’ve found a stable amount over 1-2 weeks, consistently aiming for that amount will keep you feeling sharp rather than groggy.

Regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, helps improve your brain’s ability to learn. A simple 15 minute run around the block was my daily regime during study, and I felt the effects most acutely when I had a knee injury limiting my running for 6 weeks – my study productivity absolutely tanked during this time. A nice indoor/driveway alternative to this is skipping which also has the aerobic component.

Another aspect is food, with the time-old cliche “you are what you eat”. I certainly haven’t always been an exemplary role model here, having infamously eaten $3/day worth of spag bowl and spinach for 200 days in a far from optimal diet. A core principle to go by is eating natural foods and avoiding junk food or excess sugar. Some nutrients known to improve brain function and memory particularly include flavanoids (e.g. blueberries), choline (e.g. chicken, eggs, almonds) and omega-3 (e.g. salmon, mackerel and walnuts).


The final non-study activity is even more important during this pandemic. Before you can do any effective study, you need to massively reduce the amount of news you are exposed to. Just as you are what you eat, you are also what you read, and reading too much news is a surefire way to drive up your anxiety and freeze your ability to get anything done. Like many, I initially got sucked into all the coronavirus news but quickly noticed my productivity freeze. I find the headlines I see naturally through social media are enough to keep me up-to-date, and only read more nutritious information through my feed of blogs, websites and authors that I trust to provide more insightful content.

Studying technique

Now that you’ve done the most important 80% to set yourself up for success, it’s time to get stuck in. There’s an overwhelming amount of resources these days, so it’s important just to get into it without spending hours planning or choosing resources.

Stick to one resource initially (e.g. those provided by your course) and keep reading through it until you are bored or confused. It can then be good to combine with an online search or resource you have, or finding a video if still confused by the topic, given that learning via multiple modalities is more effective than one alone.

I prefer this order so that you don’t waste time learning the easy concepts in multiple modalities when one is enough.

Speed reading

Image: ZME Science

While everyone has different learning styles, training yourself to be effective with reading will go a long way, since you can read a lot more than you can watch in the same amount of time. Now is a great time to start building your skills in speed reading – this may sound like voodoo to many, but it is a key skill to your future studies and will make life a lot easier.

The biggest theme among all the speed reading skills is that you don’t need to pronounce the words you’re reading in your head – instead you can look at groups of words, and gradually bigger chunks of text at a time to increase your reading speed.

Practice this with your texts by skimming through topics in your curriculum you haven’t covered yet to get an overview of all the content, as well as when doing any other reading for maximum effect.

Once you’ve gotten past this initial hurdle and gradually train your mind to absorb information more quickly, it will not only aid your study, but aid your acquisition of new information in every aspect of life going forward.

Taking breaks


With this new mode of hyper-acquisition, your brain will initially get fuzzy quickly. That’s a nice indicator from your brain to take a break – which will be much more frequently than you expect. And not by going on social media or reading the news, which just overwhelms the brain with more junk and reduces your ability to learn new content. Instead, try taking an actual break which doesn’t take too long: walking around the house, up and down stairs, or doing a set of pushups.

Let your brain wander and ruminate during these breaks too, it’s amazing how much our brains consolidate new information during what we might consider “unproductive” time.


Finally, make sure to summarise as you go along. Most textbooks and resources that help explain concepts are incredibly wordy – you often only need to read the concept once or twice, but then can remember it with a key word or phrase. Every time you come across a new concept, summarise it before moving on. You’ll end up with a set of notes which are very useful to you in reminding you of each of these concepts, while being useless to most others. Writing these notes by hand on paper (or with a stylus + tablet if you’re fancy) is more effective to retain the knowledge compared to typing, though if your handwriting is anything like mine it will make it a whole lot uglier.

I used to brag to my friends during high school that my notes for the year for each subject were condensed onto a single double-sided 1B5 page. I showed it off as a badge of minimal effort, but I didn’t realise at the time how pivotal it was to my academic success.

Wrapping it up

Well, I better use my self-professed techniques in summarising, shouldn’t I?

Firstly and foremostly, ensure your safety, health and other necessities are stable. Thankfully because of our government’s early actions, many of us in New Zealand will have this luxury in contrast to others.

The next steps which will determine the bulk of your success are simple: good sleep, daily aerobic exercise and limiting the media you consume.

Once you’ve covered the basics, you can get studying, summarising content as you go along. Practice speed reading while studying, acknowledging that it will require a lot of physical breaks for your brain to consolidate and rejuvenate.

And there you have it, a path to not just cover your intended curriculum, but hopefully covering the remainder of your subjects/course to a certain level too!

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