Use and abuse your textbooks. Highlight, underline, and make notes in them if they are your books. Otherwise, use note paper and sticky notes to make notes in your books. Do not worry about keeping them in pristine condition – rather, make them look like you have learned from them.
When you do highlight, do not do it excessively. Otherwise, you might just as well dip your entire book in yellow highlight ink. Read the section or paragraph first, then go back and pick out the most important points.
Use glossaries, chapter outlines, diagrams, summaries, and questions in the back of the chapter. Use all of the tools the author provides. Most students just ignore these critical learning tools.
Pre-read or skim a textbook chapter before reading to try to get the basic ideas. This will allow you to create a structure for your learning that will increase your concentration, your comprehension, your interest, and your long-term memory.
When you come across a word you do not know, write it down and look it up. This is a key way to build your vocabulary for the words that are used in your field.
Use the index of your textbook to transform it into your private tutor. The index can help you fill in gaps, clarify your notes, answer your questions, and assist you to see relationships by quickly locating relevant information perhaps from unassigned chapters.
Read Your Textbooks Early – interest is higher at the beginning of a semester. Pre-reading allows you to gain a preliminary understanding of the material and ask clarifying questions during lectures.
Use and abuse your notes, just like your textbooks. Read, review, question, seek clarification, highlight good exam questions, write notes in the margins that relate to key terms, definitions, examples, and problem-solving approaches – use your notes to full advantage.
Good note-taking is a key learning skill (see handout on note-taking). Several days after a lecture most students can only recall about 20% of what was said without notes. Compare your notes with a classmate’s to see how your notes might be improved.
As you take notes, jot down your own questions and comments in the margins of your notes. If you don’t have time in class, you can do this later.
Create your own shorthand or abbreviations for commonly used words and phrases.
Prepare for each class session. Do not go into classes cold. Read the chapter being discussed, review the notes from the last class, and try to prepare for this lecture. This approach will increase your learning and save you a significant amount of time.
Make sure that you contribute to class discussions in an active, meaningful, and focused way (without dominating or taking more air time than is fair).
Study just before and after classes to reinforce concepts, make questions clear, and clarify organization.
Use at least some of your spares between classes for study and review.
Know the location of your teacher’s office and what hours are set aside for office hours. Use that time when you need it.
Study and Test Preparation
Distribute your learning over time. You should always be preparing for the next test, even if it is five weeks away. Short, regular review and study periods are much more effective than what most students do – bunching study the day before the test. That approach may work in high school but not in college. Cramming can result in marks much lower than they could have been for the same amount of study time spread out over several days.
Create quick sample tests and take them. This is the single best way to prepare for tests and exams. Get ideas from your classmates – swap sample questions.
Some students put these test questions on small pieces of paper and make Flash Cards.
Remember – studying is asking and answering good questions. Questions such as:
- What is … ?
- Give three examples of …. ?
- Describe the function of ….
- What is significant about… ?
- List the important aspects of …
- What is different about x and y and what is the same?
- Define …..
Spend some of your preparation time studying with another student doing good, hard drilling and quizzing as well as helping each other understand difficult concepts. However, do not spend more than 25% of your study time on this activity. Study Groups can be useful.
Tests and examinations look for proof that you have mastered the concepts and methods from the course and that you can apply them. Therefore, tests include problems that you have never seen before, and they want you to be able to relate these concepts to new and unfamiliar situations. Memorizing information is important, but knowing, understanding and applying concepts in novel and unfamiliar situations are critical.
Teaching someone else is learning twice. That is why tutoring another student is good for both the tutor and the student receiving assistance. If you need extra assistance, ask your teacher or see about getting a Peer Tutor from Student Services.
Use short time periods to study intensively (for 15 to 25 minutes) and then take short breaks (return to study after 5 minutes). Use breaks effectively (short, varied activity, taken when needed, return to study after 5 minutes). Don’t let your breaks become escapes. Small chores around the house can be good breaks and help you save time. Try five minutes of sit-ups or other exercises – not only are you getting fit but you are getting blood rushing to your head.
Work towards reviewing your class notes and text notes at least three different times. First review the notes the day they were made, next a few days later, and third after a week. Most students will not learn the material without this amount of interaction with it.
To work against daydreaming, try varying your tasks more quickly. Change both subjects and type of task. Switch from reading a textbook on one subject to writing a paper on another subject to reviewing notes from a third subject. Perhaps try a different study location.
Here are some of the tools of the trade to be a successful student:
- a bulletin board with push pins
- year planner
- coloured pens, highlighters, white out, various pencils, erasers & assorted pens
- glue sticks, ruler, scissors, tape
- stapler and lots of staples
- paper clips and other types of clips
- computer and printer
- desk or other suitable table, desk lamp, book shelf
- filing box or cabinet
- various lined and unlined papers, graph paper, index cards
- geometry sets
- whatever other supplies you need to be successful in your academic program
Leave for last any easy or repetitive tasks such as typing, making graphs, or creating a bibliography. Do these after the real learning work has been done.
Zero absences is the goal – never miss a class if you can help it. The average “C” student misses four times as many classes as an “A” student.
Create study packages with all information on each key topic. Include information from class notes, text notes, labs, field trips, videos, and other sources. Now highlight the main points and determine what you know and what you do not know. Create a short summary for each topic that you can use to study from.
Many types of academic material can be broken into three categories. Try making three columns on a piece of paper and filling in this information about the key aspects of what you are learning:
- Terms and Concepts
- Examples and Applications
Organize information into categories whenever possible. Studies show that organized information is up to ten times easier to learn.
Whenever possible, try to illustrate concepts with diagrams.
Many students find learning new material frustrating. Try this approach – project into the future and think ‘I will know the material eventually just like I now know the stuff from the last chapter.’
Utilize your powerful visual memory. If possible put information into a chart, graph or picture form. Also, use the visuals that are in your textbook.
Be selective in your learning. It is almost impossible to learn every detail in your textbook and notebook. Instead, based on the course outline, discussion with other students, careful listening to the teacher, and analysis of the teacher’s tests, decide which ideas, facts and details are most important. Selecting information that is important is one of the main skills of the successful student – you must try to determine which are the main ideas and which are the supporting details.
Nothing can hurt your studying as much as lack of sleep.
Often teachers will come right out and tell you that a certain item will be on the exam or test. Make sure this is recorded in your notes with some appropriate symbol and notation.
The best approach to memorizing includes these basic steps and approaches:
- Intend to remember
- Be selective and go for the important stuff
- Repeat and recite out loud
- Learn to like what you are learning
- Try to make it meaningful
- Organize the information in some framework
- Acronyms can be very useful (e.g. HOMES for the five Great Lakes – Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior)
- Relate ideas when possible
- Discuss or use the information
- Review several times
- Space your reviews
- If possible, make the information visual and auditory
- Try to create lists that have seven or fewer items (more are more easily forgotten).
- When preparing for a test, make a one page checklist of topics that you should be covering.
Going to college is an expensive business – tuition, student loans, books, student union fees, residence, food, as well as the lost income that you would have been making if you were not in school. It boils down to several dollars per hour. The question to ask yourself when you are learning is: Would I pay myself for the quality of work I am doing now?
The goal of time spent learning is to generate meaningful learning. Here are some approaches to encourage that:
- Transform the new information into your own words
- Apply the new knowledge in this course or in other courses
- Teach what you have learned to someone else
- Seek out similarities and differences between this information and other things you know.
Be very active in your learning: read, speak out loud, make notes, recite material, make pictures, pretend you are a standup comedian, even sing the material if it will help to keep you involved. The key is being active and avoid daydreaming – the most common activity of almost all students when studying.
Do weird things if they seem like they might be helpful for your learning. For example, study in the bath tub, or make a giant chart of something difficult and put it on your bedroom wall, or listen to a tape that you have made of your study notes.
Study in the same place at the same time of day if possible. You will condition yourself and you can save valuable start up minutes. We are creatures of habit.
Study in a room 20 to 22 degrees C with good circulation, appropriate lighting and the best possible desk set-up. If possible avoid places with frequent interruptions, where you can hear the TV or radio or a ringing telephone. Most important of all is that you feel like learning when you are in that learning space.
Make a list of all the topics that you are unclear about as you study for a test. Cross out the items on that list as you understand each.
Don’t always study information in the same order. There is a tendency to remember items at the beginning of a chapter or list as well as items towards the end – and to forget items in the middle. Change your order of study – sometimes start in the middle.
Know about and use the services available to you such as: Peer Tutoring, Teacher Assistance, Health Services and Counselling.
Sit upright when studying, don’t get too comfortable. In fact, try doing some learning standing up as a change of pace.
Learning how to locate information is very important. This includes effectively using indexes, tables of contents, dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, almanacs, specialized reference books, card/computer library catalogues, and computerized databases.
Organizing information is another key skill. This includes:
- determining the best way to organize information
- listening well in class
As you prepare for a test, think about the material in relation to what you will be asked to do with it: explain, prove, decide, review, calculate, list, describe, deduce, discuss, draw, compare, contrast, state, evaluate, define, illustrate, outline, show the relationship between, and summarize are some of the instruction words on tests.
If you discover any visual difficulties in reading the blackboard or projector, consider consulting an optician or ophthalmologist immediately. Especially for those who have been away from school for a while, the visual demands of college and university can quickly uncover a change in vision. Getting glasses, new glasses, or contacts may solve the problem quickly.
As you prepare for a test, always be asking yourself “what am I reasonably expected to know, understand, and be able to do from this course?” This rather difficult question can be answered by the course outline, the teacher, your classmates, the textbook, readings, and the assignments.
Create a small notebook and fill it with questions that you think you should be able to answer for each course. Then work on being able to answer them.
Keep your desk top clear of materials that you are not using at the moment – they may distract you. However, you do need a Study Kit nearby – pens, pencils, pencil sharpener, calculator, blank paper, dictionary, reference books, clock or timer, textbooks, notebooks, and anything else that you find that you need occasionally.
People walking around you (like in the Dining Hall) will distract you and waste your study time. Eliminate as many distractions as possible. People-watching and studying don’t mix – do one or the other.
Study more difficult subjects first. Then switch to an easier or more interesting subject.
Make a Cheat Sheet, a single piece of paper that contains the material that will probably be on the test and that you are unsure of. Then, learn and memorize your “Cheat Sheet” (start doing this about a week before your test).
Consciously try to use ideas and concepts from one course in other courses.
For science, technology, engineering, and math type courses, study the example problems in detail. Do all of the assigned problems, try doing the unassigned problems, and do any other practice problems you can get ahold of from other books or other students.
In test preparation make links between topics – it is all supposed to fit together and a good test is one that discovers to what degree you have understood the ideas and concepts and how they fit together.
Try to learn what to focus on and what to skip. William James (famous psychologist) said: “The essence of genius is to know what to overlook.”
Analyze where you are going wrong on tests. How should you change what you are doing? What types of questions are you missing.
Pull together all lecture and textbook notes on each topic. Also include information from labs, field placements, clinical practices and any other source. Next sort out what is really important. Create a study summary from this material.
Force yourself to recall and recite without looking at the material. Reciting is the single best way to learn material for recall. Just look at the headings in your notes or your textbook or key words that you have written down. Reciting must be active and preferably out loud.
If your teacher has provided a detailed course outline, use it extensively to guide your study. The tests and exams should be developed by the teacher to exactly match the learning objectives in that course outline – that is what good teaching is all about. The course outline is your map to success.
Anticipate the topics that will be covered on the test. Use the course outline, your notes, the textbook, the way in which the material has been presented by the teacher, and discussion with other students and the teacher.
The key to time management is to have enough time to meet all of your personal, educational, work and other goals. Make and use a daily to do list, a day planner or diary, a semester to do list, and a weekly schedule. See the handout on Time Management for more information on these tools. These time management tools are critically important and not using them is an invitation to do poorly. Also, posting a large four month term calendar will help you to visualize how you are going to divide your time to achieve all of your academic, work and personal goals.
As mentioned above, prepare a general, weekly schedule of what you will do and when. Include study times, recreation times, and everything else. Make the schedule realistic and try to stick with it.
The day planner or diary is probably the most critical tool to use. In it you can record all school and personal dates, times, due dates, test dates, and any other important dates in your life.
On your daily to do list include a list of school and personal things that you want to get done that day. Prioritize them A, B, and C. A means very important, B means important, and C is optional. Make sure that you spend most of your time on your As.
Use your To Do List or a notepad to capture random thoughts while studying.
When taking multiple choice tests have a positive attitude. Schedule your time carefully; omit difficult questions and return later if you have time; look for clue words in the question; read the question with care – many mistakes are caused by misreading and misunderstanding the question; and eliminate as many alternatives as possible. An excellent technique for many students is to answer the question without looking at the possible answers (many students find that the answers just tend to confuse them).
Don’t change an answer unless you are very sure that another answer is correct. Research shows that most changes in answers go from rights to wrongs. Carefully reason the answer to a question you are unsure of.
You might want to read other handouts in this series on Learning Skills. They include Time Management, Test Taking, Note-Taking and Learning Space Assessment.
© 1997, 1996, and 1994 by Jim Blakley, Loyalist College, Belleville, Ontario. Reprinted from the Handbook on Post-secondary Student Success. Permission granted for use and duplication within schools, colleges, and universities for non-commercial applications as long as this copyright statement is included.