IMPROVING YOUR STUDY SKILLS
College success is NOT determined by exam (course) performance alone. However, poor course performance will affect whether you are
allowed to continue in school, as well as other factors (such as whether you may join or remain in some student organizations; whether
you may keep or receive scholarships; whether you may join or remain active in athletics; etc.).
To the extent that you are interested in actually getting something more substantial than a fun time out of your few years in school, it
would be worthwhile for you to invest some effort into improving your exam-taking skills. Below are some guidelines to consider when it
comes to study and test taking skills.
Pick a PROBLEM:
PROBLEM: COURSE CONTENT IS DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND.
- STUDY BUDDIES! Chances are exceptionally good that others are having trouble as well (but maybe not with all the same concepts
that are giving YOU trouble). Get together with a small group of students from the class and STUDY (not socialize or bitch about class).
Go over difficult concepts and quiz each other. [2 hours a week.]
- FLASH CARDS! Carry a small dictionary and USE it! Keep track of words that are unfamiliar (make lists) and jot down definitions
when you can. Use index cards with a word or phrase or date or WHATEVER on one side and the definition or relevant information on the
other side. When you have free time, SHUFFLE the cards (and don't keep the same sides all facing together - for example, mix them so that
you never know if you will be seeing a definition or vocabulary word), then go through the cards and test yourself. [15 minutes a day.]
- EXPLORE! Go to the library (yes, every school should have one - ask someone where it is). Find simpler books on the same subject
that cover the same types of material. Try the internet, BUT, don't limit yourself to a single web-page. There is very little quality
control on web-based content. Check out at least five different (unrelated) web-pages so that you can determine some level of consistency
in the material presented. If all five pages seem to agree, then chances are better that the information is accurate (although it still is
not a guarantee). [1 hour a week.]
- CONSULT! Talk to the course instructor. Your professor has office hours for a purpose: To help students who may be having
trouble comprehending the subject. Sometimes they can be busy, so DO NOT GIVE UP! Make an appointment that will guarantee that the teacher
will have undivided time to spend with YOU. [1 hour every two or three weeks.]
- SQ3R! This method has been available for YEARS!
- Skim the chapter; read the major headings, introductory and concluding paragraphs, and the summary. The goal is to get a
feel for the chapter. [30 minutes]
- Turn section headings into questions. If there are no (or not enough) headings, make up questions like What are the
major points on pages 65-70? or How does this information relate to what was just covered? etc. The goal here is to
force you to think about the material more deeply and to begin synthesizing ideas. [30 minutes]
- Read the material, trying to answer questions. The questions can be the ones you developed, the teacher provided, or the
ones listed at the end of the chapter. Again, the goal is to make you an active learner, rather than a passive recipient of
facts. [1 hour for every 10-15 pages of standard text]
- Go back and answer the questions again, but this time, without looking at the book or your notes (or past answers to the
questions). Some people find that talking (answering) out loud during this process helps by creating an auditory memory. [45
- Think about what you have read. Write a brief outline or paragraph that summarizes the entire chapter BUT do this from
memory (without using notes). Once you are done, double-check with the chapter to see what you may have overlooked. [45 minutes]
- TIME MANAGEMENT! For every hour spent in class, a student should spend two hours out of class on that subject. Sometimes even
more time must be devoted to the subject. My personal view is that students should spend one hour every day outside of class for EVERY
class they are taking. So, if you have five classes this semester, you should be spending five hours a day reviewing each of those classes
or writing assignments, etc. for those classes every day. HOWEVER, if you do this, you should be able to take the entire weekend off
(without guilt!). [60 minutes per class per day.]
- METACOGNITION! Think about how you think! Students must recognize that they cannot treat all material equally when it comes to
studying. For example, I can read a good 300-page book of fiction in just a few days (depending on free time). A 200-page textbook, on the
other hand, would take me a LOT longer. You probably would not study the same way for an essay exam as you would for a multiple-choice
- Easy material can be read relatively quickly while more difficult material must be read more slowly. Do not get impatient with
yourself. If you get fidgety after 30 minutes of slow reading, then take a 10-minute break. You will find that, with time doing this, you
will be able to read for longer periods of time and you will be doing so more efficiently.
- Take notes on important concepts and facts WHILE you read. Keep some note-paper handy (or write in your book). Note where in the text
you found the information (so you can follow up later if need be).
PROBLEM: MY NOTES ARE NOT HELPFUL.
- BE PREPARED! If you look at the syllabus, chances are that the readings for the week are already listed. Rather than wait until
AFTER lecture, you should read the material for the first time BEFORE you sit for the lecture. True, you may not understand everything,
but THAT'S part of the point. Some of it you WILL understand. Knowing what parts of lecture are going to be more (or less) critical for you
to follow will give you an edge when it comes to getting better notes AND knowing what questions you may need to ask during lecture.
- DON'T BE A STENOGRAPHER! If you spend class time writing down word-for-word what the teacher says or presents, you are WASTING
your brain and keeping it on a demanding task that has little to do with comprehension. Certainly, some notes are needed, but they do NOT
need to be exactly identical to those words being presented. Use abbreviations! Use symbols!
BOTTOM LINE: More energy and focus should be directed at somprehension than at taking dictation. (Having read and taken notes on the
chapter will also decrease your perceived reliance on the instructor's class lectures.)
- REVIEW RIGHT NOW! You should have as much as three sets of notes: (1) chapter/reading notes, (2) rough lecture notes, and (3) a
master set of notes where you neatly combine both the chapter notes with the lecture notes. Do not put this off for the weekend. As soon
after class as you can, you should rewrite (or combine) your rough lecture notes with the chapter notes. This will allow you to pinpoint
areas that were not covered well enough, plus the task will help to reinforce your memory of the content.
My recommendation is that you create a nice document file of your notes (e.g., via Microsoft Word). Given that classes sometimes overlap
in content, you will be able to combine or integrate materials across files. PLUS, if someone wants to "borrow" your notes, you need not
worry about getting them back since you will still have the electronic original.
On a related note, I do not recommend splitting up this task with your study buddies. Although it may appear to be a time-saver to have
others be responsible for different chapters (etc.), ultimately, it will be YOUR learning that will suffer since you did not go through
the effort of learning the material as deeply as you would have done if you were responsible for all the notes.
- LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION! Sit near the front of the classroom. In addition to the obvious advantages of seeing and hearing
the lecture materials, there are added benefits. For one thing, it will be harder for you to take a nap when the professor is RIGHT IN
FRONT OF YOU! But you are also more likely to make eye-contact with the professor and be called on. Scary ideas, for some, but they will
motivate you to be more prepared for class, and keep focused on the lecture.
Note also that sometimes you cannot sit as close as you might like (either because you cannot get to class early enough, or due to assigned
seating, etc.). In which case, if you are distracted by noisy neighbors, TELL THE INSTRUCTOR. The instructor either may not be aware of it,
or is probably bothered by the noise too, but may not want to make a big deal out of it if he or she believes they are the only ones
bothered. It is your education on the line here. The teacher should be able to do something for you about the distractions.
- ATTITUDE! Do not tune out or become distracted with the lecture because you disagree with the material or opinions being
presented. Make a note so that you can discuss the topic in greater detail with the instructor at a later time. Stay focused!
- DON'T STOP! If you get a bit behind, or if you miss something, DO NOT stop taking more notes in order to focus on that one
missed piece. Leave a blank (clear note that something is missing) for any missed content. THEN later (after class) ask the teacher or a
classmate to help you fill in the missing bits.
PROBLEM: I HAVE TROUBLE REMEMBERING STUFF.
- REVIEW! Re-read your lecture notes within twenty-four hours of making them and ALWAYS check back at them throughout the
semester. Do not wait until exam time (cramming is a BAD idea).
- STUDY BUDDIES! They were a good idea above, and are STILL a good idea for improving memory. Have a classmate (or even a friend
who isn't in the class) ask questions using your lecture notes and text within a few hours of having taken the notes or read the text.
- REST! Taking breaks is particularly helpful when you are trying to memorize information. Set aside small blocks of study time
(15-30 minutes), then take a break and do something else for 15-20 minutes before getting back into memorizing-mode.
- QUALITY! When you take notes during your readings, DO NOT merely copy word-for-word what you read. Use your own words. Also,
relate facts together (especially to facts you already know). Memory is better for material that is attached to what you already know than
it is for material that is unconnected.
- NO CRAMMING! Never study topics that are similar to one another for too long. Doing so results in something called buildup of
proactive interference. In other words, this is when everything seems to be like everything else, or, it is hard to see the important
distinctions between concepts. This shows up on multiple-choice exams when students complain that "all the answers seemed the same" or that
"the answers were only slightly different from one another".
Consider how difficult it is to count pennies (or whatever) when someone else is saying random numbers out loud at the same time. Your
count is much less likely to be thrown off if were to be reciting random letters instead. The ease (or improvement) in learning that
results from a change in topic is called relaese from proactive interference.
Bottom line: New information is better remembered when it is clearly different from other new information.
PROBLEM: I AM NOT MOTIVATED TO STUDY.
- CONTROL! Aside from being one of Dr. Paul's most favorite concepts, it is also a worthwhile skill to develop for studying. Start
by setting aside 30 minutes a day to study (yes, EVERY day to start). Try to follow a weekly schedule (include time for class, meals,
sleep, work, play, internet, TV, etc. but most importantly, include time for STUDYING). Don't kill yourself out of the gate. Set realistic
times for all of your important activities. However, once the schedule is fine-tuned (give it a week and a half or so), do not deviate
from it. Over the next few weeks, gradually try to increase the time devoted to study. When it hits about 50-60 minutes per class you are
taking, reward yourself with FREE-TIME WEEKENDS! That is, once you get up to about the same number of study hours as the number of courses
you are taking, keep the weekends for yourself to do whatever you want. It should be a rare weekend that you will need to do additional
studying given all of your efforts during the week.
- PREMACK! The Premack Principal is simply to use high-frequency behaviors as reinforcements for low-frequency behaviors.
In other words, chances are that there are activities you like to do a lot of, while studying is a behavior you do not like to do a lot of.
Show some self-control and discipline, but REWARD yourself for it.
- ENCODING VARIABILITY! Once you have developed your study habits, do not fall into the trap of always studying the same way. You
should study in different places (e.g., library, under a tree, in your room [but NOT in bed], at a diner or coffee shop, in an empty
classroom, etc.). You will gradually come to notice that the situations you study in become little reminders of what you were studying.
- PURPOSE! Lack of motivation can result from not knowing (or seeing) how the material you are studying relates to things that
interest you, or, not seeing how your efforts can actually affect your performance in the class. Talk to the professor (respectfully) about
your difficulty with the "big picture" and/or talk to your academic advisor or even a counselor. These people should be able to help you
find some perspective as well as help you to set reasonable goals.
- TIMING! There is a trick that writers use to help keep them going and to make them less likely to experience writer's block.
They STOP writing when they have more to say and know what it is that they want to say. This way, they know exactly where to start when
they return to the task and can feel productive right away. That is, they don't sit down and not even know where to start.
Similarly, if you need a break when studying, take that break when you still have some interest in your task (reading, writing,
problem-solving, etc.). Otherwise, if you take your break as a reward for pushing yourself to the limit, you will associate study-time with
punishment-time. In which case, it will be harder for you to get back to the task (you will dread it!) after your break.
PROBLEM: I CAN'T FOCUS WHEN I STUDY.
- SOLITARY CONFINEMENT! The most common reason people cannot focus when they study is there are distractions present. So, isolate
yourself from others: turn off your iPod and the TV and your telephone. Get rid of everything in your study environment that has the
potential to interfere with your ability to concentrate. Also, make sure you have all your needs (excuses) handled up-front. Have some food
and beverages nearby, plenty of paper, pens, etc. (whatever you are using to study with), you get the idea. You do not want to be your own
source of distraction by coming up with multiple excuses to do other things that are unrelated to your studying.
- KNEE BOUNCE! When I get close to my limit in studying, my knee starts to bounce as if my body is telling me to hurry up and
finish so I can go play. Right around now is also when my mind starts to wander and I begin to daydream. Up to a point, I can tell myself
to STOP IT. But if these reactions really are coming from about an hour's worth of concentration, then TAKE A BREAK! Or, try changing to a
different study topic for a while.
- THE SET-UP! Do not set yourself up for failure. The study goals you set for yourself should be realistic. Otherwise, when you
find that you were not able to meet your wildly unrealistic goals, you will use your "failure" as an excuse to not even try any more. "I
tried studying but it didn't work!" Go easy on yourself, start with what you CAN do, and then work up to bigger goals over time.
PROBLEM: I DO FINE ON ASSIGNMENTS BUT BOMB THE EXAMS.
- SPACED NOT MASSED! Prepare for the exam at least a WEEK before the test (NOT just right before the exam). Five hours of study
spread over five days, for example, an hour a day (called spaced practice) is more effective than five (or even more) hours of cramming
just before an exam (called massed practice).
- IMAGERY! When you study, try to visualize the concepts. Pavio proposed what is called the dual-code hypothesis. Basically, the
more mental "handles" we can put on information in memory, the easier it will be to retrieve that information from memory later on. This
is related to the "encoding-variability" concept discussed above as well as a concept of "elaborative processing" developed by Craik and
- STUDY BUDDIES! See my praises of this idea above! Although test-taking should probably be a solitary endeavor, there is rarely
any rule that forbids teamwork during studying. In fact, if it helps to think about it this way, it's like "cheating" on the exam before
the exam is ever administered. But you don't have to worry about getting caught!
- STRATEGY! There are basic test-taking strategies that can also help. Some of them seem like common sense, but you would be
surpised to learn how often I see students not do them.
- Read and follow the directions on the exam.
- Look over the whole test BEFORE you start answering any questions. This will allow you to see what questions might need more or less
of your time AND you can see how the points are distributed. Based on this, you can then BUDGET your time most effectively. I have seen
many students waste half of the exam time on questinos that are only worth ten percent of the grade, while leaving just a few minutes to
answer questions that are worth 40 or 50 points apiece.
- Read the test questions carefully AND read ALL of the possible exam answers (if it is multiple-choice). You need to understand exactly
what the teacher is asking you to answer.
- For essay questions, outline your answers before you write them. This will help keep you on track and also makes it less likely that
you will forget elements that need to be covered.
- Proofread your essay answers and make sure ALL questions have been answered! I've seen many points lost simply because students forgot
to come back and answer them before turning in their exams.
- Make use of ALL of the time available for taking the test. I've never heard of professors who give bonus points for finishing exams
PROBLEM: I CAN'T UNDERSTAND THE PROFESSOR!
- DROP AND ROLL! If the instructor is lecturing over your head, or, if the instructor's accent is too distracting for you to
follow the lecture, then you may have two options. (1) Drop the course and sign up for a different section with another instructor. (2)
Drop the course and take it another semester when it is taught by another person.
Keep in mind that if you wait until the end of the semester (or beyond the drop period) before acting on this, you will not be getting a
lot of sympathy from the administration. They will reasonably ask you why you didn't do something about the situation MUCH sooner.
- SUCK IT UP! The above two suggestions may NOT be options either because you need to graduate this semester, or, maybe there is
no other instructor who teaches this needed class. In either case, you are stuck with the problem and must find a way to solve it. The
option of complaining is NOT an option. It will get you nowhere. Ultimately, learning the course material is YOUR responsibility. If there
is even ONE other student who can do well in this class with this instructor, then you have no grounds for complaint. Find a tutor, see
the instructor during office hours, do outside reading, etc.
Some of the subject matter in this web-page was taken from multiple sources (including G. FORBES Lecture Outline 1/93). It has been
heavily modified based on my own experiences in the classroom as well as a spotty application of learning theory.