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!
These 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 never 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. On 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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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!