Below I’m going to share information on study strategies and then methods and techniques, which will help you learn how to study effectively.
The study strategy is your overall plan for success, from selecting your courses each semester to setting up your study schedule and managing your time.
Study methods or techniques are the different ways to execute your strategies. These are the actual steps towards studying effectively.
As you’re studying, think about how well different methods are working for you. It’s an important learning skill to be able to evaluate what is working and what is not and make adjustments. Are some methods more efficient than others? For example, if you spend hours and hours re-reading your textbook and reviewing your notes, are you retaining a lot of it? Or is it more effecitve to quiz yourself or try an active method?
Learning How To Learn
One of the hardest parts of going to university is that you have to take more ownership of your own learning. In elementary school, and even in high school to some degree, teachers are usually trying to help you learn. Now that you’re in university, it’s more like they provide the key information and concepts and you have to do more of the actual learning on your own.
While you’re at university, and particularly in your first year or so, focus on your learning skills. Try different things to see what works for you. Try different schedules, new strategies and techniques. Go to any learning resources at your university, whether they offer consultations or workshops.
As I mentioned above, your study strategy is about setting yourself up for study success. We’ll look at how to do this before we fill in the specific techniques to study well.
Sometimes, you won’t have a lot of choice when it comes to course selection. But when you do, here are some tips!
Spread Your Courses Out
It can be tempting to stack all your courses on one day so you only have to go to campus once. The first reason I would not recommend this is because it means all your due dates will probably be on that day, all your midterms will be on that day, etc. Having your classes spread out gives you a bit more space in between assignments.
It’s also important to make sure you do any pre-reading and review for your class, and then spend some time after class reviewing so you can lock the information into your memory. When you have all your classes on one day, this will become more difficult and could even be overwhelming.
Additionally, when all your classes are on one day, it means you have to much more diligent on the other days to remember that you are a student and should still be studying. For some students (and I include myself!), having classes on one day makes us feel like we then have 6 days off. But we don’t! We still have to stay on top of our studies for those other 6 days.
Make sure your course times work with your own internal clock, as much as you can. If you’re not a morning person, try to avoid those 8am classes. Are evenings better for you? Pick those! But if you are brain-dead after 3pm, stick with the mornings.
It might take some time to see what works for you, and I know that sometimes you don’t have all the options. But when you can, work with your own natural clock to leverage your best times.
Building a study schedule is really important to make sure that you have enough time set aside to study. For some students, this is a strict daily schedule with specific times dedicated to different topics.
For myself, I pick 1-3 priorities each day and then make sure I focus on those. I don’t plan hour-by-hour and just make sure I work on those things through the day. I also like to do my writing early in the morning while I have my coffee, so I save some of that work.
Find what works for you and maintain it! If the best way for you to review is going to the library for a couple hours after class, then keep doing that.
Time Management & Prioritizing
I have written a lot about time management and prioritizing your work in previous blog posts, so here I will just say that it’s important to stay organized and continuously prioritize your work so everything gets done by the due dates.
Read this post for a lot more on time management & prioritization:
How to Study: Methods & Techniques
The methods and techniques are the ways that you’ll accomplish your study strategies – the actual “how-to” of studying. Once you’ve built your course schedule, set your priorities and created a study schedule, you have to actually do the studying.
Pre-Reading and Review
Make sure you do any required readings ahead of each class. Make a note of anything you don’t understand so you can try to pay extra attention or ask a question in-class. Doing the pre-reading will usually give you a good idea of the topics of the class, making it easier to take notes.
In-class, take notes in your preferred way. It can be difficult to find the balance between taking too many notes and not taking enough notes. Use your pre-readings to guide you, and if you have access to your prof’s slide before class that may also give you some headings you can use for notes.
After class, take a bit of time to review. This can be pretty quick. You should be able to remember what the main topics covered were, and just a couple points about each. This is an ideal time to use active recall “braindumping,” which I describe below.
One of the big changes I noticed from high school to university was that it required so much more work outside of class. In high school, I just had to show up every day. I didn’t have to do much outside of class. But at university, regular review outside of class is so important!
The semester is not that long – depending on your uni, it’s probably around 10-14 weeks (or shorter if you’re taking summer courses!). You probably only have each class once a week, so this means you have to really learn everything each week on your own so you can move on to the next topic in next week’s class. There’s not going to be much in-class revision time.
Some of your study time will be spent reading, some will be for writing papers and completing assignments, and some might be practicing calculations or problems. Make sure you are also planning some time for revision so that you will be caught up at exam time and won’t have to cram.
Of course you should study more at exam time, but by setting aside time each week to review what you’re learning, you will be able to retain more of it over the semester.
Active Recall Methods
Active recall methods are any that require you to actively retrieve information from memory. These methods are shown to be more efficient for learning than just reading and re-reading your text and notes. There are many ways to do this – anything where you have to remember the information on your own falls into this category. Two of the active recall methods I recommend are self-quizzing and braindumping.
Braindumping (aka “blurting”)
This is a great method to review after a lecture or after you read a chapter of a textbook. Basically, you just write down everything you can remember (even if it’s not very much)! Then, use the textbook and/or your notes to add all the things you missed in a different colour. The act of correcting your notes is a form of review, and this also shows you what you need to review (the new colour).
After you’ve done more review, you can repeat this process. Don’t spend a lot of time on making the notes pretty, because you’re going to make new ones. Each time, you should have retained more of the content and had fewer corrections. And each time, using a new colour for the corrections will point you towards the things you should spend more time studying.
There are many ways you can self-quiz! Self-quizzing basically means that you answer a question or problem, and then check your answer against your notes to see if it’s correct.
In a quantitative course (ie one with calculations, such as statistics), you could self-quiz with practice questions taken from your text or class content. Try to complete them on your own. This forces you to try to remember how to do it. Then, correct your work with the notes, textbook, or other resources available to you. Correcting your own work will show you where you made errors. Use this information to guide your studying – correcting your work will highlight the things you don’t know yet so you can review them and then do more practice questions.
In a course with more qualitative work, such as history, you can self-quiz with cue cards (aka flashcards). For example, if you were taking a Canadian history course and wanted to remember who all the key actors from your readings were, you could make a cue-card for each person. These can be paper or digital – there are tons of flashcard apps out there you can try!
On one side of the card, put the person’s name. On the other side, you can add the key dates and facts about that person. What were they known for? What was their contribution in history? Keep it as short as possible – just the things you need to know.
Quiz yourself with these cards by reading the name, and then without looking at the answer, recite everything you know about that person. I do this out loud because I find it helps me focus, but of course you can do it silently as well.
Flip the card over to check your work – did you miss any of the key points? Highlight them and spend some time reviewing before you quiz yourself again!
This is also really helpful for preparing for presentations – for each slide, what are the key points you have to make? I find this more helpful than memorizing a script because if I lose my place, I can ad-lib more easily because I know what points I need to make even if can’t remember the exact words I planned to use.
“Study With Me”
You can find a study community on any social media platform: Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and probably TikTok (I’m just not sure because I don’t have TikTok!). Students on these platforms will host or post “Study With Me” videos, where you just tune in and study at the same time. They might play music, or it could be silent. They might also set times or use pomodoros. Find the ones you like and find motivating and stick with those.
Pomodoros are a method of timing your work in short bursts so you can focus on just one thing, and then taking a short break. I think the traditional timing is to study for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break, and then take a longer break after a couple of hours of this. I have also been in study groups where we work for 45 or 50 minutes and then take a 10-minute break. The pomodoro is very customizable to you.
I have mixed feelings about pomodoros myself, because if my work is going well, it can be very distracting for a timer to go off and then force you to take a break. I think it is really important to take breaks while you’re studying, but when you’re in a good study zone the breaks often come naturally when you get hungry or thirsty or need a bathroom break.
The one thing I find pomodoros super-helpful for is when I am having trouble getting started, or having trouble focusing. Then, I will force myself to study or work for just 20 minutes. Then I take a 20 minute break, and go back to study for 20 more minutes. In the best case, I’ll get into a better flow of studying and just keep going beyond 20 minutes. But in the worst case, I’ll at least get some work done in those 20-minute intervals.
Not everyone is a fan of study groups. I get it, they don’t always work out perfectly. But if you can find the right people, a study group can make a huge difference, especially in a challenging course.
Study groups can be really helpful for accountability. You might just set a weekly time to study together, and then show up every week. I find this really helpful – I have been in study groups in my undergrad, masters, and even my PhD.
When you meet, you can set some time aside to discuss challenges and/or just have quiet study time together.
The study group is helpful because if you are all at least trying, you have probably each captured different components of the course. When you get together and share what you’ve learned and understood, you can all help each other. Plus, explaining things to others is an excellent form of revision, and helps you to understand it better as you try to explain.
When you don’t understand something, you can get together and try to figure it out. Sometimes, having a few students to try to figure it out will get you there. It can also be really reassuring to know that you have the same questions as other students.
Your university very likely offers resources to help you with studying, as well as with research and writing. At different universities they may have different names: Student Learning Centre, Learning Resource Centre, Academic Success Centre, Learning Commonsetc .
These centres offer things like in-person and online (non-credit) courses and workshops, resource lists, and other web resources. They may offer study or accountability groups (in-person or online), tutoring services, and other services to help you succeed at university.
Don’t shrug these off as a waste of time – you can probably learn some valuable tips from them.
Other Universities & Colleges
If you attend a smaller university, or if you just can’t find what you’re looking for through your own uni, you can also look at others! If you are searching on Google, a lot of these will probably just show up in your results.
Unfortunately, some of the resources may require a log-in or only be available to students from that university, but a lot of resources are open to anyone on the web.
Raul Pacheco-Vega is a professor who blogs about study skills (in addition to his own academic research). He has resources on note-taking, specifically for undergrad students, and on reading strategies. Definitely worth checking out! I’ve used many of his research and writing blog posts for help during my PhD.
If you prefer to learn by listening, the Chloe Made Me Study podcast is great. Her episodes are usually short, and she goes over one study skill or hackthat you can try. Episodes are available on all the usual providers – Spotify/Apple, etc.
I’ll continue to add more resources as I find them – if you know of any I’ve missed, comment below or send me an email!