Many students study by just reading through their notes or the textbook. This kind of studying creates very shallow learning, which rarely allows for good performance in a course. It’s pretty boring, too! In order to achieve deeper, more meaningful learning, you need to do something active with the material, something that helps you process it and make it your own.
Not sure what to do? Consider the following active study techniques. Which of them would work best for you?
1. Practice brain dumping
Carefully review a specific topic. Then close your notes and as quickly as you can, write down everything you can remember about that topic. When you have finished, compare your list with your notes, and take note of what you didn’t remember. Do it again until you can come up with all of the main ideas. Writing ideas down from memory is much different from just “singing along” with your notes. This exercise gives your brain practice for what you’ll actually have to do on a test and gives you a much better idea of what you really understand and what you don’t.
2. Write definitions
Go through your notes or the textbook and look for terms that you need to know. Create a list with a brief definition of each; you can do this on paper or on a computer. Write the definitions in your own words where possible. Keep these lists to review throughout the semester. Many courses have their own vocabulary, and once you know these words, you will find yourself doing much better in the course. By making your own list of words, you make it an active study activity.
3. Make your own flash cards
Identify facts, terms, or other information that will be useful to memorize. Create your own flash cards with simple questions and answers — if possible, make them so that they can be used starting from either side. Use them frequently until you can go through them easily. A few minutes on the bus, at lunch, while waiting in a line, etc., can make a big difference in your memory. If you made them yourself, then the extra time you spent will deepen your understanding of the material.
4. Write an outline
Rewrite your notes to create an outline of all of the information in one chapter of a textbook, one class lecture, etc. Reorganize them if it makes more sense to you in a different order. You may want to do this on paper or on a computer. Rewriting your notes in a different form than you took them in the first place forces you to organize and evaluate them, not just go over them.
5. Create a summary sheet
Create a summary sheet by listing all the important ideas for an exam on one side of a single piece of paper. This forces you to organize the information in your mind and evaluate it to decide which ideas are most important. This also creates an excellent document to review right before the exam and later before the final exam.
6. Work practice problems
Work problems or answer questions from the textbook, even if they weren’t assigned. Check your answers with the ones in the back, if given. In courses like math, where the test will consist of problems to solve, the best way to prepare is to practice solving problems. This will also help you identify where you are having problems so that you can get help from the professor, fellow students, or the Tutoring Center.
7. Create a concept map
Create a concept map by putting an idea in the center or top of the page, then drawing lines out to ideas that are connected to it, then link more ideas to those. This is another way to reorganize the information and make it your own. It is especially useful for visual learners who understand material best by seeing connections between ideas. Do an Internet search for concept maps to see examples.
8. Write a question list
Make a list of questions by turning every important piece of information into a question. Fold the page, and write the answers so they can’t be seen when the page is folded. Practice until you can answer all of your questions without looking at the answers. One student tried this and found that he had already practiced all of the questions on a biology test.
9. Write your own test questions
Identify some of the main ideas that you think your professor will ask questions about. Write your own questions as if you were the professor creating the exam. Include the correct answers. If you are in a study group, exchange questions, try to answer them, and then grade each other’s answers. Try different kinds of questions, such as multiple choice, short answer, true/false, essay, etc. You may realize that writing good questions is more difficult than you thought, especially multiple choice questions. The trick is to think of wrong answers that would make sense if you didn’t know the right answer — you should only be able to get it right if you understand the concept. After the exam, compare your questions with the professor’s.
10. Teach someone else
Explain what you have learned out loud to a friend, your study group, or even the mirror. If you are talking to another person, answer their questions, say it another way if they don’t get it, etc. By explaining something, you will find out if you really understand it, and just talking about it can help settle it in your mind.