How to Study in College: 12 Powerful Tips for Lasting Success
Confused about how to study in college most effectively? If so, you're not alone. Very few students are ever explicitly taught how to study; many end up just kind of "winging it" through their academic careers. Even students who get good grades in high school can sometimes find themselves struggling when they get to college. So taking the initiative to discover effective study techniques on your own is a wise move. By taking control of your learning process, you can better prepare yourself for the academic demands of college life.
The good news is that you can take specific steps to develop the kind of study skills that will help you succeed at the college level. In fact, we've identified 12 powerful tips. You'll learn how to study for a test and develop good ongoing habits that will help ensure you stay on top of your studies. With persistence and a little planning, you can learn how to study effectively and generate greater success.
So, are you ready to take charge of your academic experience? Read on to learn studying tips that can help you achieve your goals!
- Lay the groundwork.
- Start with the right mindset.
- Make a study schedule.
- Space out your study times.
- Choose a study place (or two).
- Make sure you have only what you need.
- Try different study techniques.
- Use as many senses as possible.
- Cover more than one concept in a session.
- Take some breaks.
- Quiz yourself.
- Get enough sleep.
1. Lay the groundwork.
Ever wonder how some college students manage to pass their exams without studying in the immediate days (or nights) leading up to them? In reality, they're probably doing more work than you realize. You can sometimes pass a test without studying by putting in consistent effort on your coursework over time. That way, you don't have to cram all night before a big exam.
Developing good study habits right from day one can help ease your workload when it comes time for exams. Here are a few general tips to follow throughout the term or semester in order to make test preparation easier:
- Go to class—You won't know what your instructors consider important if you don't attend their classes. Some instructors give marks for attendance, so at the very least you could bump up your grade just by being in the room.
- Listen in class—Pay attention, take notes, and don't be afraid to ask for clarification if there's something you don't understand. Immediately after class, take a few minutes to look through your notes and jot down questions you imagine could be on an upcoming exam. Compare notes with other students so that you can find out what information they saw as important.
- Treat every homework assignment like an exam—Test your knowledge of the material by trying to complete your homework without looking up answers or asking for help unless you really need to. The mental gymnastics you force yourself to do now will pay off later.
- Right your wrongs—Many students gloss over their errors and just move on. Don't do that. Look through your graded assignments and notice where the red marks are. See where you went wrong and figure out how you can do things better in the future. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you can learn from yours, you'll be ahead of the game.
2. Start with the right mindset.
How you approach your studies can affect how much you get out of them. Many students get overwhelmed by everything they have to do and put things off as long as possible, which just leads to more problems. Stress interferes with your ability to concentrate and learn, so be sure to check out these tips for dealing with college stress.
If you start to panic, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Remind yourself that you have skills and abilities, and avoid negative self-talk. Instead of thinking, "I'll never be able to do this," try telling yourself, "I'm getting started now, so at least some of this will get done."
3. Make a study schedule.
How much time you need to study in college will depend on your course load, your learning style, and your personal interests. (For instance, you'll likely need to spend more time on the subjects you find more challenging.) A good general guideline is to spend two hours studying for every hour you spend in class. Statistics suggest that the average college student spends about 14 hours a week preparing for class.1
Effective time management is essential. As a first step, you may want to create a calendar of your activities. Include everything, right down to when you eat and sleep. Then, in a day planner, block out specific times to study or complete assignments as well as times to exercise, socialize, or just have fun. Be realistic—20 minutes a week likely isn't enough to help you master course material, but scheduling a four-hour study session with no breaks may be setting yourself up to fail.
Once you have a schedule, stick to it. Writing it on a wall calendar can be an effective visual reminder and help keep you on track.
4. Space out your study times.
How long does it take you to study for a test? A lot of students end up pulling a marathon study session the night before a big exam, but the evidence shows that last-minute cramming is not the best way to go if you actually want to learn something. It can help you get a decent grade on your exam, but you'll quickly start to forget the material once the exam is over. That's because when we try to stuff a lot of information into our brains very quickly, the information gets stored in short-term rather than long-term memory.
Research has shown that the best way to study is to do several short study sessions spaced out over the span of a few days or even weeks. Spacing out your study sessions forces your brain to retrieve the information and build on it each time, which gives it a more permanent place in your long-term memory.2 So you study for a college exam by, for example, studying four hours a week for three weeks instead of cramming in one 12-hour session the night before the test.
5. Choose a study place (or two).
Finding a suitable place to work is important. Your dorm is full of distractions and should ideally be a place to rest and relax, so you might want to find another spot. Maybe the library, the local coffee shop, a study hall, or a picnic table in the courtyard will work for you.
And if you really want to maximize your learning, you might want to try alternating where you do your work. Some memory experts believe the brain makes unconscious associations between the material it is learning and the background environment at the time of learning.3 So when you study the same stuff in different places (maybe in a leafy garden one day and in a quiet library another time), you form stronger memories and retain more of the information.
6. Make sure you have only what you need.
Before you begin a study session, gather all your materials so that you won't waste time backtracking to find the textbook you forgot. If you know you'll need a calculator or three different colors of pens, make sure you have them with you.
But be selective about the items you really need. Your cell phone is probably not one of them, so put it on silent and tuck it away in a bag where it can't interrupt your focus. A laptop makes it easier to take notes, but the distractions of games, email, and social media might derail your concentration, so it might be more effective to work with pen and paper.
Many college students like to listen to music while they study. Whether music is an effective tool is up for debate. Music can boost productivity and attentiveness for repetitive tasks that require focus, but it can also make it more difficult to concentrate on complex tasks requiring a lot of cognitive processing.4 If you find tunes helpful, be sure to bring your music player and a set of headphones along for your study sessions.
7. Try different study techniques.
Learning how to study effectively can involve a bit of trial and error. As many successful college students have learned, you study for exams by exploring different study methods and discovering what works best for you. For example, try associating unknown terms with familiar images to help you remember the terms more easily. Tell yourself stories about the material you're learning to help it stick in your mind. Use analogies to compare concepts.
Avoid passive reading. If you're studying from a textbook, look at the chapter summary first, then look over the review questions at the end. Once you've done that, you can go back and read the chapter with an eye to answering the review questions. That way, you'll engage with the material more and retain the information better.
Different subjects require different study techniques. For instance, you study for a history test by paying special attention to the order of events and organizing your notes in chronological order. Mnemonic devices can help you learn factual information like dates and names. (For example, learning a rhyming phrase like "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" is an easy way to recall the date the explorer discovered America.) Creating a mind map or a visual timeline could also be helpful. Focus on making connections between the facts so that they'll be easier to recall. As an example, you could try noting the related causes and consequences for each event. That should give you a good foundation for any essay writing that may be part of an exam.
On the other hand, you study for a math final by solving a lot of practice problems. Remember that math concepts build on each other, so don't gloss over something that doesn't make sense to you. Try drawing diagrams or tables to help you understand the information. Flash cards can help you memorize formulas, but the real key is knowing how and when to use those formulas. Practice solving problems from different areas of your textbook; better yet, have a friend test you so that you're forced to figure out how to approach each problem.
8. Use as many senses as possible.
We're all multi-sensory beings. So we can study most effectively by engaging with information in multiple ways. Using different senses makes it more likely that you'll cement the information you're studying in your memory. Draw diagrams or word webs to make a visual representation of key concepts. If you're looking at an image, use your finger to outline it or trace it. Read your textbook out loud. And even if you use a laptop to take notes in class, it can be helpful to recopy important points using a pen and paper—studies have shown that we remember things better when we write them out by hand than we do when we type them.5
9. Cover more than one concept in a study session.
One of the best ways to study is to mix up the type of material covered in a single session. It's like cross-training for your brain. Focusing on a variety of different but related skills—similar to the way many athletes mix strength and speed drills in their workouts—is often more effective than sticking to one area at a time.
A good example of this is when you learn a new math concept. Rather than spending an entire study block completing problems that demonstrate the new concept, you might try solving problems that use a variety of concepts, including the new one. So if you were learning about multiplication, for instance, you could try mixing in problems that require division, addition, and subtraction. The idea is to force your brain to assess each problem and decide on a suitable approach.
One experiment found that college students were far better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 artists after seeing a random mix of their collective works than after looking at six examples of one artist's work before moving on to the next.6 Mixing it up causes the brain to notice the similarities and differences in the subject matter, which can lead to a stronger understanding overall.
10. Take some breaks.
Among the most important study tips for college is to allow yourself some mental breaks. You need to pace yourself. Studying for five hours at a stretch is not reasonable, nor is it even effective: Research has shown that people's ability to focus diminishes over time, and that taking short breaks can help you re-energize and refocus.7 So every once in a while, be sure to take a few minutes to have a healthy snack or go for a quick walk. A brief time away from the books can do you good.
11. Quiz yourself.
Reading a page of your textbook over and over again can make you feel like you know it, but repeated re-reading is not the best way to get the information to stick in your mind. If you want to make sure you really understand the material, you should test yourself on it.
Forcing your brain to retrieve a piece of information changes the way that information is stored and improves your ability to recall it later on. Studies have demonstrated that students who read a piece of text once and then take a quiz on it have significantly better long-term retention than students who read the text multiple times without taking a quiz.8 So try testing yourself by looking at past exams, making flash cards, or having a study buddy ask you questions. It will help you in the long run.
12. Get enough sleep.
Did you know that your brain becomes less efficient with every hour of sleep you miss out on? Don't sabotage your study efforts by staying up all night. You're far better off to go to bed at a reasonable hour and pick up where you left off in the morning once you've had some quality shut-eye. In fact, studying just before you drift off can actually help you remember the material better.9
Take Charge of Your Education
Learning how to study in college is one of the most important steps you can take to prepare for this phase in your life. Following the above tips can help you develop effective habits that will serve you well in your academic journey. By taking charge of your study skills, you boost your chances of college success.
Now that you know how to study more effectively, take time to explore the colleges that may suit you best. For example, have you considered the career-driven training offered by vocational colleges, technical institutes, and trade schools? These types of schools offer convenient programs that can prepare you for a huge range of rewarding occupations. Just enter your zip code into the following search tool to find programs in your area!
1 NSSE Sightings, "Time Use During College: Is it study or party time?," website last visited on August 24, 2017.
2 The Psychonomic Society, "Is expanding retrieval a superior method for learning text materials?," website last visited on June 26, 2018.
3 The New York Times, "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits," website last visited on March 26, 2018.
4 Psychology Today, "Is Background Music a Boost or a Bummer?," website last visited on January 7, 2020.
5 InTechOpen, "Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing," website last visited on August 28, 2017.
6 Psychological Science, "Learning Concepts and Categories: Is Spacing the 'Enemy of Induction'?," website last visited on August 28, 2017.
7 Cognition, "Brief and rare mental "breaks" keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements," website last visited on January 23, 2020.
8 Psychological Science, "Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention," website last visited on August 29, 2017.
9 PLOS ONE, "Memory for Semantically Related and Unrelated Declarative Information: The Benefit of Sleep, the Cost of Wake," website last visited on August 29, 2017.