Effective learners, whether they’re in school or out in the world, are those who discover how to study smarter, not harder. For the purposes of this blog, we’re going to be focusing on classroom learning, and in that environment, studying smarter is key to managing your time efficiently, getting good grades, building upon what you’ve learned before, and moving up to the next level of your education.
The great majority of students who succeed in their education are those who learn and employ effective study habits. We’re going to cover some of the top general habits that can help you study smarter.
- Plan when you’re going to study.
As we talked about in our discussion of time management, you need to set aside specific times when you’re going to study every day and then stick to that schedule. Creating a time when you know you’re going to have to focus allows you to sit down and actually focus on what you need to do homework- and assignment-wise. Make sure that the people around you — family, roommates, friends — know that this time is “off limits” to them, and don’t cave into any “just one thing …” demands. And if you need drinks or snacks to keep you going while you study, get them ready ahead of time so you’re not running around at the last minute. If you’re all caught up on your homework, use the planned time to review your class notes or do some related outside reading.
- Study at the same time of day.
Your class and work schedule may vary from day to day, so your study times may change somewhat to accommodate this. If you know, though, that on Tuesdays you’ll have 4-6 p.m. free and mark that on your schedule, use this same time every Tuesday to help establish a routine. That will make you both mentally and emotionally more prepared for each study session, and with that preparation you’ll become more focused and more productive. Obviously, unexpected events will come up that will interfere with your plans, and that’s okay. Just make sure you get back to the routine as soon as you can. We should also note that it’s important to recognize whether you’re a morning or a night person. If you’re a morning person, schedule your study times for the mornings — you’ll be too tired and not very productive if you try to study late at night, and vice versa.
- Never procrastinate when it comes to study time.
It is so, so easy to put off studying for even the flimsiest excuse. Maybe it’s because you have no interest in the subject or the assignment is hard or it’s an absolutely gorgeous day out and you want to work on your tan. Studying smarter means studying at your scheduled times — all the time. When you procrastinate, you become less focused when you finally get to the work, your studying is less effective, and you may end up running out of time to complete a task before it’s due. Running out of time means you’ll try to rush getting the work done, and rushing is the leading cause of making errors. A teacher can always spot when a student has tried to cram everything in at the last moment, because the work is generally sloppy. And rushing like that means you’re likely to retain far less information than if you worked on the assignment during your allotted time. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
- Set a specific goal for each study session.
Simply studying without having a sense of where you’re going and what you want to accomplish during your session is not an effective strategy. You’re more likely to lose your focus, and you’re also likely to get diverted by extraneous information. When you set goals, create two sets — one for the entire session, and one for each of the classes or assignments you’ll be tackling during this period. Be as specific as possible — the more detailed your goal, the clearer your direction will be to accomplish it.
- Don’t attempt to cram all your studying into a single session.
Remember, the overall goal is to study smarter, not harder. One way to process a lot of information effectively is to do it in staggered sessions. That means to look over your notes in detail on one day, take the next day or two off, and then look over the notes again on the day following. The first time you see the information on the page, it may seem overwhelming to you, but in the “respite” phase, your brain is busily processing the information. That means when you look over it again, it’s already started to connect the dots for you, and the information will make greater sense in context.
If you do this a second time, on the third review your brain will flag this information as important enough to store for later recall — such as a test — and you’ll see how all the parts interrelate. If you try to cram all your studying into one session, you may be able to remember enough to take the test the next day, but your brain will dump the information right after that, and you won’t have gained a thing. Maximize your staggering for the time you have — sometimes you may only have a few hours, say for a presentation you have to give. In that case, stagger the review for every hour or so. Even the brief respites will be enough to help your long-term recall.
- Start your study session with the most difficult subject first.
Your most difficult subject or assignment will require the greatest focus, so you should always lead with it, when you’re fresh and alert. You’ll also be amazed, when you get to your #2 subject, how that intense focus will carry over and help you get through it, as well. In addition, the work will, quite understandably, seem easy by comparison, and you’ll find that you’re able to move through it much more quickly than if you were doing the process in reverse. In this way, you can maximize your study time to get the greatest benefit.
- Take advantage of study groups.
While every student needs to learn on their own to a certain extent, it can be very advantageous to share information with other students in a group setting. Study groups allow you to get assistance from your peers when you’re struggling to understand something, and they allow you to teach other students when you’re the one with the knowledge. In the latter case, it’s certainly true that in order to explain something, you have to understand it first; if you’re able to explain a concept to another student in the group, you know you have a firm grasp on it. Sometimes, by divvying up the parts of an assignment among group members and then sharing them with the rest of the group, you’ll also be able to complete the assignment more quickly. However, the groups only work if they’re highly structured and everyone comes prepared, so make sure you do your part.
- Review your class notes and other materials over the weekend.
You should always review your class notes the same day you took them down, but successful students also review them again over the weekend. That makes sure you’re up-to-date when the teacher introduces new concepts that build on previous course material the following week.
- Make sure to take breaks.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” goes the saying, and it’s true. If all you do is review and study and attend groups, you’re going to burn out pretty quickly. Make sure when you plan out your calendar that you include some “me” time, whether it’s going to a movie, playing a sport, or just hanging out with friends. Balancing work with play will help keep you both relaxed and more focused when it comes time to tackling the work.