Steps to Improve Your Study Skills

Attempt to modify your study behaviors.

Try to study the same subject at the same time in the same place every day. You will find that your brain will adjust after a short while, and you will automatically be in that subject "groove" at the same time each day. Not only will this save you time and energy, but it will also help you retain more of the information. After you are done studying, reward yourself by doing something you want to do. Positive reinforcement of a behavior will increase its frequency and duration.


Do not study more than an hour at a time without taking a break.

If you are doing straight memorization, do not study more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time. Why, you ask? First, you use time more efficiently and learn more when under an imposed time restriction. Second, psychologists say that you learn best in short takes, and that you will get your most effective studying done if you take a 10-minute break every hour. This break is considered your "reward." However, if after 40 or 45 minutes you feel you need a break, take short one. That way, you won't waste time watching the clock or anticipating your upcoming break. To keep your mind from wandering while you're studying, begin with your hardest or least favorite subject and work towards the easiest or favorite subject. Thus, your reward for studying the hardest or least favorite is studying the subject you like best.


Separate the study of subjects that are alike.

Brain waves are like radio waves. If there is not enough space between input, you get interference. The more similar the kinds of learning taking place, the more interference. So, separate your study periods for courses that have similar subject matter. Follow math with Spanish or history, not chemistry or statistics.


Do not study when you are tired.

Everyone has a certain time of day when he or she gets sleepy. Instead of trying to study or taking a nap, schedule some physical activity for that period, even if it's sorting through your notes or cleaning up your desk.


Prepare for your class at the best time.

If it is a lecture course, do your studying soon after class. If it is a course in which students are called on to recite or answer questions, study before class. After the lecture, you can review and organize your notes. Before the recitation class, you can spend your time memorizing, brushing up on your facts and preparing questions. Question-posing is a good technique for helping the material sink in and for pinpointing areas in which you need more work.


Know when to take notes.

Taking notes during class forces you to listen carefully and test your understanding of the material. Notes also provide a gauge of what is important in the text. Usually, instructors will give clues when they are covering need-to-know material. Make sure you write down 1) anything that is written on the board, 2) anything that is repeated, 3) anything that is emphasized, either by tone of voice, gesture, or time spent on a point, 4) anything following specific word signals such as "there are two points of view," or "in conclusion," etc., 5) summaries given at the end of class, and 6) reviews given at the beginning of class.


Know how to take notes.

Make your notes brief. Never use a sentence where you can use a word or a phrase. Never use a phrase where youc an use a word. Use abbreviations and symbols, but be consistent. Don't try to write down everything you hear either. Be alert and attentive to the main points, concentrating on the "meat" of the subject. Use an outline form and/or a numbering system so you can distinguish major points from minor ones. If you miss a statement, write key words down, skip a few spaces, and get the information later. Don't try to use every space on the page. Make sure you leave room for coordinating your notes with the text after the lecture. Lastly, date your notes, number the page, and keep your notes all in one place.


Know what to do with your notes.

Review your notes regularly. Do not take notes then toss them aside until the day before the test. The more you review them, the more the information will stick, and the less you will have to cram before test day. If you have a few extra minutes after class, go through your notes, adding anything you might have missed or clarifying unclear points. Take 5 or 10 minutes before class to read over your notes from the previous meeting. The mind easily forgets information, and reviewing your notes frequently is the only way to completely retain knowledge.


Memorize actively, not passively.

Researchers have found that the worst way to memorize is to simply read something over and over again. This method not only takes the most time, but it results in the least retention. Instead of doing this, use as many of your senses as possible. Try to visualize in concrete terms and form a picture in your head. Also use sound: say the words out loud and actually listen to yourself saying them. Also, try using association. Relate the fact to something personally significant or find a logical tie-in. Use mnemonic devices. (For example, "Every Good Boy Does Fine" is a phrase used to remember the names of the musical notes on the lines of the treble clef.)


Read and study at the same time.

This saves you time as well and will save you frustration in the long run! Read with a purpose. Instead of starting at the beginning and reading to the end, you will complete the assignment much faster and remember much more of you use something called the "OK4R method" devised by Dr. Walter Pauk:

  • Overview: Read the title, the introductory and summarizing paragraphs, and all the headings included in the reading material. Then, you will have a general idea of what topics will be discussed.
  • K (Key Ideas): Go back and skim the text for key ideas (usually found in the first sentence of each paragraph). Also read the italics and bold type, bulleted sections, itemizations, pictures, and tables.
  • R1 (Read): Read your assignment from beginning to end. You will be able to do it quickly because you already know where the author is going and what he/she is trying to prove.
  • R2 (Recall): Put aside and say or write, in a few key words or sentences, the major points of what you have read. It has been proven that most forgetting takes place immediately after initial learning.
  • R3 (Reflect): The previous step helps to fix the material in your mind. To cement it there forever, relate it to other knowledge; find relationships and significance for what you have read.
  • R4 (Review): This step does not take place right away. It should be done for the next short quiz, and then again for later tests throughout  the term. Several reviews will make that knowledge indelibly yours.


Make up a color and sign system for text and notes.

For your text, try underlining main ideas in red, highlighting dates and numbers in blue, and highlighting supporting facts in yellow. Using circles, boxes, stars, and/or checks in the margins can make reviewing easier. If you come across any words or terms you don't know, make your own "glossary" for reference. In your notebook, underline, star, or otherwise mark ideas that your teacher tells you are important, such as thoughts that you are told will be coming back later or items that are mentioned to be common mistakes. Watch for words such as therefore and in essence: these phrases tell you what is being summarized. Always record examples the teacher gives as well. During the last 5 or 10 minutes of class, don't mentally "check out." Rather, pay close attention because when teachers realize they are running out of time, they might try to jam a lot of important content into the last few minutes.


Do not buy underlined textbooks.

If you underline, do it sparingly. The best underlining is not as productive as the worst note-taking. Students often over-underline, but only the key words in a paragraph should be underlined. Any underlining should be done in ink or felt-tip highlighter, and it should be done only after you've finished the "OK" part of your "OK4R" reading. If you buy a used book, try to get one that doesn't have much underlining. After all, you don't know whether the original owner received an "A" or an "F" in the course. If your only choice is an underlined textbook, make sure you do your underlining in a different color.

BOTTOM LINE: Research has shown that it's not how much time you spend studying but how well you study during that time. Some studies have shows that students who studied 35 hours a week came out with poorer grades than those who studied less. Use your study time wisely, and you will come out ahead!

Reference: Paul Nolting's book Winning at Math, Cuesta College's Academic Support Center, Dartmouth University's Academic Skills Center.