Gaining Smart Study Habits

I'll never forget my first college exam. Since I'd been a good student in high school, I didn't anticipate needing to study much. I walked into the classroom that day with full confidence in my abilities, only to discover that I'd over-calculated my recall abilities. It was humbling to receive the test back a few days later with a big, fat "C" written in bright red ink across that top. It was in that moment I realized the truth: studying in college would not be an "option" but a necessity! Over the next few years I figured out what that meant, allowing me to graduate with an almost perfect GPA. Here are some pointers I learned that might improve your college study skills:

  • Discover your best study "habitat." It might sound like a silly question, but when is your brain at optimal functioning? Have you ever paid attention to know the answer? Do you concentrate best with music in the background or in absolute silence? Do bright lights keep you awake or disturb you? Does studying in a warm, comfy place lull you to sleep or cause you to relax so you can focus? Are you most alert in the morning or at night? Take these observations into account and plan your study times accordingly. Some students find that a consistent study location is key, while others have noticed an increase in memory when they switch things up and study in a new environment. If you thrive off of routine, you may need to establish your permanent study spot in a library or local coffee shop. However, if you find yourself sluggish and fidgety when returning to the same old location, try switching things up and going outside or to a brand-new place to study. The change of pace may be just what you need to engage all five of your senses for optimal learning.
  • Do away with distractions. This point may seem obvious but is often ignored: get serious about clearing away whatever distracts you from being 100% focused. Resist multitasking; it does not aid in effective learning. Phones become the ultimate blackhole of diversion from studying…social media wastes hours, YouTube is a sinkhole of wasted energy, and even seemingly helpful "research" often leads down a rabbit trail to no man's land. So wisely set your phone completely out of reach while studying. Or turn off your wi-fi for a few hours of uninterrupted study time. On a similar note, if studying with others if helpful for you then by all means, find a study group. But be honest with yourself; if you end up socializing more than studying, then save those interactions for another time and make your study time count.
  • Engage the material meaningfully. It may go without saying but reading is not that same thing as studying! Retention comes when we participate actively in our own learning. This may mean rewriting class notes, creating flashcards (which are then reviewed), or visually illustrating important concepts in artistic or memorable ways. One strategic method for cementing the material you've learned is to teach it back to a study partner or even an imaginary audience. Experts also recommend creating "practice tests" as a way of rehearsing key information. Studies show this may increase your test performance by as much as 50%. Finally: don't skip class (however tempting this may be) but attend as an active participant by taking notes and engaging in class discussions. Experts recognize that our most solid learning occurs in layers. A foundational piece happens in the classroom, so don't skip out!
  • Bite-sized is best. Because of this truth about learning being layered, it's critical to realize that cramming, though popular in college, is rarely effective. Schedule study times and stick to your schedule. Several studies have shown self-discipline to be a surprisingly higher predictor of academic performance than even I.Q. Procrastination, conversely, has been linked to higher levels of stress, poor mental and physical health and a lower GPA. Effective study most often occurs in short, intense bursts. Plan frequent study sessions but make sure they are of a realistic and manageable length. No one can give full focus for hours on end! As you study, gjve yourself small rewards. Take a walk or snack break after each hour of study. Review your notes right before bed. While sleeping, the "memory-consolidation process" occurs, reinforcing what we have learned the previous day or evening. Experts call this "sleep learning" which reiterates the idea that it's often wiser to "sleep on it" than pull an all-nighter.
  • Relax! UC Irvine conducted a study that demonstrated how short-term stress has the potential to interfere with learning. Alternatively, relaxation increases concentration, energy, mental health and memory. Stress in college is unavoidable, but our bodies thrive when we let go of anxiety. Stress can be managed by allowing our bodies sufficient rest, as well as healthy food, regular exercise, fresh air and a little fun and laughter. So, in the midst your study, don't minimize the need for friendships and life-giving play and recreation.