Practicing proven study tips and strategies in college has many benefits, demonstrated in many studies. The advantages of using top study strategies for college include better comprehension of the materials taught, reduced stress and anxiety due to greater confidence about your grasp of the information, improved retention and recall of the information when taking quizzes and tests, the ability to write better answers with clarity and thoroughness, and, ultimately, higher grades and a better GPA as you pursue job opportunities or graduate school.
Practicing good study habits will also develop personal skills including improved concentration, greater discipline, the ability to self-motivate, stronger critical thinking and problem-solving, enhanced written and verbal communication, and increased confidence in your ability to handle challenges and succeed in your future career.
Here are 14 study tips and strategies for college students, as shown in the diagram below:
1. Understand the Study Cycle
The study cycle is a theory-based tool students use to optimize their learning in 5 steps. The steps are to preview the material, attend the lecture, review the material presented, study the notes from the material and check or assess whether the student has learned the material enough to do well on a quiz or test or to teach the material to others.
The 5 steps of the study cycle are:
Preview (P) – Spend 15 to 30 minutes before a class to review previous notes and written assignments, preview the day’s material by reading material from the syllabus that is going to be covered, and review assigned readings given as preparation for the material.
Lecture (L) – Attend the lecture. Sit in front or near the front to avoid distractions and to hear clearly what is being taught. Take notes and/or record the lecture to review again later. Ask questions or write down questions to ask in the section discussion. Review and discuss the lecture with others. Focus on learning new or difficult concepts that were presented in the lecture.
Review (R) – Review, edit and summarize the notes taken. Pursue answers to questions you still have. Look at homework assignments based on the lecture, and begin the assignment if possible. This review takes 15-30 minutes.
Study (S) – Review and internalize the information through reading lecture notes, syllabus entries and the textbook. Listen to the lecture again if it has been recorded. Paraphrase or summarize the main points of the content. Do related assignments or study problems. Write down questions to ask the instructor. Complete homework. Seek and receive tutoring when further help is needed.
Check or Assess – In this step, the student evaluates whether their approach to the first four steps is effective. This can be done by doing practice tests on the material, reviewing the course syllabus and determining whether they understand each concept covered, meeting with other students in the course to quiz one another on their knowledge of the material, and asking oneself metacognitive questions such as, “does this answer make sense given the information provided” and “What was confusing about this topic, and do I now understand it?”
The 5-step study cycle is adapted from the PLRS learning theory cycle developed by Frank Christ. It is used at universities across the country including the University of Illinois, the University of North Carolina, Georgia Institute of Technology, Louisiana State University and the University of San Francisco.
2. Understand Active Learning Strategies
Active learning (also called active study) involves activities engaged in by students to promote critical thinking or higher order thinking, analysis, synthesis and application of the material studied. Active learning is contrasted to passive learning in which students receive information without critical examination of it.
Research carried out by faculty at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Harvard and the University of Washington shows that learning is more effective when it is active learning compared with passive learning. This is demonstrated in The Impact of Active Learning on Student’s Academic Performance which states, “Research on learning provides strong evidence that active-learning can have a positive impact on student learning outcomes.”
Active learning and studying is promoted at leading universities including Carnegie Mellon University and Cornell University.
Practice these effective learning techniques, strategies and tips for better academic performance:
- Take handwritten notes, which are more easily retained than notes taken on a digital device.
- Rewrite your notes in your own words to further internalize the information.
- Recall existing notes from memory, which forces your mind to work more actively and reinforces your understanding of the information.
- Find real-life examples of theories in order to deepen your practical understanding.
- Produce a chart, diagram or map showing how concepts are related to one another.
- Participate in group study sessions and discussion.
- Teach difficult concepts to someone else. This active learning strategy requires you to thoroughly learn a concept in order to effectively teach it to another.
- Write a list of questions you need answers to that are prompted by reviewing notes or listening to a lecture again.
- Answer review questions found at the end of some textbook chapters.
- Quiz yourself on the information you’re studying, which is a learning technique called “active retrieval” because it strengthens your ability to bring information to mind when it is needed. A Purdue University Learning Lab study shows the effectiveness of active retrieval.
- Pause every 12-15 minutes when reviewing notes or relistening to a lecture. Use the time to discuss your notes with others or rework the notes you’ve taken. Known as the Pause Procedure, its positive effects were shared in a study published in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research.
- Engage with another student in using flashcards with questions and answers to review information. Note that using flashcards by yourself can be an ineffective form of passive learning, according to the University of Pittsburgh.
3. Set Goals and Manage Your Time
Setting goals reduces procrastinating and clarifies objectives such as completing the 5-step study cycle used by universities to enhance student success.
Time management skills help students allocate time to the most important tasks required to achieve the goals set. It controls distractions and prevents wasted time, instead leaving time for a refreshing break, all of which will improve learning performance. A study entitled Relationship Between Time Management Behavior and Academic Performance of University Students demonstrated that, “Effective time management leads to greater academic performance…”
Setting goals for studying and being disciplined with time management are linked. First, when goals are set, students have a clear picture of where to allocate their time and arrange their study schedule.
Secondly, time management is essential to setting goals that are SMART, an acronym which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound, which means that you must manage your time to achieve the goal in a timely manner. An example is setting a goal to finish a textbook chapter several days ahead of a quiz on the chapter, so that you have time to review the material and discuss it with other students.
4. Take Good Notes
Good notes on lecture material are essential for reviewing and studying later.
To prepare to take good notes on lectures and your reading:
- Review recently taken notes to refresh your memory on the subject matter.
- Listen actively by paying attention, avoiding distractions and summarizing information as it is shared.
- Take notes by longhand – writing them instead of using a digital device.
- Identify and highlight key facts, points, information and concepts.
- List questions that arise, so you can find answers later.
- Develop a system that employs the same note taking techniques each time for consistency.
- As soon as possible after the lecture, review the notes you took, and note points where clarification is needed.
A proven study tip for college students is to write lecture notes by hand, or longhand, rather than using a digital device, since writing by hand increases brain activity and improves recall compared with using a laptop or smartphone.
Researchers at the Association for Psychological Science concluded, “The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.”
5. Incorporate Review Sessions
Reviewing information repeatedly promotes retention. Review notes taken in lectures, sections, from assigned readings and from study or discussion sessions.
Identify areas that are unclear and questions you have, so that you can find the information you’re lacking for a fuller understanding of the subject matter.
Review can also be done through practice quizzes and tests and review questions in the textbook. Holding review sessions with other students in which you teach one another concepts or quiz one another incorporates active learning into your review sessions.
Testing yourself during review sessions promotes “better recall in the long term,” according to the research by researchers Bjork and Bjork at the University of California at Los Angeles.
6. Space Out Your Study Time
Spacing out studying and spreading out learning over time involves studying for shorter blocks of time with breaks in between rather than sitting for one long, tiring study session. Spreading out study time is known as distributive practice, spaced practice, spaced learning and the spacing effect.
This study technique for college students is shown to improve deep learning and retention, better comprehension and application. It also helps to prevent the student from being overwhelmed with information and becoming burned out mentally.
Students that use distributive practice and space out study time have more motivation and interest in studying.
Knowing that you’ll have breaks prevents the kind of dread of studying that can lead students to put it off and procrastinate.
According to the Learning Center at the University of North Carolina, the best practice for spacing out study time is to study each subject every day for a shorter time rather than “cramming” for one class in a long study session as a test approaches.
7. Take Breaks
Taking periodic breaks from studying allows the brain to absorb information more comprehensively. According to a study on taking short breaks done by the National Institutes of Health, “the resting brain repeatedly replays compressed memories of what was just practiced.” When you study material and then give yourself a break, your brain will continue to learn the information while you rest.
Taking short breaks is shown to improve concentration, higher learning and retention while increasing the student’s motivation and interest and preventing burnout.
Cornell University’s Study Breaks and Stress-Busters tip list suggests taking breaks of 5-60 minutes to refresh your brain and body, which “increases your energy, productivity and ability to focus.”
Tips from Cornell on taking a break from studying include connecting with nature, taking a walk or short nap, meditating, practicing deep breathing, doing stretching exercises, laughing, doing something creative and cooking a healthy snack or meal.
8. Don’t Cram for Exams
Cramming involves spending a long period of time shortly before an exam studying material previously learned or attempting to learn additional material. Cramming is a studying technique also called massing in contrast to the study technique known as spacing or spaced learning.
Studies repeatedly show that cramming for tests is less effective than spread out learning. In the study conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles, UCLA professor report that “sacrificing sleep for extra study time, whether it’s cramming for a test or plowing through a pile of homework, is actually counterproductive.”
Another study called Optimising Learning Using Flashcards: Spacing is More Effective than Cramming showed that, “spacing was more effective than massing for 90% of the participants, yet after the first study session, 72% of the participants believed that massing had been more effective than spacing.”
To avoid having to cram for exams, set study goals and practice good time management that includes a long-term study plan. Incorporate review sessions regularly, so that the material remains fresh to you. And give yourself enough time to study to practice spaced study and to take breaks during your study sessions.
9. Become a Teacher – Teach the Material to Someone Else
Learning by teaching is an approach to education that involves students explaining learned information to others. It is also called peer learning.
Peer instruction includes selecting the most relevant information, organizing it, explaining it and integrating it with other information that has been taught. If no other person is available to teach, “teaching a fictitious or non-present recipient,” was shown to be effective in a series of studies.
Benefits of learning by teaching include active engagement with the material during preparation to teach, deeper learning and better retention and improved ability to communicate the information on an exam. This also instills greater interest in learning.
The authors of a study titled The Relative Benefits of Learning by Teaching and Teaching Expectancy concluded that, “The goal of this study was to determine the relative benefits of learning by teaching and learning by preparing to teach (i.e., teaching expectancy) when compared to a control group that studied normally. Consistent with our hypotheses, the results show evidence of a teaching effect for both immediate and delayed comprehension performance.”
10. Join a Study Group
Study groups meet outside of class to deepen each participant’s mastery of the information taught in class. They promote active learning rather than passive learning, and each participant benefits from the knowledge and resources offered by others in the group. Elements include completing and going over practice exams together, reviewing lectures and reading material notes, and discussing challenging concepts.
The Academic Resource Center at Harvard University lists the benefits of joining a study group. They include support in focusing on the material, overcoming procrastination, learning from others – often by explaining concepts in your own words which solidifies your own understanding, and hearing concepts explained in multiple ways for a more comprehensive understanding of the material.
Study groups improve the participants’ time management skills, encourage good study habits, provide emotional support and increase retention of information covered.
11. Choose the Right Study Environment
A good study environment promotes learning by allowing for focused concentration, limiting distractions and providing a comfortable, well-lit space.
Most schools offer study techniques for creating a study environment. They include choosing a space with a comfortable temperature – and studying outside is ideal in suitable weather, limiting distractions from cell phones and friends, and using natural vs artificial light when possible, avoiding bright light which is shown to make students “fatigued and unfocused.” One study showed that students exposed to more sunlight while learning scored 26% higher in reading and 20% higher in math.
Limiting excess noise is also important in the right study environment for college students. The study The Impact of Study Environment on Students’ Academic Performance: An Experimental Research Study, “highlighted the pivotal role of noise levels in the study environment in determining academic performance, offering valuable implications for designing conducive learning environments.” Limiting noise levels improves performance.
12. Eliminate Distractions
Eliminating distractions improves concentration, focus, efficiency and leads to improved learning performance.
Tulane University states that common external distractions are your cell phone, television, friends and pets. The Oregon State University Academic Success Center states that distractions can also be internal, and that, “Internal distractions like hunger, fatigue, illness, stress, worries, other distracting thoughts (things you should be doing instead, things you’d rather be doing, etc.) can interrupt your concentration as much as external distractions.”
Excess noise is a distraction for students, and the Bon Secours Memorial College of Nursing recommends that students, “Use noise canceling headphones or listen to white noise to reduce auditory distractions or try using earplugs.”
13. Reward Yourself
Rewarding yourself for meeting study goals and using good time management creates a positive attitude toward studying.
MacEwan University’s paper states that, “Most people have struggled with studying at some point in their lives. A tactic that has been used to alleviate this issue is to reward oneself for studying.” After conducting a survey of students about self-rewards, the paper concluded that, “The results showed that while all the self-reward strategies were significantly correlated with study plan completion, the regression analysis indicated that rewarding oneself only after the study session was successfully completed (contingent self-reward) was most predictive of study plan completion.” In other words, complete your study goal before enjoying the reward.
Joyce University gives four tips for rewarding yourself for good study habits. They are to determine which rewards really make you feel good – and few students find time on social media to be truly rewarding, keep small and large rewards in mind – like the proverbial carrot on a stick, set realistic and timely goals – challenging but not impossible, and deny yourself first and reward yourself later.
14. Reach Out for Help
Successful students ask for help when needed. It is an important study habit to develop. Students that seek help from instructors, tutors and peers show higher learning gains than those who do not reach out for help. According to a study titled College Student’s Academic Help-Seeking Behavior: A Systematic Literature Review, “Seeking academic help has a positive impact on students’ ability to handle challenges, leading to improved academic success.”
For example, the study entitled Why Does Peer Instruction Benefit Student Learning States that “a large body of evidence shows that peer instruction benefits student learning.”