How to Study
Teachers expect students to spend a good deal of time outside of class studying the subject on their own, and of course "studying" is what "students" do, right? Many students have a difficult time studying effectively, however. Distractions and anxiety can make it hard to focus. Outside responsibilities can make finding study time a problem.
There is no single solution that works for every student, but here are some tips on studying that can help you get the most out of your classes while keeping your stress level manageable.
Manage your time. One of the biggest challenges students face is finding time for everything. Work, sports and other responsibilities can easily eat into your study time, creating a stressful situation that makes it even harder to study effectively. A regular study schedule not only helps you fit in the studying you need, it can reduce your stress level.
The first step is to estimate how much study time you need. A rule of thumb given by one major university recommends planning on three hours of studying for each hour of class time for a class of average difficulty. Easier classes might only require two hours of studying for each hour in class, while harder courses might require four hours per classroom hour. Be realistic when judging how much time you need. What might be an easier subject for you might be harder for others, and vice versa. Most teachers and professors have a good idea of how much study time is required to perform well in their classes and may even announce this in the first class (don't be afraid to ask!) If you are not certain, allow three hours of studying per hour of class time at first and adjust as you go. Be sure to go over the class schedule when planning your schedule. You may need to allow more time close to exams and paper deadlines to avoid being rushed.
One piece of information you'll need is your reading speed. Track how many pages you work through per hour over the first couple weeks of class and use that as a guide for planning your time. Some studies have shown that reading retention is better for some people when they read quickly rather than slowly and deliberately. It is a skill that can always be improved with practice, but you will need to be realistic about how much time you will need to complete the required reading for a class.
It is easier to become distracted if you are tired or hungry, so plan your studying for times when you are normally alert and energized. You may find it most effective to study class notes shortly after the class is over. Again, be realistic about when you will be able to give yourself uninterrupted time to study without distractions or other time commitments. Remember that the brain actually functions better with short breaks in activity. Allow yourself ten minutes break for each hour of studying and use that time to check your messages, have a snack, stretch your muscles or anything else unrelated to your studying. When you return, you'll find your brain is refreshed and ready to focus again.
Recognize that a schedule is sometimes hard to keep when unavoidable interruptions pop up. Don't get stressed about not sticking to a perfect timetable. Just adjust your schedule as you need to and keep moving forward.
Learn about your learning style. Some people easily retain what they read. Some learn better by listening, some by doing. Match your study method to the way you learn.
Try different methods of studying and use the one that works best for you. Some people find that writing out information they need to remember helps them. Others might need to hear it, and read their notes out loud to themselves. Visual learners may find that drawing diagrams help them better comprehend complicated information.
Certain subjects lend themselves to certain study methods. Sometimes there are things that simply must be memorized. Flash cards and lists are a good options for this most basic kind of study. Learning to perform calculations in math and science will require working through study problems.
Other subjects can be studied in a variety of ways, and being creative in your approach can help you better grasp the subject. Re-organizing information or putting it in a different format requires you to recognize patterns and the relationship between bits of information. Converting a chapter from a history text into an outline or a timeline is an exercise that can help solidify your understanding of the crucial information, for example.
Minimize distractions. Studying is most effective when you can really focus on the subject for an extended period of time. Cell phones, the Web, and friends stopping by to chat are common distractions that make it easy to put aside the studying and difficult to get back into it after an interruption. Turn off your phone. If the Web is too much of a distraction, try shutting down your computer or at least turning off the internet connection to make it harder for your attention to surf away. Close your e-mail and messaging applications. If your study materials are online, consider printing them or downloading them to use offline.
Avoiding the distraction of friends might mean you have to find a study hideout. The library is a popular place to study, but is also often a social center. Look for places in low-traffic areas where you're less likely to see people you know. There may be other places on campus that provide a quiet distraction-free environment, like unused classrooms or lecture halls. Or you might get off campus completely and use a public library or quiet coffee shop.
Do you really need to take all those notes? Some people internalize written information better if they associate it with something physical, like writing or typing it out. If that's not your learning style, though, use note taking to your best advantage. Ask yourself if you really need to write everything down, or if stopping after each sentence to take a note is distracting you from following the stream of the text or lecture. Note taking is a good tool for summarizing the larger concepts you are studying by making you explain them back briefly in your own words. Automatically copying out every bit of information is not likely to help most people understand it, however.
Note taking in class can also be too distracting if you are trying to record every single thing the teacher is saying. Focus on identifying the key information and taking it down. Listen to the teacher for cues on what information is crucial. Anything written on the board, for example, is likely to be important and will be useful to have in your notes. Teachers who use a presentation program such as Powerpoint will often make the file available for download, and you can use this as an outline for your note taking. If you're using a laptop to take notes in class, be sure to close your web browser, e-mail and message apps. If your laptop is too distracting, shut it down and take notes on paper.
Keep your notes organized in their own notebook or folder by class. When you're scheduling your study time, you may wish to give yourself time after each class to review, clarify and add to your notes while the subject is fresh in your mind.
Mix it up. Just as important as taking regular breaks is switching subjects regularly. Spending more than a couple hours on the same subject will fatigue your brain and make you more likely to get distracted. If you find yourself re-reading the same sentence over and over, or staring at a math problem while your mind wanders, take a break and switch to a different subject when you return.
Get help. Don't hesitate to take full advantage of any review sessions offered by your teachers or teaching assistants. These are an excellent opportunity to clarify difficult concepts and to get guidance on the really important elements of the subject.
Your fellow classmates can be an excellent source of study help, too. Comparing notes and discussing the reading with others can help fill in the gaps where you may have missed something. A classmate may be able to explain something you are having trouble working through. Or perhaps you can help explain a difficult concept to someone else. Either way, studying in a group can help everyone solidify their understanding of the subject and identify the crucial elements of the course.
The warning against distractions is especially important in group study! Studying in a group can be a more relaxed way to learn, but if your group is doing more socializing than studying, you're not making the best use of your study time.
Study guides that condense and outline a text can be great aids in helping you identify key concepts and suggesting central themes, but they are no substitute for the full text. Reading through a study guide before tackling the text can give you the "big picture" and make your studying more fruitful. Skimming through a study guide after reading the text may point out themes and ideas you missed the first time through.
Don't cram. If you find yourself in the position of needing to stay up all night before an exam to study, then you are probably better off just getting a good night's sleep. Cramming is not an effective way to study, and your study strategy should be planned to avoid putting everything off until the last minute.
Life can intervene, of course, taking away your valuable study time. If you have a test or deadline approaching and need more time than you have, something has to give. See if you can "borrow" time from studying other subjects to devote to the most urgent one. Don't neglect your basic needs. Sleep and food are just as important for learning as effective study habits. If outside responsibilities are keeping you from effectively balancing your sleeping and studying, you may need to consider lightening your course load.
Above all, recognize that learning the subject is your goal, and that the real learning takes place when you're studying. Class time is important, but study time is your opportunity to delve deeper. Following these tips will keep you on top of your classes, which will lower your stress and let you do what you came to do: learn.