Effective Study Habits

In college, not all of your learning will take place in the classroom. You are expected to do much of your learning outside of class. If you were able to get by in high school just listening and doing homework during class, prepare for a rude awakening — professors expect you to spend two hours outside of class for every hour in class. For a three credit course, that’s six hours outside of class every week.

While some beginning courses do not require the full two hours of work outside of class, now is the time to hone your study skills. As you progress in your major and begin to take upper division-classes, you may find yourself spending much more than two hours of study time per credit hour if you haven’t learned to study effectively. The sooner you learn these skills, the better off you will be.

Even if you got A’s in high school, you can almost certainly improve your study skills. Maybe you already know what you should be doing but haven’t gotten around to making changes. Maybe you could use some new ideas. Now is your chance to evaluate your current study skills, try some new ones, and decide what works best for you. Before reading ahead, take time to fill out the Study Habits Self-Evaluation by clicking here. Then compare your answers with the information given below, and decide on two things you could do to improve your study habits.

1. What time of day is best to study?
Any time can be a good time as long as you get used to studying at that time. If you always study at the same time, your brain will get used to being in gear at that time of day.

It can really help to find your prime study time. Some students study better in the early morning, late morning, afternoon, or evening. Try different times to see what works best for you. Some students find that they can get twice as much done during their prime study time than at other times.

Make sure to use time between classes. The best time to study is often right before and/or right after class. If possible, arrange your schedule so that there is study time right after your most challenging courses.

Avoid studying late at night. Information learned during daylight seems to stick longer, and tasks done during daylight often take a shorter time.

2. What location works best for you when studying for a test? What makes it a good place?
You can study successfully in a variety of places: at home, at school, in your bedroom, on your living room couch, in the library, at the kitchen table, in the student lounge, etc.

Establish one or more study spots that you use regularly so that your mind becomes accustomed to shifting into study gear when you go there. Recent research has shown that you can recall details better if you study the same subject in more than one place, so try to switch between locations during the week.

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Try not to study in the same place that you do other things, if possible. For example, studying in bed can be a poor choice because your brain is used to sleeping when you go there.

It can also make sleeping harder if you get your brain used to working while you’re in bed.

Try to choose a place that you can enjoy being, one that is comfortable and pleasant (but not so comfortable that you feel like sleeping). If you hate being there, it will make studying much harder.

Choose a place that has sufficient light so that you don’t have to strain your eyes and enough room to spread out the books, papers, computer, and so on that you will need.

Choose a place with few distractions. If you like music or the TV on, make sure the volume is low. Soft instrumental music, especially from the Baroque period, can often enhance learning (Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel are some well-known Baroque composers — do an Internet search to find more).

Find a place where there aren’t too many interruptions. If your roommates, children, etc., are constantly taking your attention from your studies, try to find an alternative location. Make sure you aren’t unconsciously choosing a place where you will be interrupted in order to avoid studying.

Try using pleasant smells to make your studying more enjoyable. For example, peppermint oil has been found to enhance memory in some studies.

3. How long before a test do you begin to study for it? Do you feel that this is enough time?
The best answer to this question is the first day of class.

Remember that studying actually starts in class. If you are actively learning during class, not just passively listening or mindlessly taking notes, you are already studying. Start learning the material as soon as you hear it.

Each day, try to master the material from that class period before the next class, when it is still fresh in your mind. Many subjects are cumulative, each day’s learning builds on the previous lesson. If you put studying off, you’ll find yourself lost pretty quickly.

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Discipline yourself to study for each class before the class meets again, and you’ll find yourself learning and retaining much more information.

Your brain is really good at forgetting information — you might go crazy if you remembered every single moment of every day. Repetition is key to convincing your brain that something is worth remembering. If you hear something in class, go over it again that afternoon, review it before the next class, and then before the test, you are much more likely to remember it than if you just heard it once in class and then didn’t think about it again until studying for the exam.

If you have been studying the material all along, then when the test comes, all you will have to do is reinforce the material, not learn it for the first time. If all you do is cram stuff in your brain, then dump it out on the test, you’ll find yourself at the end of four years not knowing much more than you did when you started. Why should someone hire you?

4. How long do you study at one time? If it is too long, would it be better to break it up?
Your brain can’t concentrate well on something for more than 20 minutes. So if you study for three hours straight, how much of it was really productive? The first 20 minutes. No wonder marathon study sessions don’t work very well. One solution to this is to take breaks, get up and move around about every 20 minutes. Then you can go at it again with renewed energy.

It is also a good idea to switch subjects every 45-60 minutes. It is better to study two or more subjects each time you sit down to study than to have separate sessions for each subject. Your brain just works better that way.
Try to spread your studying out during the day rather than doing it in big chunks. Long sessions can tire you out, and you won’t learn as well when you’re tired. Long cramming sessions just aren’t effective for real learning.

5. What do you do when you sit down to study? What techniques do you use?
Many students study by simply reading over their notes or textbooks. While both of these are useful, it takes more than that to really learn something. This kind of studying is called rehearsal — just going over it in your mind. If this is all you are doing, it’s time to find some more active techniques.

Being familiar with an idea is different from really knowing it. Just because you can sing along with a song on your iPod doesn’t mean that you could write down all the words without any music prompting you. Your professors will expect you to explain information, give reasons, organize ideas, and so on, not just recognize the correct answer when you see it.

If you don’t understand something, don’t just keep reading it over and over, hoping it will sink in. Do something different!

Studying doesn’t end with college. To excel in any challenging career, you’ll need to learn new things constantly. The world is changing so fast that you’ll need to update your knowledge all the time. Many employers want to hire college graduates not just because of what they already know, but because they have learned how to study and learn new things. If you work on your study skills now, it will continue to pay off throughout your life!