Studying 101: Study Smarter Not Harder
  • Nov 2022
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Studying 101: Study Smarter Not Harder

25th November 2022

Do you ever feel that your study habits need to be better? What could you be doing to improve your performance in class and on exams?

Many students learn that their high school study habits may translate poorly to college. This is understandable, given how different college is from high school. 

Professors are less involved. Personally, classrooms are more extensive, tests are more important, reading is more intense, and classes are much more difficult.

That does not mean you are a terrible person; you must improve your study skills. Fortunately, many active, effective study tactics have been demonstrated to be helpful in college classes.

This handout contains several study tips. Implementing these ideas into your daily study routine can help you learn course material more swiftly and effectively. Experiment with them to find the ones that work best for you.


Reading is not studying

Simply reading and rereading texts or notes does not constitute active participation in the material. It is a review of your notes.

'Doing' the readings for the class is different from studying. It is doing class reading. Rereading causes forgetfulness.

Reading is a vital aspect of pre-studying, but learning information necessitates active participation in the material (Edwards, 2014).

The process of generating meaning from material that entails drawing connections to lectures, forming examples, and managing your learning is known as active engagement (Davis, 2007). 

Active studying does not imply underlining, highlighting text, rereading, or rote memorization.

Though these activities may help you stay focused on the work at hand, they have not considered active studying practices and are only weakly associated with enhanced learning (Mackenzie, 1994).

Active learning ideas include:

  • Make a topic-by-topic study guide. Create questions and dilemmas, then provide detailed solutions. Make your test.

  • Consider becoming a teacher. Say the facts aloud in your own words, as if you were a teacher presenting the topics to a class.

  • Create examples based on your own experiences.

  • Make concept maps or diagrams to help you understand the material.

  • Create symbols to represent concepts.

  • Figure understand the significant ideas in non-technical classes (e.g., English, History, Psychology) so you can explain, contrast, and re-evaluate them.

  • Work on the problems, explain the procedures, and why they work in technical classes.

  • Examine the following in terms of the question, evidence, and conclusion: What is the instructor's/question? What exactly is the proof they present? What is the result?

Planning and organization will assist you in actively studying for your courses.

When preparing for an exam, organize your resources first and start actively reviewing by topic (Newport, 2007). On the syllabi, professors frequently include subtopics. 

Use these to help you organize your materials. For example, make a pile of all the materials for one topic (e.g., PowerPoint notes, textbook notes, articles, assignments, etc.). Study by topic by labeling each pile with the topic.

Check out our metacognition tipsheet for additional information on the theory underlying active studying.


Understand the Study Cycle

Frank Christ's Study Cycle divides studying into five stages: previewing, attending class, reviewing, studying, and testing your understanding.

Although each stage may appear straightforward at first look, students frequently try to cut corners and miss out on opportunities for effective learning. 

For example, suppose you skip a reading before class because the professor will cover the same material. 

In that case, you will miss out on a significant opportunity to learn in different modes (reading and listening) and to benefit from the repetition and distributed practice (see #3 below) that you will get from both readings ahead and attending class.

Understanding the significance of each stage of this cycle can help you take advantage of opportunities to learn effectively.


Spacing out is good.

"Distributed practice"—spacing out your studying over multiple short periods over several days and weeks—is one of the most effective learning strategies (Newport, 2007).

The most efficient practice is to spend a modest amount of time each day on each lesson.

The total amount of time spent studying will be the same (or less) than one or two marathon library visits, but you will learn and remember considerably more in the long term—which will help you receive an A on the final.

What matters is how you spend your study time, not how long you study. Long study sessions result in a loss of concentration and, as a result, a loss of learning and retention.

It would help if you had control over your schedule to stretch out your studying across brief amounts of time over numerous days and weeks.

Keeping a daily work plan can assist you in including frequent active studying sessions for each lesson. Every day, try to do something for each class.

Be detailed and realistic about how much time you want to devote to each task—you should not have more items on your list than you can do in a day.

For example, you may do a couple every day instead of doing all of your arithmetic problems the hour before class. You can spend 15-20 minutes per day reviewing your history class notes.

Thus, your studying time will remain the same, but instead of preparing for one class at a time, you will prepare for all of your classes in quick bursts. This will help you focus, keep organized, and retain information.

In addition to helping you understand the topic more thoroughly, spacing out your work helps you avoid procrastinating. Instead of facing the dreadful assignment for four hours on Monday, you can confront it for 30 minutes daily.

Working on a disliked job for a shorter, more regular period is more likely acceptable and less likely to be postponed until the last minute. 

Finally, suppose you have to memorize material for class (names, dates, formulas).

In that case, it is preferable to construct flashcards for this content and review it throughout the day rather than all at once (Wissman & Rawson, 2012).

More information on memorization tactics can be found in our handout.


It is good to be intense.

Not all studying is created equal. If you study hard, you will achieve more. Intensive study sessions are brief and allow you to complete tasks with less effort.

Short, intense study sessions are more beneficial than long, drawn-out sessions.

Spreading out study sessions is one of the most effective study tactics (Newport, 2007). Intensive study sessions can last 30 or 45 minutes and include active learning techniques.

Self-testing, for example, is an active study approach that increases the intensity of studying and the efficiency of learning.

However, preparing to spend hours upon hours self-testing would cause you to become sidetracked and lose focus.

However, if you intend to quiz yourself on the course subject for 45 minutes and then take a break, you will be far more likely to keep your focus and retain the information.

Furthermore, the shorter, more intense sessions will most likely apply the necessary pressure to prevent procrastination.


Silence is not golden.

Determine where you study best. The silence of a library might be a better environment for you.

Examining what kind of noisy environment works best for you is critical. Having some background noise helps you concentrate.

While some people find listening to classical music while studying beneficial, others find it excessively distracting. 

The argument is that the silence of a library can be as distracting (if not more so) as the commotion of a gymnasium.

If you want to study at the library but find silence distracting, try the first or second floors, which have more background 'buzz.'

Remember that active studying is rarely silent because it frequently necessitates speaking the material aloud.


Problems are your friend.

Working on and resolving difficulties is essential for technical training (e.g., math, economics). Explain the steps in the issues and why they work.

Working on problems in technical courses is frequently more necessary than reading the material (Newport, 2007).

Write down in detail the practice problems demonstrated by the professor in class. Annotate each step and ask clarifying questions if necessary.

At the very least, write down the question and the response (even if you miss the steps).

Make a long list of issues from the course materials and lectures to study for examinations. Work through the issues and explain the steps and why they work (Carrier, 2003).


Reconsider multitasking

A substantial quantity of studies demonstrates that multitasking does not boost efficiency and has a detrimental impact on results (Junco, 2012).

You must remove distractions throughout your study sessions to study smarter rather than harder.

If you allow it, social media, web surfing, game playing, texting, and other distractions will dramatically reduce the intensity of your study periods!

According to research, multitasking (for example, responding to texts while studying) increases the time required to acquire content while decreasing the quality of the learning (Junco, 2012).

By eliminating distractions, you can fully engage in your study sessions. If you do not require your computer for homework, do not use it.

Use tools to help set time limits for visiting specific websites during the day.

Turn off your phone. Reward intense studying with a social-media break (but make sure you schedule it correctly!) More advice and techniques can be found in our handout on handling technology.


Switch up your setting

Find different spots to study on and around campus, and switch up your space if it no longer works for you.

Determine when and where you study best. Your focus may not be as keen at 10:00 p.m. as at 10:00 a.m.

You may be more productive in a coffee shop with background noise or in your resident hall's study lounge. Perhaps you fall asleep while studying on your bed.

It would help if you had a choice of study locations on and around campus. That way, you may discover the ideal study spot no matter where you are.

After a while, you may realize that your current location is too comfy and no longer a decent place to study, so it is time to move on!


Become a teacher

As if you were the teacher, explain the information in your terms. This can be done in a study group, with a study partner, or by yourself.

Saying the content aloud will help you remember it by highlighting where you are confused and need additional information. 

Use examples and establish links between topics as you discuss the material (as a teacher does). It is acceptable (and encouraged) to do this while holding your notes.

You may need to rely on your notes at first to convey the content, but you will soon be able to teach it without them.

Making your quiz will help you think like your professor. What information does your lecturer want you to have? Self-testing is a highly successful study strategy.

Make a study guide and keep it with you so you may go over the questions and answers throughout the day and multiple days.

Identify the questions you need to know and quiz yourself just on those. Declare your answers aloud.

This will assist you in remembering the information and making necessary revisions. Do the sample problems for technical courses and describe how you got from the question to the answer.

Resolve the issues that are causing you problems. This learning method actively stimulates your brain and dramatically improves memory (Craik, 1975).


Take control of your calendar.

Controlling your schedule and distractions will assist you in reaching your goals.

You can complete your tasks and keep on top of your education if you have control over your calendar. The actions below will help you regain control of your calendar:

  • Plan your week's itinerary on the same day each week (maybe Sunday nights or Saturday mornings).

  • Go through each lesson and list what you want to accomplish in each class that week.

  • Examine your calendar to see how many hours you have to complete your assignment.

  • Determine whether or not your list can be finished in the time you have available. (You should include the amount of time you intend to spend on each assignment.) Make any necessary changes. For example, if you discover that completing your task would require more hours than you have available, you will most likely need to prioritize your readings. It is a luxury to finish all of the readings. You will have to choose your readings based on what is taught in class. You should read and take notes on all assignments from your preferred class source (the one used a lot in the class). This could be the textbook or a reading that addresses the day's theme. Supplemental readings will most likely be skimmed.

  • Schedule when you intend to finish assignments in your calendar.

  • Make a plan for the next day before going to bed each night. You will be more productive if you wake up with a plan.


Use downtime to your advantage.

Avoid 'easy' weeks. This is the tranquility before the storm. Lighter work weeks are ideal for getting ahead on tasks or beginning long-term projects.

Use the extra time to get ahead on homework or to begin large projects or reports. Even if you do not have anything due, you should aim to work on every class every week. Doing some work for each of your classes every day is best.

Spending 30 minutes per class daily adds up to three hours per week, but spreading it out over six days is more effective than cramming it all in at a three-hour session.

If you have finished all of the work for a particular class, use the 30 minutes to get ahead or begin a lengthier project.



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