Doing well on exams requires learning how to study the right way.
What thatdoesn’t mean is cramming at the last minute.
“Memorization seems like learning, but in reality, we probably haven’t deeply processed that information enough for us to remember it days, or even hours, later,” says Jessie Schwab of theHarvard College Writing Program.
Before we present specific study tips, let’s look at ways you can prepare to study.
Ways to Make Studying Easier
One way to make it easier to study is by setting up a study space you can be productive in.
“There’s a delicate balance,” notesMy Degree Guide (MDG), a guide to online degree programs. “You need a place that’s comfortable without being so relaxing that you end up falling asleep.” It may actually help to find several different locations; your room, the library, a coffeeshop, a park or other outdoor space.
Many people prefer quiet while studying. However, “the silence of the library may be just as distracting as the noise of a gymnasium,” notes the University of North Carolina’sLearning Center (UNCLC). “You might find that you concentrate better with some background noise.”
“Noise-canceling headphones can help limit distractions,” adds MDG. “It’s better to listen to quiet music than loud tunes.” Listening to recorded nature sounds or keeping a fan on in the background may also help you focus.
One thing you shouldn't do while studying is multitask.
“A significant amount of research indicates that multitasking does not improve efficiency,” notes UNCLC. “Social media, web browsing, game playing, texting, etc. will severely affect the intensity of your study sessions if you allow them.” That means turning off the TV and silencing your cell phone.
You can go ahead and check your phone during breaks…which you should be taking regularly during study sessions.
“The brain can only absorb so much information at a time,” explains theHarvard Summer School (HSS). “ Rest allows our brains to compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced.” Try for a 10-minute break every study hour.
Don’t limit rest to your breaks; it’s also important to get a solid seven to nine hours of sleep each night. What’s more, “studying right before bedtime can be a great idea,” suggests MDG. “Sleep helps cement information in your brain.”
A snack before studying can keep your brain fueled; nuts, apple slices, walnuts and dark chocolate are all good choices. Coffee or green tea can help keep you from dozing off—just don’t load your beverage up with sweet stuff. In addition, exercise and meditation both promote the kind of clearheadedness that makes studying easier.
Go here for more ways to improve your concentration.
Specific Study Tips
Just as cramming the night before a test doesn’t qualify as studying, “reading and re-reading texts or notes is not actively engaging in the material,” says UNCLC.
Here are ways to study effectively.
Find a Study Buddy
You’ll probably find some courses more challenging than others…and it’s easy to fall behind on coursework, especially if you’re carrying a full credit schedule.
Fortunately, “you don’t have to struggle through difficult material on your own,” says HSS. “Be proactive about identifying areas where you need assistance and seek out that assistance immediately.”
One way to conquer a hard course is to find a study buddy or, even better, a study team.
“Having other people to study with means you can explain the material to one another, quiz each other and build a network you can rely on throughout the rest of the class—and beyond,” notes HSS. It also helps to have someone hold you accountable for getting your work done on time.
Create a Study Plan
It will be easier to get everything done on time if you plan your studies beforehand:
- Estimate the number of study hours you’ll need each week for each course. For each credit hour, pencil in one to three hours of weekly study.
- Create a weekly schedule that includes all your obligations (including classes, meals, club or other group activities, paid employment, chores such as doing laundry, etc.)
- Schedule study time around your other activities, with more time blocked out for harder or more intense courses. Try to do something for each course each day.
- Firm up your plan for the following day before going to bed.
Several things to keep in mind:
- Tackle your toughest assignments first.
- Schedule shorter, more intense study sessions.
- If you need help keeping things on track, MDG suggests using an app such asiStudiez Pro Legend,Evernote orMy Study Life;ScannerPro turns your phone into a scanner—helpful for capturing written notes or other text.
You can learn more about time management (and other aspects of college life)here.
Also, find a filing system—either on paper or via an app or program—that allows you to pull together information for a specific topic in each class quickly. You don’t want to waste time looking for relevant notes and other materials.
Learn How to Study Actively
The best way to process information so you can absorb it is through what UNCLC calls “active study,” or engaging with the text in a way that allows you to make sense of it.
What’s more, study sessions are only part of a process known as “the study cycle”:
- Previewing a class
- Attending the class
- Reviewing your class notes
- Studying the material
- Checking that you understand the material
It may be tempting to bypass one or more of these steps, but that can lead to “missed opportunities for good learning,” according to UNC. “For example, you may skip a reading before class because the professor covers the same material in class; doing so misses a key opportunity to learn in different modes (reading and listening).”
This process relies on your ability to take good notes during lectures. MDG suggests the following:
- Write notes by hand, which makes it easier to remember information.
- Stick to the main points, using some sort of shorthand (be sure you’ll understand it later).
- If you can’t get all the details, jot down keywords or names.
- Organize all your notes the same way for each class.
During post-class review and study sessions, you can:
- Rewrite your notes if necessary.
- Use your textbook to fill in any information (or ask your study buddy/group for help).
- For technical classes, concentrate on working the problems (see more below).
- For such classes as English or history, concentrate on the big ideas (for example, the main economic system in place during different eras in a specific country).
- Think in terms of question, evidence, conclusion: What is the question being posed by the teacher or author? What evidence do they present? What conclusion do they reach?
To commit information to memory, MDG recommends using “spaced repetition”:
- Break the information into parts; consider making up flashcards or charts to help keep the information visible
- Learn one new part at a time over the course of days or weeks
- Review earlier parts during each study session
For more formal study methods, MDG suggests the following:
Use Keywords and Summarization to Retain Information
Focusing on key vocabulary (textbooks often use bold print to set them off) and key concepts can help you grasp the main concepts of the material you’re studying.
“As you scan the text, write these words down in a list,” suggests MDG. “Look them up in a dictionary or in the glossary at the back of the book.”
For key concepts, use a highlighter as you read (or one of the apps mentioned above) with notes in the margins or on sticky notes. Then summarize this information in your own words; “writing out a summary (in paragraph or outline form) can be especially effective,” says MDG.
One good way to get information to stick in your brain is to tell it again in your own words. You can organize your summaries in paragraph form or in outline form; try using pens or highlighters of different colors for emphasis. Don’t include every bit of information—stick to the key points.
MDG also suggests using an app calledXMind to create a “visual mind map, which can help you classify facts and figures so you see how they relate to one another.”
Learn Specific Study Skills
These skills can also help you process and retain study material:
- In technical courses, concentrate on problems instead of text. “Be able to explain the steps of the problems and why they work,” says UNCLC. “Annotate each step and ask questions if you are confused.”
- Quiz yourself “to see what you can remember,” suggests MDG. “Quizzing yourself is like practicing for the test, and it’s one of the most effective methods of memory retention.” Say the answers out loud to help you memorize the information.
- Use other memory hacks, such as word puzzles or rhymes, or even singing the information. You can even make up a silly story that links related words or concepts.
- Practice writing essay answers, making sure to support the concepts you’re presenting with examples.
- To maintain focus, switch from one topic to another a few times during a study session.
Study by Pretending to Teach
Your instructor knows the information better than you do, right? Learning to think like a teacher can help you master study material.
“Try to explain the material in your own words,” says UNCLC. “At first you may need to rely on your notes to explain the material, but eventually you’ll be able to teach it without your notes.” Like a teacher, make connections between concepts and use examples.
Once you feel you have a good grasp of the material, try “recruiting a friend, a family member or a study group member to listen to your mini-lesson,” suggests MDG. “Reciting your presentation aloud to someone else will help the details stick in your mind, and your audience may be able to point out gaps in your knowledge.”
Preparing for Tests
Don’t dread tests—they help you mark your progress. Instead, go into exams knowing you’ve done the proper prep.
MDG suggests that you “begin studying at least one week in advance, blocking off a daily time segment (at least an hour) for test preparation.” Work in extra test-prep sessions a day or two before the exam.(The appExam Countdown can provide visual reminders and notifications.)
Take your rewritten class notes and write them again, condensing them down to (ideally) one or two sheets. Or “make a long outline that includes many of the details from your notes,” suggests MDG. “Rewrite it a few days later, but cut the material in half.”
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