This blog is the sixth in the “How I got a 50″ series, with blogs posted every Friday. If you got a 50 in a particular subject and would like to contribute, please email [email protected].

This particular blog features Matt, who scored 50s in Maths Methods and Physics in 2013

So, Matt, thanks for joining us. To start us off, how many hours did you study a night?

Hi everyone!

That’s a good question, and students ask it all the time. Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer, but I’ll try to explain what my approach to study was each night.

First up, I didn’t have a set ‘study time’ or anything like that – it was definitely more a case of getting home and just working on whatever I was most interested in (or least not-interested-in) that night. For example, one night I probably just got out my Methods textbook and started reading the chapter on integration, because that’s where I was up to, and I just read the rules, watched some Khanacademy videos and then started working through the textbook problems. I’d ‘work’ like this until I was satisfied that I understood the topic or until it was time for dinner or bed or something else I wanted to do.

I say ‘work’ in inverted commas because I was lucky enough to have chosen subjects I was truly, deeply interested in learning, and the challenge of understanding a Methods chapter was then less of a chore and more of an adventure. I’ll talk more about how I was able to reach this perspective later.

From this description, it might sound like I was devoting my entire night to study between my 5 year 12 subjects. That’s only partly the truth, because more than a few nights every so often I just wouldn’t really have it in me to put in enough time for a meaningful study session so I just chilled out for the night.

On top of that, I have to explain that I wasn’t actually putting in vastly more time than any of my peers, since I basically treated every day at school like a six hour study break, where I could catch up with my friends. So if most people work all day at school and then study a bit at home afterwards, that’s the same time commitment across the day as me studying a bit at school and working all night at home.

It just ended up more effective that way for me personally, because I find I get more out of an extended period of self directed learning than I do switching focus from subject to subject between classes at school. Also, what better opportunity do you get to socialise than at school, where you literally meet with your whole group of friends every day?

This approach is definitely not for everyone – it certainly required a pretty huge effort to work through some of these concepts from home without the instruction of my school teachers, but I guess I was pretty good at figuring out what I wasn’t understanding in a particular topic and then finding the explanation I needed to hear, either online or in my textbook.

That sounds like an interesting approach, what did you do during the school day?

Well, I mainly went to classes and let the teacher’s explanations wash over me. I was usually a few exercises ahead in each subject so I was hearing the material a second time and didn’t have to focus too hard to understand it, because I had already put in the hard yards earlier at home. This way, when the teacher got up to something I was stuck on, I could tune in and ask questions and get their help directly for the things I couldn’t sort out by myself at home. But the difference was that I already knew where I was stuck, because I had already tried to understand the material, and so I was able to get a lot more out of class without having to focus as much as other people who were just trying to understand the material for the first time.

The other aspect of my time at school was hanging out with my friends. I was lucky enough to have a group of friends who were all aiming pretty high, like myself. When we weren’t socialising at lunchtime, we were all able to talk to each other about the concepts we were stuck on and help each other out. On top of that, I was the Maths-Science Prefect for my school, and sometimes people came up to me during a study period and asked me for help with their maths questions, and this was great for me because I’ve always found that explaining things aids my own understanding greatly.

What was different in your approach to Maths Methods and to VCE, compared to other people?

A big thing for me was the choice to take charge of my own learning and development throughout the year; my motto was ‘stop working, start learning’, and this really characterised my approach to all VCE related tasks.

For Methods, this ranged from self-selecting the questions I was and wasn’t going to complete in the textbook exercises based on if I felt I already knew or didn’t know how to approach them, to completely ignoring any non-assessed homework task unless it was on something I would have done anyway to aid my understanding.

For example, every few weeks when we finished a Methods chapter, we’d be asked to do the textbook chapter review and hand in our solutions. I legitimately did not hand in a single chapter review all year, because they took ages to complete, and the questions were not difficult in a problem solving sense, but tedious instead. I made the executive decision that my time would be better spent focused on understanding something I was having trouble with rather than completing questions I wasn’t going to gain anything from.

This approach pretty much killed the sense of ‘grinding’ that can sometimes we associated with homework — and this is really how I was able to see study as an adventure rather than a chore, because I had the freedom to ask and answer my own questions rather than being restricted to “chapter 6 exercise C problem 8, 9, 10, every question on the left-hand side of the page”.

In short, I never let school get in the way of learning. I never had to sacrifice sleep to get a homework task done, for example — if I ever stayed up past midnight studying, it was because there was too much learning going on for me to want to stop!

The hardest thing about this approach was therefore the inevitable clash against my teachers — their job was to make sure I was meeting deadlines and staying on top of things. Again, with some luck, once they saw that my approach was working for me, they were pretty happy to go along with it and help me out however they could.

If you were shifting all of your study time to work from home, how did you stay so motivated and disciplined?

This was the hardest part, but when I think about it, with the way everything fit together for me it wasn’t really that difficult after all.

Like I said before, I was lucky enough to be studying subjects I really enjoyed and found an interest in.

Add to this the fact that I really was able to study with a lot of freedom to chose how I spent my time, and the problems I took on were a personal challenge that I had the tools to overcome, rather than an irrelevant chore that was due on Monday.

With that, I was literally spending my time at home doing whatever I wanted, which just happened to be studying! It was a pretty neat set up.

Importantly, I knew that there was a risk of burnout if I worked all night every night all year, so I made sure to take time off at least each week, and more if I needed, to enjoy relaxation time working on things other than VCE, like personal projects, chatting with friends, multiplayer gaming, all the stuff I enjoyed doing in my spare time.

What advice would you give to people out there looking to score above 40, and maybe even up to a 50?

I guess I wasn’t specifically aiming for a 50 in Methods. The same is true for my other subjects; Physics (50), Specialist (47) and Software (48). (I also took English (42) but that’s different — see Lauren’s great post)

I don’t think many 50-scoring students set out to get a 50. It’s more like, everything just goes relatively well throughout the year — maybe there are areas that they don’t really understand but they identify these and work hard on them — and then towards the end of the year they start thinking “hey, everything has gone great so far, what’s stopping me?”

That’s exactly what happened to me, and I’m sure it happens to lots of 40+ scoring students. The 40+ mindset isn’t ‘I need to get a 40!’, it’s more like ‘hopefully if I do my best the rest will take care of itself’.

In fact, the rest comes down to a whole bunch of factors outside of your control — like the questions on the exam and scaling algorithms that process you and your school’s scores and try to judge you based on them — so this is a super healthy mindset to have, because it’s not worth stressing over the details that can’t be changed. I’m a big optimist, so this kind of mindset came really naturally to me, but I know a lot of people who struggle with it.

So, of the things you can control, what’s some advice to help you get there — to the end of the year thinking “you know what, I’ve got a shot at a 50”?

– I’m a fan of ‘studying ahead’ if you have the time to get on top of your subjects before they get on top of you, I’ve already explained how this takes a huge amount of pressure off in class and it also lets you have a lot more freedom in choosing how to spend your time.
You don’t need to worry about not having the resources – anyone with an internet connection can access the many free Maths explanation resources online and, of course, the ATAR Notes forums, where you’ll find past students like me who love helping people understand.

– If you still have the power to, I can’t stress enough the importance of picking subjects you think you’ll actually find interesting! English is an example of a subject I didn’t want to be doing, and though the joy I have described my study sessions with was there for all my other subjects, it certainly was not the case for English. As a compulsory subject, that’s tough luck if you’re not an English kid, but you can control your other subject choices, so choose wisely rather than following a nice scaling bonus. Specialist Maths is not fun if you don’t like Maths!

– A hugely important thing I spent my time doing — and this was the case whether I was learning the content for the first time or preparing for a SAC or the final exams, I tried really hard to identify what I wasn’t getting, what I was struggling with, and to spend my study time there, right at the edge of my ‘understanding zone’. That’s where you’ll get the most improvement.

And if you’re lucky, like I was, the rest really will take care of itself!

If you could go back, would you change anything about how you did high-school?

This is an awesome ending question.

I’m happy to say that I don’t really have any regrets about my VCE experience! I ended up with a scores that surpassed all of my initial expectations and I landed a spot in my first preference for university course — Bachelor of Science at Melbourne.

More importantly, by taking responsibility for my own learning, I gained a great understanding of how I learn, and this has been the most useful thing out of everything I learned in VCE. It really set my up for studying at university where I’m able to study subjects I’m even more interested in like Computer Science; from Algorithms to Artificial Intelligence.

Above all, I learned that I really enjoy the process of breaking down a concept and understanding it one simple idea at a time. Through the opportunities I have had to help others understand things too I’ve realised that a career in learning is where I’ll be most at home, so after my Bachelor Degree I’m planning on studying Teaching.

Obviously I’m not saying that education is the ideal end goal for everyone, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that VCE taught me a lot about Mathematical Methods but it also taught me a lot about myself, how I learn and what I enjoy doing, and I wouldn’t change that at all.