Last year I qualified as a personal trainer. It was a six week full-time course in a top gym. We spent a few hours each day doing physical activity but also spent lots time learning about the psychology of motivation and getting clients to stick to plans. After all motivating your clients is part of the trainer’s job. Motivating your students is part of your job as a teacher or tutor. Motivating yourself is a huge part of physical training or academic study. You need your own personal best-ever study plan.
There are big similarities between training your body for sports and training your mind for exams. You have a goal in mind, some strengths and weaknesses, various actions you can take to get stronger or faster in key areas, a timescale over which you need to train and set hours a week you dedicate to training. It makes sense that all the information out there about how to train your body can be carried over to form a great study plan to train your brain.
With this in mind, here is my Personal Trainer guide to study.
So Why are You Here? What is Your Study Plan Goal?
One of the first things a trainer needs to find out from a potential client is what they are hoping for. So what are your academic goals? Are you clear on that? Do you want to score over 80% in your final exams, to get B,B,C and secure that university place, a level 5 in your maths GCSE to get accepted at sixth form? These are the sorts of concrete goals that you can structure a study training plan around. Wanting to please your parents or do better than your cousins is not a particularly good goal, we’ll discuss intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation later. These latter two goals also lack definite measures of success. Exactly how well do you have to do to “please your parents”?
Once a goal is identified, trainers try to match what they specialise in and what can realistically be achieved with what the client wants. This often involves a discussion about setting realistic expectations.
A 50 year old couch potato who last did exercise at secondary school will not be able to run a marathon in six months no matter how hard they want to. Likewise a D grade 18 year old who has no study routine and has bluffed their way through their A Level course is not going to get a A after six weeks private tutoring. You need realistic expectations.
What are realistic expectations for study? I was once employed to improve the performance of the physics A Level students in a school. The Year 12 students were underperforming according to their expected grades and they needed some help. In 12 months I brought up their grades by an average of 1.5 grades per student. One student went from an E to a B, one from an E to a C and so on. The two hardest working students stayed as they had been. So with one whole year of intensive help an underperforming student can pull up their grade to equal to or just above their expected grade. That is realistic.
If you have never been an A grade student and your teacher predicts you a C grade then you will most likely get a C grade. A B grade may be possible with a lot of extra coaching and work on your part, week in week out. You will not get an A*. Learning, much like training is a cumulative process. You don’t become a top gymnast or deadlift twice your bodyweight overnight, you need to have spent years doing the ground work. Logically we all know this when applied to physical skills but somehow people think it doesn’t apply to study: it does.
So step one of developing your study training plan is to set yourself a realistic goal with a realistic timescale.
How Much Time do You Have?
Now you have an idea of the client’s goal, as a trainer you must think about how much time the client has to devote to achieving it. People who work long, very involved hours, like a doctor or teacher, and have a long commute and family commitments cannot spend 2 hours a day training. You’ll be lucky if they have two hours a week.
Someone with a less demanding job, who works locally and is single, no kids could spend 2 hours a day training if they wanted to.
How about you? Full-time attendance at school is 8.30-3.30pm on average. You get 45 minutes lunch break and an evening free to do what you want. You aren’t finishing at 5pm with a 50 minute commute on top. Do you have a part-time job? This will take out some time. What about hobbies? I used to do 3 hours of dance a week all through primary and secondary school. It took 30 minutes to walk to the dance studio. All these sorts of things add up.
Work out exactly how many hours you could physically do between the end of school and your normal bedtime and then take off some hours for rest and relaxation. The remainder is the time you could realistically devote to studying, if you wanted to.
Are There Obstacles to Your Study Plan?
Believe it or not overcoming obstacles is an important part of a personal trainer’s job. We find out if the client has significant financial, emotional, practical problems that could interfere with their training plan. It is really important you think about this when preparing a study plan, not just to help write the plan but so that you can go easier on yourself. I wish I had known more about this as a young person. I had a horrendous list of obstacles to my studying which I only slowly became aware of as I got older. Here was my list (it looks bad, I’m warning you),
- My family were financially hard up
- My father had a drink problem, violent temper and mental health problems
- There was no history of higher education in my family
- I developed severe clinical depression at 16 and tried to kill myself
- The antidepressants I was given affected my motivation and memory
- I was bordering on anorexic and couldn’t sleep properly
- Years of abuse had left me with PTSD
- I spent most days numbed out in a state of dissociation
- I had no access to books or tutors outside of school
- My parents had very low expectations
- I was in the early stages of developing an incurable autoimmune disease
- No one in my school knew any of this
I told you it was bad. For years I beat myself up because I didn’t achieve my predicted grades at A Level; I got a A and 3Bs instead of 4As. I feel stupid typing this because as a woman in her 40s looking back on this I am bloody amazed I got anything at all. So yeah, there can be all kinds of significant obstacles to you being able to study effectively. Money, abuse, racism, disability, lack of role models, low family expectations, lack or resources, no room for you to work in, noise in the house, babysitting responsibilities, illness, medication, mental health problems, relationship problems, eating disorders, local economics, unemployment of a parent, etc, etc. Go and look up Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege and educate yourself in the ways our society can personally and structurally disadvantage some people.
That doesn’t mean give up! It doesn’t mean loose hope and throw in the towel. I was the first person in my family to graduate university which I did with a first class honours degree despite having been rushed to hospital three times over four years with complications to the autoimmune disease I developed.
But it does mean be realistic about what obstacles you face, because then you can find ways to tackle them and get on with your goal.
Making a Personal Study Plan
You know what you want, how much time you have a week until your goal needs to be achieved and you have a handle on what might get in the way. Great! Now you are all set to plan away.
Do you know what a Gantt chart is? It’s a project management plan used by engineers. Here’s an example:
You need to construct a week by week plan like this which says what you are going to train that week (maybe practise rearranging equations) and when you will do it. Here is a marathon training plan:
Do you see how they are similar? Personal training plans assume that you have a dedicated time slot, Tuesday and Friday afternoons for example, and then describe what exercises or practises you will do each week for a few weeks, 6-12 weeks usually. Then progress gets checked and the next block of weeks have harder or different exercises. Do this. Choose your dedicated time slot. Work out the intermediate steps topic-by-topic towards your chosen goal.
Use your teachers to help you if you are finding it hard to figure out what the steps should be. Textbooks are set out in a way that puts the basic concepts first then slowly builds on them. Use a textbook to help you breakdown a subject into smaller pieces. Start with the basics first. Be realistic and don’t timetable 6 hours a week if you have difficulty doing 30 minutes homework a night. Just like training your body, you have to build up to longer times. Start with 10 minutes a day if that is more then you are doing now. Add 5 minutes more a week. Soon you are doing 30 minutes a day every day and that is fantastic!
Checking Your Progress Along the Way
Maybe you want to get better at answering GCSE electrical circuits questions. How will you know if your plan is actually working? You need to measure yourself against your personal best like an athlete would.
Choose a set of past paper questions from a website (here or here for example). Test how much you score at the start of your chosen time block, let’s say a fortnight long. Then study this subject. Retest yourself on a new set of questions two weeks later and see how you have improved. Mark schemes are available on the two websites I linked to. This is how a trainer would work with a client but with barbells and squats not questions on resistors in series.
Work out what % of questions you are getting correct. Now you have actual measurements and you can follow your progress. You could even plot them on a graph and stick it on your wall (motivation, right there) with a horizontal line at the level you want to reach so you can see yourself get closer and closer. Maybe your goal is a B grade and 60% correct is a B, so draw your line there.
Reward Yourself for Progress
This is so important. Studying for exams is hard, emotionally draining work. It involves a daily struggle with self-belief and disappointment and setbacks when you just can’t get a particular topic right. You must reward yourself along the way. Little treats can make a big difference. You can reward a treat for reaching a certain number of hours studied, reaching a certain mark, finishing a particular topic. How you set a mini-goal or checkpoint is up to you.
A CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) practitioner I worked with once had a sliding scale of rewards that matched an increasingly demand scale of goals. Start with an easy step on your study plan and reward yourself with a little treat. For each harder step, increase the quality of the treat. Have something really special saved for achieving your final goal.
Here are some examples of ways you can reward yourself.
- 30 mins of favourite computer game
- chocolate bar
- watch favourite movie
- new bath bomb and 1 hour in the bath listening to music
- football down the park with your friends
- trip to the cinema
- buy the new top you’ve had your eye on
- download a new album
- weekend trip into town with friends
Big treats (may require adult agreement)
- big night out with friends
- sleepover with best mate
- shopping trip with bank of mum and dad
- few days away on a mini-break
- new phone/game console/”desirable gadget of choice”
- driving lessons
OK so you get the idea. When you meet a target, go ahead and treat yourself, it really boosts motivation.
You remember my horrible list of obstacles to studying which sort of f***ed up my GCSEs and A Levels. Yes, we need to talk a bit more about how to overcome stuff like that.
Pick an obstacle to your study plan that you could have some success with (getting my father to change was not something I could have had success with). For examples; not having access to textbooks. Now think about how this could be overcome. Brainstorm it. I could have asked my teacher to borrow one over the weekend or asked the school librarian for a copy, if they didn’t have one I could have requested they buy it in. Maybe I could have borrowed a friend’s over the weekend. I could have looked in local charity shops. These days you can find textbooks on line. I’m not advocating stealing copyrighted content (maybe a little bit). If you are a poor student from a disadvantaged background, downloading a pirated PDF of your school textbook is hardly the worst thing you could do IMHO. Ahem, moving on.
Maybe you babysit younger siblings until your mum gets home from work. Explain to them what you are doing. Show them your study plan. You’d be surprised how this can work, small children do respond to sincere emotions. Or bribe them with sweets. If they sit and watch My Little Pony for 30 minutes without disturbing you eating Haribo then you get 30 minutes of study done. Make sure you give them the little packets though, not the big family sized ones.
Not all your obstacles will be surmountable. As a young woman going into a male dominated area of science, I couldn’t overcome decades of structural sexism. I could and did read all about women who made successful careers in science and I educated myself about the ways sexism showed up and how to tackle it by reading books by famous feminists. I enlightened myself and underwent a huge shift in how I saw the world. These books and the ideas inside gave me language to describe, understand and vitally, to separate myself from the circumstances I was experiencing. It wasn’t me. It was society. If you are Black, LGBT, disabled or female the emancipation of your mind is a crucial step to overcoming internalised oppression. Get woke.
Setbacks and Disappointments
I am training for a pole showcase in October. I am going on stage in front of an audience in a small theatre and performing a routine for 3 minutes. Right now my goals are shoulder mounts and a secure extended butterfly. This is an extended butterfly:
Seriously, I am trying to do that. I can do the splits, that’s not the problem. The issue is my bottom hand, or rather elbow as mine are hypermobile and flex way past 180 degrees. I have to keep the arm straight and not lock my elbow out to ensure the line of force is straight through the joint. This means I have to use far more muscle strength than someone with normal elbows. It is hard. Some days I can do it, some days I can’t and I get so frustrated I feel like crying.
Shit happens. My strength can vary because I have had a disrupted night (six year old had a nightmare at 2am), because I was stressed (running two businesses and applying for jobs) or maybe I skipped lunch and don’t have enough energy. Day to day fluctuations occur and just because I have not got it down today doesn’t mean I can’t get it sorted by the end of October. I keep practising the intermediate moves and use my pole instructor each lesson to help me practice.
You will find you can’t make the progress you want. Sometimes you will spend weeks struggling with the same topic and make no obvious progress. This is normal. It is to be expected. Here is one of my favourite cartoons for these moments:
Just keep going. Stick with your study plan. Every step you take in the right direction is one more than the person who gave up.
I hope you can see the benefits of devising your own personal study plan and tackling your revision like you would training for a competition. You need a goal, a timescale, dedicated segments of your week, in-between steps to aim for and rewards along the way. I can’t guarantee you spectacular results but you will do much better than you otherwise would have done. This is so much better than nothing. As the sign on my gym wall states; you are lapping everyone still sat on their arse. Good Luck.