Though you’ve likely been studying since at least kindergarten, how often do you stop to think about why you study the way you do?
With a bit of examination, you’ll realize that you could probably improve the way you study.
However, you’re busy enough as it is without adding a class called “study skills.” To save you time, we’ve put together a list of our most useful study tips.
While you’ve likely heard some of them before, there are probably at least a few you haven’t considered. And even if you have heard a study tip before, you could likely do a better job of applying it (we all could).
So without further ado, here are the very best study tips out there. We hope they make your studies more efficient, effective, and even enjoyable.
Have you ever missed an important lecture, presentation, or class discussion because you forgot class was happening? It’s easier to do than most of us would like to admit, especially with all the other demands college can place on your time.
To make sure you never forget a class again, put each class on your calendar as a recurring event. If you’re not sure how to do this, check out our guide to efficient calendar use. Also, be watch for any changes to the class schedule and update your calendar accordingly.
Your calendar is a great tool for keeping track of your busy schedule, but what about specific, day-to-day assignments? For this, I recommend using a task management app such as Todoist.
When you put your homework assignments on a to-do list, you’re much less likely to forget them. Plus, you get the satisfaction of crossing off each assignment after it’s done.
For more advice on setting up a task management system, check out our guide to staying organized in college.
Where do you study? Your dorm room? The library? Lying in your bed? The place you study matters more than you think. Having a dedicated study space will help you avoid distractions and signal to your brain that it’s time to learn.
We have an entire guide on creating a study space (including examples from real students). But, in general, find a space that will let you focus for long periods of time, has all the supplies you need, and is free of interruptions.
The details will vary based on your preferences. I need quiet and isolation to do my best work, so in college I usually opted for a secluded place in the library basement.
But some people prefer working with background noise or activity, meaning a coffee shop or the student center common area might be a better choice.
More than anything, think about the conditions that help you study best and find a space that fits them.
Let’s face it: there are dozens of things you’d rather be doing than homework. But homework is key to truly learning and retaining the material, especially for subjects with too much content for the professor to cover in class.
With most assignments, the biggest challenge is often getting started. Instead of leaving this up to your willpower, schedule time to do your homework.
You’ll have to experiment with how much time to plan for each class. But the act of putting homework time on your calendar and “showing up” the same way you would to an appointment will make it easier to get started.
Plus, it can remove some of the dread that comes from not knowing how long an assignment will take to complete.
While scheduling time to do homework will help with general procrastination, sometimes you’ll come across an assignment that feels like a slog. For some people, it will be research papers; for others, reading assignments or problem sets.
Whatever it is for you, the Pomodoro technique can help you overcome your resistance and power through the hard work.
We discuss the Pomodoro technique at length here, but the gist of it is this:
- Pick one assignment to complete
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Work on only that assignment until the timer is up
- Take short breaks in between sessions (usually 5 or 10 minutes)
- Repeat the process until you’ve finished the assignment
Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time allotted. This is somewhat unintuitive, as we tend to assume that an assignment will take “as long as it takes.”
But with Parkinson’s law, we realize that we can (somewhat) influence how long a task takes by adjusting the amount of time we schedule to complete it.
You’ve likely experienced Parkinson’s law in practice when you’re finishing an assignment at the last minute. You write that 10-page essay a few hours before it’s due because you have no choice, even if it would normally take you twice that amount of time.
While I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute to finish assignments, you can still use Parkinson’s law to spend less time on work.
If you think it will take you 2 hours to complete a set of problems, see if you can do it in an hour. Even if it ends up taking you longer than that, the very act of attempting to finish it faster will likely reduce the amount of time it takes.
Do you struggle with distracting random thoughts or ideas while you’re working?
Maybe, in the midst of your calculus homework, you remember that you need to schedule a meeting for a club you’re part of. Or, while doing your philosophy reading, you recall that one of your library books will soon be overdue.
How do you prevent these random (but often important) thoughts from derailing your study session?
The best technique we’ve found is to keep a distraction log. This is a piece of paper next to you where you can write down any thoughts that occur to you while studying.
Writing down these random thoughts gets them out of your head, freeing up space in your working memory. Plus, it lets you act on them later when you have a chance to add them to your to-do list, calendar, etc.
I already alluded to this in the section on the Pomodoro technique, but be sure to take breaks while you’re studying. This practice has several benefits.
First, taking breaks keeps your study sessions effective. No matter how long your attention span, there’s a limit to how long you can truly focus on difficult concepts or complex mental tasks. Taking short breaks lets your mind rest and then return refreshed once you resume.
Additionally, taking a break gives you a chance to stretch and move your body. Even if you’re working at a standing desk, staying fixed in one position for too long is still unhealthy. Getting your blood flowing will help you keep from getting tired or losing focus, as well as keeping you generally healthy.
Finally, taking a break can give your unconscious mind a chance to work on difficult problems. While there is a lot of power in actively concentrating on how to solve a problem, sometimes it’s better to let the question percolate in the back of your mind. When you return to studying, you may be surprised at how obvious the solution now seems.
You’re probably used to taking notes during lectures, but how often do you take notes while doing assigned reading?
While it can seem like a lot of extra work, taking notes as you read can save you time in the long run.
If you take notes as you read, it will be much faster to study for exams or come up with material for essays. This is because you won’t waste time re-reading the textbook (which, aside from taking lots of time, isn’t a very effective way to study).
Plus, taking notes as you read forces you to engage with and think about the material, helping you to internalize it more deeply than if you were just looking at the words on the page.
While we’re discussing note-taking, I encourage you to take notes on paper if you can. A 2014 study published in Psychological Science found that students who took notes on laptops didn’t do as well on tests of conceptual understanding compared to students who took notes by hand.
The study’s authors speculate this disparity in performance occurred because taking notes on a laptop makes it easier to transcribe what a professor says verbatim. When you write by hand, in contrast, the slower speed forces you to summarize and put concepts in your own words, which leads to better understanding.
To be clear, I do think your computer is an excellent place for storing and organizing your notes. But you’re better off using your phone to scan your notes later (or typing them up by hand) than taking digital notes from the start.
One of the key differences between college and high school is that there’s less focus on memorization and more on conceptual understanding.
For instance, a high school history class might require you to memorize lots of dates and names of people and then reproduce them on a test.
A college history class, in contrast, will be less concerned about memorizing when/what happened and more about analyzing historical trends or cause and effect.
If you’re only accustomed to memorizing information and regurgitating it on a test, this new mindset can take some getting used to.
Your professor will likely give you an idea of what they expect you to understand for exams, which can help you adjust your studies accordingly. But, in general, be sure to spend time learning the concepts behind the subject in addition to rote memorization.
One of the best techniques for testing your conceptual understanding is the Feynman technique. Popularized by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, this technique will help you determine if you truly understand a topic (as opposed to just knowing the name or idea of it).
First, get a sheet of paper and write the name of the topic at the top. Next, write as simple (yet comprehensive) of an explanation as you can. Imagine you’re explaining it to someone who knows nothing about the topic.
Once you’ve written your explanation, compare it to your notes or the textbook. Look for gaps in your understanding, as well as places where you’ve used unnecessary technical language. Now, re-write the explanation to include any information you missed and to simplify any jargon.
If you use this process as part of your studies, you’ll be much better prepared for exams, class discussions, and other forms of assessment.
The Feynman technique is great for reviewing material for an exam, but what about when you’re struggling to solve a homework problem? Another helpful tool you can use is “rubber ducking.”
Popular among programmers for debugging code, rubber ducking means explaining code, line-by-line, to an inanimate object such as a rubber duck. In the process of explaining what the code is supposed to do, the programmer will often arrive at the solution.
While you can certainly apply this if you’re studying programming, I’ve found it to be helpful for any time I’m stuck on a problem.
If I can’t figure out how to express a certain idea in writing, for example, I’ll explain it out loud as if talking to a friend. You can also use rubber ducking for math or science problems, talking through your current solution line-by-line and seeing if it helps you reach a breakthrough.
College-level classes often introduce you to material you’ve never studied before. This could be a subject that wasn’t offered in high school (such as geology or philosophy) or more advanced topics that high school classes don’t cover.
Regardless, you may find yourself thinking, “This makes no sense to me, I must be stupid.”
However, this mindset is flawed. Just because you don’t immediately understand new material, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean you’re incapable of understanding it. Rather, it just means you need to put in more time and effort to grasp it.
College classes often involve studying concepts that are unintuitive or completely unfamiliar. But just as you didn’t learn to read or subtract in one day (or even month), you may need more than a few days (or weeks) to grasp new college-level material. View this as part of the learning journey, rather than a reflection of your intelligence.
When we discuss how to study, we often focus on what happens during the study session.
But it’s just as important to take time outside of your studies to have fun and relax. Of course, this reduces stress. But it can also motivate you, giving you something to look forward to when you’re done studying.
To make sure you’re truly rewarding yourself, however, we recommend scheduling “high-density fun.” These are activities that truly excite you, rather than just killing a few minutes here or there.
It’s the difference between taking breaks while you work to scroll Instagram (low-density fun) and scheduling a DnD session after you finish your homework (high-density fun).
The definition of high-density fun will vary depending on your interests. But whatever it means to you, make sure to get some of it in your life each day (and especially after intense study sessions).
Cramming is a popular study method, but I don’t recommend it. While it’s possible to jam enough information into your head in one night that you can pass an exam, doing so is both ineffective and unnecessarily stressful.
Based on our understanding of how memory works, you should ideally spread your studies out over multiple sessions across multiple days (or even weeks). This will give your brain time to absorb information and commit it to long-term memory.
Plus, spreading out your studies will give you time to focus on the concepts you understand least and spend time quizzing yourself (instead of scanning the same set of notes over and over). Cramming the night before an exam leaves time for none of these activities.
Furthermore, cramming is stressful. Instead of focusing on learning material, there’s a nagging feeling of fear in the back of your mind that you won’t be able to remember enough. Plus, you’re likely to be anxious when you show up for the test, which can further hurt your performance.
I like to think of all-nighters as Parkinson’s law taken to unrealistic extremes.
Even if you can finish a project or paper in one night, it’s unlikely to be your best work.
And, as with cramming, all-nighters introduce excessive stress into your life.
Finally, operating on no sleep means you’ll be less effective at whatever you attempt the day after your all-nighter. This is especially bad news if you happen to pull an all-nighter before an exam.
Luckily, all-nighters are easy to avoid. If you keep a calendar of all your due dates and plan to start working on a project a few days (or weeks) before it’s due, you’ll have enough time to complete assignments without resorting to sleep deprivation.
As the ads for my local library used to say, “Books are only half the story.” The same is true of your college’s library system. While the library is a great place to study or check out a book for class, it’s also a useful resource for all kinds of academic work.
Particularly if you’re writing a research paper, the library staff can be immensely helpful. My college’s library let you book “research consultations,” in which a librarian would work with you one-on-one to help find useful sources for all kinds of projects.
Your library likely has something similar, and I strongly encourage you to use it. Don’t be intimidated by the librarians; it’s their job to help you.
Music can be an extremely powerful tool for focusing on assignments. However, it’s key to choose the right music.
Part of this is a matter of preference and experimentation.
One person might find classical music to be an amazing focus tool, while another might find it puts them to sleep. And some people will love the energy that heavy metal brings to the studying process, while others might find it distracting. Try different genres and see what works for you.
On the other hand, you can also turn to specialized resources for more help. Brain.fm, for instance, uses music created by AI to help induce (and maintain) deep focus. And our study playlist, while less high-tech, is carefully curated to include tracks that will help you hone in on your assignment.
Finally, if music is too distracting, then don’t use it while you study. There’s no rule saying you have to.
Does giving a presentation to the class fill you with dread? Likely, you just need some rehearsal.
First, you need to create your presentation far enough in advance that you have time to rehearse it (another benefit of not cramming).
Then, you should practice it out loud, ideally in a setting similar to the place you’ll be giving the real presentation. Your library likely has study rooms you can reserve for such purposes, though a dorm room can also work in a pinch.
For even more realistic practice, give the presentation to a friend or group of friends. Offer to let them rehearse their presentations for you in exchange (obviously, this works best if your friends are in the same class).
If you take some time to rehearse, then you’ll be much less anxious (and give a much better presentation) when the real thing arrives.
Just as rehearsing a presentation can help you be less nervous, simulating the conditions of your next exam can help calm test anxiety. By “conditions,” I mean the setting, time limit, and even format of the exam.
If you can mimic all of these when you’re taking practice exams or quizzing yourself, then you’ll be much less anxious when the real exam comes.
Try to get as close to the real exam as you can. Here are some ideas:
- See if you can work on practice questions in the same room (or a similar room) as where you’ll take the exam.
- Work with a timer set to the actual length of the exam (this will also help you with pacing).
- Gather as much information as you can about the exam’s format so that you can work on the right kinds of practice questions.
If you do all of the above, then you’ll be able to focus on performing your best, not on the anxiety that comes from the unknown. For more help with test anxiety, read this guide.
Your professor has office hours for one reason: to help you succeed in class. It’s in your best interest, therefore, to attend them.
Even if you aren’t struggling in a class, attending office hours is a chance to get to know your professor and show that you care about their subject.
And if you are struggling, then office hours are invaluable. However, you need to approach them the right way.
Don’t go to office hours with vague requests such as, “Help me understand this subject.” Instead, you should prepare specific questions in advance, such as:
- “How do I solve this particular equation?”
- “Is this a good list of sources for the upcoming research paper?”
- “Can we practice the French subjunctive tense?”
This way, you’ll make the most of your (and your professor’s) limited time.
Office hours are a great place to get help, but sometimes they aren’t enough. Your professor probably doesn’t have enough time to regularly work with you one-on-one. Or, you may feel more comfortable getting help from another student.
If either is the case, then you should visit your college’s learning or tutoring center. There, you can arrange to regularly meet with a tutor who can help you with all manner of academic matters.
In addition, your college may have a “writing center” or “math center” where you can make an appointment or even drop in to get homework help.
Using these resources doesn’t make you less intelligent; on the contrary, it would be foolish not to use them.
Are you struggling to understand a particular concept, even after going to office hours or working with a tutor?
While some things just take time to grasp, you can also get extra practice with third-party study resources. Your professor may already recommend some of these in their syllabus, but don’t be afraid to seek them out yourself.
However, be sure that you’re using high-quality resources. Here are some of our favorites:
- Crash Course – Free, professionally produced lectures on pretty much any “gen ed” class you might be taking (plus more specialized topics such as organic chemistry).
- Khan Academy – Crash Course is great for understanding general concepts, but Khan Academy is the place to go if you need help with calculations or more specific questions.
- Symbolab – An online tool that can solve any math problem and show you free, step-by-step solutions. Be sure to use it only after you’ve done your best to solve the problem on your own, not as a substitute for studying.
- Better Explained – A website that teaches math concepts (from trigonometry to vector calculus) using intuition, not memorization. Pair with Khan Academy for best results.
- Chegg Study – Need step-by-step solutions to problems in your textbook? Want to chat with a subject matter expert about your homework? Chegg Study will let you do both.
For some people (and some subjects) studying in groups is very helpful. Particularly if you’re all struggling to understand a new concept, then drawing on collective knowledge and problem solving skills can make finishing homework (or preparing for an exam) much easier.
However, be sure to balance group study sessions with solo practice and review. Unless you’re working on a group project, you alone will be responsible for understanding the material when it’s time to take the exam or write the final paper. When you only study in a group setting, it’s easy to develop illusions of competence.
Like studying in groups but are stuck at home? Use our “study with me” video for some companionship.
While I mentioned earlier that college classes tend to focus less on rote memorization, there will still be cases where you have to memorize equations, processes, reactions, or even historical events. If you find yourself in such a situation, flashcards are your best friend.
Assuming you give yourself enough time and use the right memorization techniques, you can use flashcards to learn massive amounts of information. And if you use a spaced repetition app such as Anki, you can make the process even more efficient.
Assuming your college uses traditional letter grades, it’s easy to compare your performance to that of other students. And even beyond grades, you may hear fellow students discussing how “easy” an exam was or how “simple” the concepts in the day’s lecture were.
If you thought the exam was impossible and the lecture incomprehensible, don’t beat yourself up. Everyone has different strengths, and people learn at different paces. Your learning journey is ultimately a personal one, and comparing yourself to other students won’t help you learn.
Despite our admonitions to get enough sleep, there will still be nights when you stay up late to finish homework (or even get in one more Smash Bros session).
Given this reality, the last thing you want to do in the morning is run around your room frantically looking for the textbook you need for your 8 AM class.
To avoid this stress, prepare your study materials the night before. Find the textbooks, notebooks, writing utensils, and whatever else you need, and put them in your backpack. Then, drift off to sleep with the blissful knowledge you’re prepared for the day to come.
Wondering what you should keep in your backpack? We’ve got your covered.
Do you check your texts or scroll your social feeds every few minutes while studying? If so, I recommend changing the way you study.
Your phone is a huge source of distraction, and checking it compulsively means it will take you longer to finish whatever you’re supposed to be working on.
Instead, put your phone away. Ideally, put it physically out of reach, either in a different room or at least in your bag. If that’s not practical, then install an app such as Forest, which will reward you for not touching your phone.
If you’re in a class (or major) that requires you to write a lot of essays, one of your biggest challenges is likely coming up with topic ideas. One of the most helpful techniques I’ve found for overcoming this “topic block” is making mind maps.
With a mind map, you draw a circle (or whatever shape you like) in the center of a piece of paper with a general topic.
Then, you draw branching lines out from the central circle connected to smaller circles. In each of these smaller circles, you write a more specific topic or idea.
After you repeat this process a few times, you’re likely to come up with at least one or two good topics that you can refine into an essay.
If you’re skeptical, give it a try. There’s a certain magic to the process, something about getting your hand moving that leads to unexpected ideas.
I’m a big believer in creating outlines for any lengthy piece of writing. However, the outlining technique I used in college (and still use today) is a bit different than the strict, hierarchical outlines you probably learned to write in middle or high school.
Instead of such a rigid outline, I use what Cal Newport calls a “flat outline.”
Here’s how flat outlining works:
- Make a list of topics you want to cover in a paper
- Research each topic, finding quotes related to them
- Drop your supporting quotes into a list under each topic
- From there, it’s just a matter of shaping that collection of quotes and topics into a full draft
This technique works because it recognizes that writing is a process of discovery. You don’t really know what you’ll say in a paper until you start writing it.
The flat outline aids you in the process of discovery by giving you quotes and general ideas as a starting point for your final draft. As a result, you spend less time outlining and more time writing.
For more tips on speeding up essay writing (without sacrificing quality), see this guide.
As I’m sure your teachers have been telling you since you started doing any kind of research, plagiarism is a serious matter. I won’t beat you over the head with all the reasons plagiarism is wrong; you already know that.
However, I will give you some tips for avoiding it. First, always cite a source if you have any doubts. It’s better to have too many citations than to risk plagiarism.
Second, use a third-party tool such as Quetext to check your paper for potential plagiarism. Your professor will likely use such a tool themselves, so do yourself a favor and beat them to it.
This one is for all the overachievers out there. While there’s nothing wrong with going “above and beyond” on assignments if you have the time, there’s such a thing as too much.
If a professor says a paper should be 10 pages, try not to exceed that. 11 or even 12 pages is fine, but 20 pages is ridiculous. Not only does this create lots of extra work for your professor, but it could also be a sign that your paper is rambling or unfocused.
Longer ≠ better.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way. The night before I planned to turn in my senior thesis, all I had left to do was cite all my sources (in proper MLA format), generate my bibliography, and print the final copy.
Given all the challenging mental work that had gone into writing my thesis, all this citation business would be easy in comparison…or so I thought.
Four hours later, I was still tracking down citations and making sure they were properly formatted. As midnight passed and I finally printed my thesis, I resolved to never underestimate the time citations can take.
Even if you’re working on a shorter paper without scores of sources, be sure to budget some time for the citation process. You’ll be glad you did.
While citing sources still requires a certain amount of grunt work, creating bibliographies is thankfully much easier than it used to be. There are now many tools that can take a list of sources and turn it into a properly formatted bibliography or works cited in the citation style of your choice.
Which tool you use doesn’t matter, so long as it’s reputable (your professor can likely provide recommendations).
EasyBib is a bit easier to use, making it great for when you’re done writing and just need a bibliography. Zotero, while having more of a learning curve, is a great tool to use during the writing and research processes. Not only can it automatically generate citations, but it can also help you track and reference sources as you’re writing.
Dropping a class should be a last resort, something you do only after you’ve used all the study resources we’ve mentioned thus far. But sometimes, it’s a smart, strategic decision.
If your grades are consistently low, or you realize that a class is way over your head, then dropping it can be a good way to avoid unnecessary damage to your GPA.
Of course, you shouldn’t take this decision lightly. Talk to your professor and advisor before making a decision. And explore alternatives, such as auditing the class or taking it pass/fail. Also, check if dropping a class will affect your eligibility for any scholarships you have.
When you start college, you’re bound to encounter advice that goes something like this:
“For every hour you spend in class, you should spend 2 hours studying outside of class.”
While I think this advice is well-intentioned, aiming to help students avoid taking on too heavy a workload, I also think it’s b.s.
There’s no hard and fast rule for how much studying a class will require. Studying for a class should take as long as you need to understand the material and complete assignments, no more or less.
While this doesn’t excuse you from doing your homework, don’t feel like you aren’t studying “enough” if the week’s assignments take less than the prescribed 2 hours per hour of class. It’s not a competition to see who can spend the most time studying.
Studying is already enough work without losing an important assignment due to a computer error. Always, always, always back up your work.
At a minimum, this means writing in a program like Google Docs, which automatically saves your work to the cloud. However, I also recommend keeping copies of important assignments on your computer in case you’re without internet access (a common problem in lecture halls).
Finally, for extra safety, consider creating a remote backup of your hard drive with a service such as Backblaze.
Backblaze runs in the background and automatically backs up everything on your computer to a remote server. This ensures you can quickly recover your data if your computer crashes, gets stolen, or dies a death by spilled coffee.
Grades are a big focus in high school, so it’s normal to enter college very concerned about them.
While you should certainly care about your grades (particularly if you’re looking to attend grad school or keep your scholarships), don’t obsess over them. Once you graduate and get a job, no one will care about your GPA.
Plus, if getting a job is your goal, then GPA is a minor factor in the scheme of things. Prospective employers will care more about the internships you did, the projects you worked on outside of class, and how well you present yourself in interviews. Don’t focus on grades so much that you forget to be a well-rounded person.
In theory, group projects are a chance to practice the collaboration you’ll do in the workplace. But in practice, they’re often a nightmare in which one or two people do all the work while everyone else slacks off.
To make group projects less painful (and help divide the work evenly), try using a project management app.
I’m using “project management app” in a very broad sense, meaning any app that helps coordinate your group efforts. In many cases, this could be as simple as a shared Google Doc to collaboratively write a paper. Or a shared Google Slides project for a group presentation.
While these apps take a little time to set up and learn, they let you assign tasks to specific group members and keep track of your project’s overall progress. This can help make sure that a large project doesn’t get derailed due to poor organization or coordination.
Never spend so much time studying that you forget to exercise, eat healthy food, get enough sleep, go outside, or spend time relaxing. While it can seem like a worthwhile tradeoff in the short-term, the damage to your overall quality of life isn’t worth it.
Plus, remember that your brain is part of your body. If you want to perform at your best, then taking care of your health isn’t optional. (Learn more about the connections between health and mental performance in our interview with Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.)
As you can now see, there are lots of things you can do to study more effectively, no matter what you’re majoring in or what classes you’re taking.
However, never forget that you still have to do the work. The tips in this article will help you study better, and likely spend less time studying.
But there isn’t some magic pill that will help you learn things instantly, à la Limitless. Ultimately, you still need to put in the time and hard work that studying requires.
Wishing you a productive study session!
Image Credits: man studying at table