Study methods aren’t one-size fits all—what works for your lab partner might leave you wanting to throw your highlighter at the wall. But another study strategy could help you feel like a human textbook—trying different methods to find your perfect study strategy can help you reach your goals.
Even if you’d give your study skills a passing grade, dabbling in multiple strategies can help you stay on top of your study game. “Study techniques should differ depending on the material you’re learning,” says Krista Elliott, Manager of Student Learning at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
Start with a plan
“Start by using the type of calendar that works for you—whether that’s the calendar on your phone or a paper agenda. Write in all of your commitments (e.g. classes, labs, work hours, family obligations, etc.),” says Elliott.
Next, schedule a study session within 24 hours after learning the material to help increase your retention. “For every 30 minutes spent in class, set aside 10 minutes of study time using the 24-hour rule,” says Elliott. “Then set aside more time to review the material again on the weekend. If you’re finding the material difficult to understand and retain, you may need to set aside a lot more time to review.”
“It can be beneficial to look at a study plan as something in place for the entire semester,” says Klehr D’Souza, Coordinator of Academic Success at the University of Ottawa in Ontario. “A study plan that allows you time and space to look at material consistently throughout the year can have positive outcomes and maybe even decrease stress during the exam period.”
Use active study strategies
“The main thing to keep in mind is to utilize active study strategies,” says Elliott.
Here are some examples she suggests:
- When studying for math or problem-solving courses, you should practise the problems. However, instead of practising the same problems learned in class, try different ones to challenge yourself.
- For theoretical courses that are content-heavy, try reading and making notes. Don’t just passively read the material; rather, get involved with what you’re learning. Try posing questions that you think would be asked on the exam. Turn the headings in your textbook into questions. Once you’ve established questions, you can spend your time finding the answer and writing the notes in your own words.
- Discuss courses that are challenging. Form a study group or find a partner and review the material together. “It’s best if you formulate study questions in advance (perhaps use flash cards)—let those questions guide your discussion,” Elliot says. “There’s no better way to learn than through doing—and discussion is the next best thing!”
“While students should pick study techniques that have worked for them in the past, they should also look at what they’re studying for,” D’Souza says. “What’s the professor looking for? What type of content are you being tested on? How do you feel about the material?”
Here are some creative ideas to rescue you from your studying rut and find the method that works best for you.
Shake up your study strategy
1. Test yourself 📝
Practice tests are a helpful way to quiz yourself and walk away with a tangible output from your study session. “I use flashcards, and sometimes I use [the app] Quizlet,” says Nick N., a second-year undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia.
If you don’t have a pre-made practice test at the ready, recruit your study group to make one and quiz each other. “I do ‘brunch quizzes’ with friends, where we go to a local diner and quiz each other while eating,” says Grace P., a fourth-year undergraduate student at Queen’s University in Ontario.
2. Make it bright ☀️
Jazz up your notes with highlighters.. Colour-coding material can help you recall it better when it’s test time—and make studying look a lot brighter. “Classifying things in different categories forces me to process what I’m learning, as opposed to just reading,” says Patricia D., a third-year student at the University of Toronto in Ontario. If highlighters are too bright for you, try underlining with coloured pencils instead.
Colour-code information in the way that suits you best. You can use highlighters, coloured pencils, or pens.
One option is the stoplight method. It can be used three different ways:
- Use the colours to organize information by topic, theory, and/or perspective. For example, important author names and dates get one colour, main themes from their works get another, and key plot points a third.
- Indicate how one concept relates to another by highlighting them in the same colour. For example, if you’re writing a paper on feminism in pop culture for your gender studies class, use colour-coding to trace how second-wave feminists’ ideas have trickled down.
- Colours can indicate your level of comfort with the material. For example:
- Red: You’re lost. These are areas where you need to ask your professor for some help.
- Yellow: You’ve almost got it. You need to review this info a couple more times to feel confident.
- Green: You’re a pro. You have this information on lock.
Another clever way to use this method is by making three piles of flash cards. Colour-code the cards based on this colour scheme and circulate the red cards the most.
3. Acronyms 🔠
“When I’m studying and I come across a list I need to know, I often create acronyms to help myself remember,” says Ashleigh D., a fourth-year undergraduate at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. For example, you can remember the three parts of an atom with the acronym PEN (protons, electrons, and neutrons). Bonus points if it makes you laugh.
4. Concept sheet 📄
A more positive spin on the “cheat sheet,” this is a piece of paper with the most important points from your study material.
For a given assignment or course, create a “cheat sheet” of essential information. Referring to it often will help solidify the concepts. Here’s an example for studying atomic structure:
- Key words—include key vocab words like proton, neutron, electron, atomic number, atomic weight, and isotopes
- Diagrams—draw out the basic structure of an atom
- Pictures (to jog your memory)
- Charts and other data
Use the concept sheet to quiz yourself regularly. Just remember, you can’t actually bring it to an exam unless specifically permitted by the instructor.
5. Social studying 👫
Group studying can be a game-changer for your study rut. “[I] often make study cards and go through them with groups of friends,” says Rachel H., a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of New Brunswick. A few other approaches to social studying include:
- Quiz one another.
- Debate different perspectives.
- Teach one another concepts.
6. Playback 🔉
If rereading your notes never seems to stick, hearing the material multiple times can be helpful. Matthew A., a third-year student at the University of Western Ontario says he takes audio recordings of the lectures and replays them as a way to study. There are also millions of free audiobooks and podcasts available for download.
7. Break it down 🕑
Trying to cram a semester of studying into one or two major cram sessions won’t set you up for success, says Amy Baldwin, Director of the Department of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas. “It’s brain science. A lot of studies have shown that you can only hold five to nine items in short-term memory—deep learning requires taking that information and putting it in a different part of the brain,” she explains. “You just can’t do all of your studying the night before to do the kind of deep learning that you’ll need for a bigger test.”
8. Get personal ☝️
One of the best strategies for remembering everything in your notes is to make them personal. “Reorganizing your notes and adding to your thoughts from class when you review can help you make personal connections with the material,” Baldwin says. “If you can relate it to something you’ve done or learned before, you’re more likely to retain that information.” After class, go over your notes to draw connections between previous material you’ve covered.
“Every post-secondary school offers a service where students can either attend workshops or meet with someone one-on-one to discuss study skills,” says Elliott. “Take advantage of what that service offers you. Once you feel you have the tools to succeed, you’ll feel more in control of your academic journey.”
“Sometimes I highlight key words and use coloured pens to underline and number related [ideas]—it definitely helps to put them in a hierarchical order for later review.”
—Tiffany K., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia
“Lock your phone away, and set goals (e.g., finish Chapter 3 by 3 p.m., finish Chapter 4 by 5 p.m.).”
—Nick N., second-year undergraduate, University of British Columbia
“Figure out what you’re going to study beforehand. You’ll be much more productive if you go into a study session with a plan.”
—Grace P., fourth-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario
“I find I retain way more info if I take a short nap. Also, if I do an extra study before bed, I seem to retain more of what I just studied the next day.”
—Senka E., fourth-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia
The following resources offer study tips and tricks.
Amy Baldwin, Director of the Department of Student Transitions, University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Arkansas.
Klehr D’Souza, Coordinator, Academic Success, University of Ottawa, Ontario.
Krista Elliott, Manager, Student Learning, Office of Student Life, University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
Carlson, S. (2005). The net generation goes to college. Chronicle of Higher Education, 52(1), 1–7. Retrieved from https://chronicle.com/article/The-Net-Generation-Goes-to/12307
Gurung, R. A. (2005). How do students really study (and does it matter)? Education, 39, 323–340. Retrieved from https://02c44f4.netsolhost.com/ebooks/tips2011/I-05-04Gurung2005.pdf
Komarraju, M., Karau, S. J., Schmeck, R. R., & Avdic, A. (2011). The big five personality traits, learning styles, and academic achievement. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(4), 472–477. Retrieved from https://ac.els-cdn.com/S0191886911002194/1-s2.0-S0191886911002194-main.pdf?_tid=1cc52fea-0920-11e3-8138-00000aab0f01&acdnat=1376952107_d8d9f6534a777cd4b523196c3175c933
Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157–163. Retrieved from https://learninglab.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2012_Karpicke_CDPS.pdf
Kornell, N. (2009). Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 1297–1317. Retrieved from https://web.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kornell/Publications/Kornell.2009b.pdf
Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House: New York.