I have been answering lots of questions about study skills for university students over on Quora, so today I’m sharing all my top tips on university studying techniques. If you’re looking for the solution for low grades, read this post and try updating some of your study habits!
Active Study Methods Are Better than Passive Methods
Active study methods are those that require you to DO something: recall information, apply a formula, perform a calculation, etc. They help build connections to knowledge in your brain, which is what allows you to actually build your knowledge.
Passive study methods are those that require you to ABSORB: watching or listening to lectures, reading and re-reading notes or textbooks, writing and re-writing your notes, etc.
Both active and passive study methods are important, but when you are looking to master a topic or material, the active methods will help you gain a deeper understanding much more effectively and efficiently.
This is not to say that reading and lectures are not important – these are the first thing you’ll want to do. You need to know the information that you want to retain, or the formulas you want to apply. These will come from lectures and readings. But once you have this basic understanding, you have to engage in deeper learning by applying the knowledge you’ve gained.
Below are the study methods and techniques that work best for me, and I’ve provided some other options I’m familiar with, which brings me to my first point…
Experiment and find what works best for YOU.
How university students study will vary from student to student. One of your university study skills will be getting to know your own strengths so you can leverage them. For example, I am not a morning person! I very rarely get up early to study, but there are millions of morning people out there who prefer to study or work in the morning, and there are dozens of productivity gurus telling us we should get up early every day in order to accomplish more.
We also each have a different capacity for how much we can focus each day, and how long we can focus for. These characteristics can even change from day-to-day; One day you may be able to focus all day, but the next day it could be impossible. Experiment with what works for you, and be kind to yourself becuase sometimes it’s going to be hard. Don’t compare yourself to others, either. That’s always a recipe for feeling defeated!
Break your day into “blocks.”
I tried 3-hour and 4-hour blocks, but I usually work in 2-hour blocks on busy days. Then I pick what tasks I want to fit into each of those blocks. I might work on four tasks over the day, in 2-hour blocks with breaks between them. If I am in the zone and everything is going well, I might spend more than two hours on something.
I find that this method works best for me when I have long, open days with fewer interruptions. If I have a lot of meetings or appointments that interrupt my day, then I find time-blocking works better. On the other hand, for days when I am having trouble motivating myself or focusing, I sometimes reduce the length of the blocks and take more breaks. For more information on this, see the Pomodoro Method below.
Time-blocking is a method for scheduling your day and to-do list together. I typically do this when I have a lot of meetings or appointments that I have to work around.
Essentially, time-blocking means you add your tasks to your calendar as though they are appointments – because committing to doing a task is really making an appointment with yourself!
If you need to study for an exam, then you estimate how long that will take or how much time you’d liked to spend doing this today, and you pop it into your calendar: eg. “12-2pm – study for history exam.” You can use your phone calendar, Google calendar, or a paper planner – whatever works for you.
How do I do this? First, I write all my appointments on a sticky note. I love sticky-notes, and don’t like crowding my Google calendar, but you could easily use a calendar for this. Once my appointments are written down, I will use another colour and map my tasks into the gaps between the appointments. Then I cross them out as I go through the day.
Here’s an example of what this might look like for me (using bold text for appointments instead of another colour):
8:30-9:30: walk dogs
9:30-10: shower, have breakfast
10-12:30: online writing group (work on research assistantship)
12:30-1: lunch & break
1-2pm: meet with PhD supervisor
2-4pm: research for thesis proposal
4-5pm: walk dogs
5-6pm: study group with students
Hopefully that illustration helps you see how I do this! Give it a try and let me know if it works for you. Like I said – this is only something I do when I have a more challenging balance of tasks and appointments. Most days I work from a traditional to-do list.
You can also see how I manage my time and priorities in a to-do list in this post (I even added photos of how I organize my weekly planner!):
Make sure you are taking breaks! This can help you feel refreshed and give you energy to study for more of the day. I like to take long-ish breaks and take the dog for a walk, get outside, or FaceTime a friend. It’s important to get off the computer and away from your desk. Most of my work is on a computer (even my reading), so I also make sure I don’t spend my whole break on a screen. Sometimes when I’m really swamped, I’ll clean or do household chores on my breaks because it’s more active than studying and makes me feel accomplished. I can’t do that every day, though, because eventually I need a more restful break.
Pomodoros are a study technique where you set a timer for a certain amount of time, and then take a short break when it goes off. I’ve practiced this technique using 25-40 minute work sessions, with 5-10 minute breaks. I usually use this method when I’m feeling particularly unfocused. It’s easier to focus for 25 minutes than being faced with a 2-hour study block! Sometimes I use the timer on my phone, but there are tons of Youtube videos and apps for this. I recently found out about the Study Bunny app, where you keep your bunny healthy and happy by logging study hours. It’s adorable!
The Controversy of Pomodoros
Some folks love pomodoros and others hate them. My suggestion is to figure out what works for you.
I find that if I am in a flow state and actually getting work done, then being interrupted every 25 minutes can be really challenging. In these cases, I will just turn off the timer and keep going. I have also worked with longer pomodoros. One of my study groups does two 40-50 minute pomodoros with a 5-minute break in between. Again, sometimes I’ll just work through the break if things are going well.
I find pomodoros to be the most helpful when I am having trouble focusing or sitting down and doing work. Sometimes this is because I am just distracted, and sometimes it just means I’ve had too much coffee, and sometimes it’s because I have so many things to do I don’t even know where to start.
If I have too much energy, I will alternate 20 minutes of forcing myself to focus with 20 minutes of something more active (such as cleaning my apartment). This is less productive than focusing for longer, but much more helpful than not getting any of my studying done. Often, after a while, I will get more into the work and be able to focus for longer. But if not, at least I got something done that day.
If you are spending a long period studying, I would recommend swtiching the subjects every few hours. Working on different projects or subjects throughout the day can be a way to refresh yourself. On days when I work in 2-4 hour study blocks, I would work on at least two different topics (unless I am trying to meet a deadline). This also helps you do different types of work. For me, I might read a bunch of articles for a lit review, and then work on data cleaning for my research assistantship, and then edit a paper or presentation for another project.
I have also read that it can help us to avoid procrastination when we leave work unfinished. Although normally we like to get to a logical spot to finish working on something, apparently our brains retain it better and want to return to it when we leave the project “open” or unfinished. I haven’t tried this since I read it, but if it works for you let me know!
Avoid last-minute cramming.
Build a semesterly schedule and map out all your work, exams, and deadlines. This will help you to start working on everything ahead of time. It will all take longer than you expect. Be realistic in your planning as well! Planning to study for 20 hours per day in the week leading up to an exam is not going to go well, so don’t plan for it. I won’t pretend that I never end up studying or finishing work last-minute. This still happens. And it could still happen to you. Being a student is hard, and sometimes at certain points in the semester you will have a lot of deadlines. Work through it by prioritizing daily, and know that it’s hard and everyone goes through it! And if it doens’t work out, do your best, forgive yourself, and move on.
There are two types of study groups: study groups where you work together to understand course content, and study groups where you hold each other accountable by showing up (a study group could also be both of these).
Working with classmates to study course material can be really useful. You will probably each understand different parts of the course material, and sharing with each other will help you learn. Plus, explaining things to others is a good way to learn. Plus, if you go to office hours for help together, you can help each other understand what your prof tells you. You can also make some great friends. My closest friends are still people I studied with for a French Linguistics course nearly 20 years ago.
Accountability groups can help you show up and stay focused. Basically, this is where you meet with a group of students, set goals, and then work for a determined amount of time. Then, at the end, you all say whether you met your goals (and it’s okay if you don’t meet them!). You can do pomodoros, or you can just work through, depending on the group. When I was doing my Masters, I met with a classmate on campus every Saturday (because we both worked full-time) and we would just do homework all day. Now, with my PhD, I have been attending accountability groups online through Zoom. Some of the ones I attend are organized by the learning centre at my university, but sometimes we organize informal ones between classmates by sending messages in our group chat.
Use Feedback to Improve.
When you get your exams and assignments back, make sure you’re reviewing them and figuring out how you can improve. If you have questions, many professors and TA’s will be happy to give you more information because they want to see you succeed.
You don’t just have to focus on what you lost marks for – you should also look at what you did well. What are your strengths in the course? Make sure you celebrate those, and then take some time to look at where you lost marks.
Active Recall Methods.
Active recall is an active study method that you can use to review most topics. Basically, active recall means that you are forcing yourself to retrieve information from your memory rather than just re-reading it. The process of retrieving material from your own brain builds knowledge and helps you remember material more effectively than just re-reading your textbook or notes. Study methods like self-quizzing and writing practice tests are great active recall methods.
Active Recall Braindumping
Braindumping is exactly what it sounds like: dump everything from your brain onto a page! For example, if you were studying a textbook chapter, after you read the chapter (or you can do sections of the chapter first), you’re going to write down everything you can remember, withough looking, and leave some extra space on your page.
Then, you’re going to review these new notes against your textbook and fill in the key points you missed in a different colour – this is where you should focus your review. Not only does doing this help you review, it also narrows down your focus so you know exactly what you should be studying.
After doing a little more review, go through the process again. Each time, you should be remembering a little more, and filling in a little less!
Doing this once right after lecture, with your lecture notes, can be really helpful, but then you want to space out your review a little bit because it will help you really retain the information. You can do this over a few days, even.
How I Used Braindumping & Flashcards to Prepare for an Exam
Part of my PhD program includes a comprehensive exam, where we have to write three research papers related to our thesis topic. This is a closed-book, time-limited exam, and I had to still cite all my sources. How on earth could I remember 60+ journal articles well enough to do this? I used active recall and made flashcards!
First, I read all the journal articles (of course) and did my highlighting and made notes. And they were all articles I had previously read, so this was already a form of review.
Once I had all my articles, I made cue-cards for each one. The cue-cards were colour-coded by topic. For example, three of my topics were organizational change, whiteness at Canadian universities, and equity policy. Each of these topics had a different colour cue card.
One one side of the cue card I put the author’s name, title of the article, and year of publication. Then, on the back, from memory/without looking at the article, I used bullet-points to summarize the main points. I would then check this against the article and add any points I missed in another colour pen.
In order to continue my revision, rather than continually making new cue cards (although that would have also worked), I would self-quiz. I would pick a cue card and read the author, year and title, and then I would say, out loud, the main points of the article. After I finished, I would flip over the card and check my response. Did I miss any points? If I did, I would read it out loud.
Having these flashcards allowed me to easily review for short periods each day. I would do some review every morning when I woke up and at night when I went to bed but before I fell asleep. I would review on short breaks between tasks, even just for 10-20 minutes.
As a student who has always struggled with memorization, I found this very effective and helpful as I prepared for my exam. I am happy to say that I was able to recall at least 2/3 of the articles and cite them in my exam, and I think if I had just started this method a little earlier I could have fairly easily remembered all of them. (Also, I didn’t cite some of them because I was having trouble building an argument on one of my three topics, which was not related to memorizing the articles).
What if you get off track?
This quote from Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project and host of the Happier podcast) helps keep me on track when I have a bad day. Some days I sleep through my first planned study block and get up at noon. Some days I take a break and suddently it’s four hours later and I haven’t gone back to work yet. But most of the time, what I would consider “every day,” I work really hard and am a very productive student. Remind yourself of your successes, remind yourself of what you do most days, and remind yourself of what you have accomplished.
If you get derailed, first, remind yourself of the quote above. If you are off track for a few hours, or a day, then forgive yourself and just get back to work. When I wake up late, sometimes I think it’s not worth it to start studying. But it is. Even if it’s 8pm and I will only study for two hours, that’s better than nothing, so if I can get back into it, I will.
Next, ask yourself if there is a reason you ended up off-track.
Do you need a break?
Sometimes when we need a break, our brain will just take one. It will be less stressful if you plan for that break and fit it into your schedule.
Are you getting enough sleep?
As a university student, you are very likely to sometimes be sleep-deprived. But we can only function properly for a short time if we’re not getting enough sleep. You are not leveraging your best university student study skills if you’re not well-rested. I’m a huge advocate for sleep. Given the choice between studying all night or getting a good night’s sleep before an exam, I will almost always choose sleep.
Do you need to reprioritize your work?
Sometimes when I have a lot of things on my plate, I feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do next. Updating my priorities and to-do lists can remind me that I don’t have to do everything today. Then I can plot my work over the week and feel more in-control.
Were your goals realistic?
Did you think you could write a paper in one day? Did you plan to study for 24 hours straight? If that’s not what you usually do, how is it going to work this time?
Are you procrastinating?
Procrastination happens to the best of us! It can happen for a number of reasons, and identifying the cause of your procrastination can help you overcome it. Check out this blog post for more on procrastination:
It takes some experimenting to find your university student study skills groove and the study techniques that will work for you. Just keep trying new things, and abandoning the things that don’t work for you. University learning can be more difficult than it was in high school. Keep trying new things, and working on your study habits, and you’ll see it pay off in your grades.
Share your top tips on study skills for university students in the comments below or visit @chooseyouruni_ca on Instagram to share them there!