How to Deal with Challenging Subject Matter

How to Deal with Challenging Subject Matter

Studying can be hard.

Sometimes, we may not know where to begin; other times, we may not know when to stop! Beyond that, it can also be hard to focus for long periods of time. There are many possible obstacles we each have to overcome in order to study in a way that best suits our brains and the subject we’re studying.

If you can identify these obstacles, you can take targeted steps to help you overcome them, ranging from simply changing where you study to getting advice from an academic coach.

First, we need to realize that there are many factors that make up the act of “studying,” each of which could be presenting challenges to your successful study of a subject. If you struggle while trying to study for a class, midterm, final, or standardized test, this series will present some questions you can ask yourself to try to pinpoint where the problem(s) may be. You could be stumbling over specific topics within the subject, you might be disorganized or undisciplined in your study habits (see Part 2 and Part 3 of this series), or you may be studying in a place that’s full of distractions (see Part 4 of this series).

In this post, I’ll talk about how to determine if your study obstacles are based on your struggles with class content.

Subject Matter

It’s important to figure out if your study problems actually stem from challenges in the material you are studying. Ask yourself these questions to determine whether your study challenges come from the class or material:

1. Did I miss a fundamental concept?

Regardless of the subject, foundational knowledge and basic skills are key to understanding more sophisticated material. Did you miss class when your teacher reviewed exponents? That could explain why you feel lost now, when your class has moved on to quadratic equations. Did you zone out when your teacher was explaining the conventions of the sonnet? No wonder you find Shakespeare’s poetry so confusing! Try to list out the building blocks of whatever subject you are struggling in using a textbook, syllabus, or online educational resource like Then, go through the list, marking off what you have a good grasp of and what you are fuzzy on. Get help on those fuzzy concepts, and you may see your larger problems with the subject start to clear up!

2. Am I afraid of the material?

This may seem like a silly question, but answer it as honestly as you can. Often, we are afraid of challenging material and give up on it instead of really engaging with it. Confidence issues stemming from unfounded stereotypes (athletes can’t love poetry, girls aren’t good at math, etc.) can also unsettle us when we try to study for a class we find difficult. Don’t give in! Each person not only has unique innate abilities, regardless of gender, background, or extracurricular interests, but research has also shown that with hard work and practice, everyone can show real improvement.

3. What is my learning style, and does it complement my instructor’s teaching style?

Sometimes, students may learn in a completely different way than their teacher, professor, or advisor teaches. Do you like to work through texts on your own, while your teacher likes to lecture? Do you like to draw a diagram to keep track of information, while your teacher provides class notes in an outline form? If you notice a difference between how you learn and how you are being taught, there’s a good possibility your challenges with the class material may stem from a simple miscommunication. Seek ways to bridge the gap in communication by speaking with your instructor one-on-one, working with a study partner from your class, or finding a private tutor who can teach you the material in a way that’s tailored for you.

Be honest with yourself about what you know and what you don’t, and most importantly, check in with your teachers. They may be able to give you some insight about where your potential problems lie, and can help you focus on the most important issues.

Click here to go to the next article in this series: How to Diagnose Your Own Study Habits, Part 2: Study Mindset.

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Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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