Studying effectively is a skill everybody should know, yet it is seldom taught in school. I had to figure out how to study on my own and now I want to give you my boiled-down knowledge of what works.
The 80/20 Principle of How to Study
I don’t think you should waste your time learning every study skill there is to know. This article is the Pareto Principle of how to study. The idea that 80% of the results come from 20% of habits. This is that 20%, but they will probably get you 99% of the results.
This is your foundation. Just start here and decide if you need more.
What You’ll Learn
Firstly, you will learn how to manage your time and workload. You can’t expect to get good grades and have time for fun if you manage your time and workload poorly. So we will start there.
Secondly, you will learn small yet powerful study habits that will boost your academic performance.
Thirdly, you will learn study skills that will get you better grades with less stress. I don’t want you studying all the time. I want you to have fun. That requires doing things the right way.
What’s in it for You?
At the end of this article, you will have a system for getting things done with good results. You will maximize your knowledge and fun. You will not have to struggle to find what works as I did. You will become a stress-free student.
Why Listen to Me?
My success was unlikely, but I made it. Now I’m giving back.
I am not an educator and I was not a good student in high school. I never even thought about going to college, but luckily some relatives suggested that I give it a try. They changed my life for the better and I’m paying it forward.
If I did well, you can too, and I will show you how.
My first year of college was tough. I had no idea how to study, but I knew I had to figure it out. I spent hours reading everything I could find about how to study.
I just wanted simple and practical advice on how to get the best results for the time I put in. It took me a while to figure out what worked, but my world transformed when I finally did.
I got near-perfect grades in college and went on to law school from there.
Fast forward to today, and now I’m the father of three successful college graduates. While my kids did well, I saw far too many great high school students struggle in college when they really shouldn’t have.
I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.
Most Experts Agree
Over the last few years, I’ve read a pile of books about studying, managing time, and how to best learn in school. I was happy to learn that these books confirmed that what I did as a student is approved by nearly all, if not all, experts in the field.
While it is impossible to cover all the different ways of how to study, it’s clear that some fundamental study methods apply to most students.
Most, not all. Everybody studies differently, so if you have a different learning style than I describe below, adjust my advice to your needs.
You Need to Put in the Work
I’m not saying it will be easy. Learning something new is hard. It’s supposed to be. Obtaining new knowledge is similar to working out. Just as a muscle needs discomfort to grow, your brain needs discomfort to build new neural connections.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that student anxiety is caused mainly by uncertainty – about not having enough time and about not knowing how to study the right way.
When you have a plan, uncertainty is gone.
What you’ll read below is how I overcame anxiety and turned my study life around.
The rest of the article is written in the first person, so if I was going back to school, that is how I would speak to myself.
What Can I Do to Be Less Stressed and Improve My Grades?
When I first arrived at college, I was frustrated and confused. I wasn’t doing well, and I didn’t know why. I needed a change for the better.
These were the thoughts running through my head:
I love college, but I am seriously stressed out. This is way different than high school. There is a lot more to do, and it’s way harder than I expected.
It’s hard enough being in a new place and far away from friends and family, only to be living in a constant state of anxiety. I have a ton of work to do, and I never really know for sure if I’m going to have enough time to get all of it done.
As for studying, I wonder if I’m doing things the right way. I’m putting in the time, but I’m not always getting the grades I expect from my efforts.
How should I study in college? What study methods will get me the best grades for the time I put in, without constant stress?
Everything I’ve been reading says success in college is first about managing my time and workload.
Then it’s about using some common sense behaviors and a few proven study methods.
The one thing that’s certain is that I can’t wing it. I need a plan.
The Foundation of My Study Plan
To create that plan, I need to know the answers to some questions first.
- How do I use my time? Am I trying to do too much?
- How much study time do I have left?
- What are the tasks that I have to get done?
- How long is each task going to take?
- Do I have enough time to get each task done?
- When will I study?
- Where will I study?
- How will I study?
- How will I take notes, read textbooks, and study for exams?
- How will I keep everything organized?
- What will I do when things change?
- Where will I seek extra help?
When I know the answers, I’ll have my plan, but I’ll also have a system – a consistent way of doing things the same way, every day, that will get me a predictable result.
Better grades with less stress and more time for fun.
I shouldn’t have to think about it. I should do it automatically because it works. No more guessing and no surprises. I will become a well-oiled, A’s getting study machine.
The 5 Things I Need to Do
All I need to do to succeed in school are these 5 things:
- Create my schedule
- Organize my tasks
- Plan when I’ll do each task
- Follow good study habits
- Study with the exam in mind
It’s time to get started, but before I do, there’s one more question I need to ask myself. Will I follow through?
There will be lots of difficulty and frustration ahead. Am I willing to commit to the effort? Nothing else will matter unless I truly care. It all starts there.
Do I Have the Right Mindset?
“There are two types of people in this world. Those who think they can and those who think they can’t. They are both right.”
– Henry ford
Before I start building my study plan, I need to level with myself and ask myself something that matters more than any study method.
Am I confident that I can do it?
Do I want to do it?
Will I do it?
No amount of planning, organization, or good study habits will help me succeed unless I first believe that I can. College (or any other school for that matter) will be fun, but hard too. I have to be willing to do a lot of things that I may not want to do.
That starts with the right mindset.
It’s not something I thought about in high school, but I see why it’s important to understand and be aware of in college.
There are two mindsets — Fixed and Growth.
Students with a fixed mindset believe that they have a certain natural level of intelligence and ability. It’s fixed and they really can’t do anything about it. They say things like…
“I don’t test well.”
“I was never good at math.”
A fixed mindset is indicated by anything that I think or say that is self-limiting.
When students with a fixed mindset have difficulties, they tend to give up easily. It’s often the cause of dropping classes, changing majors, and even quitting college completely.
On the other hand, students with a Growth Mindset believe that effort determines the outcome. If I’m not good at something, it’s only because I don’t yet have the foundation or the experience.
Students with a growth mindset view difficulties as challenges to be overcome.
I Need to Be Aware of My Own Mindset
No matter what my mindset really is, what’s important is that I’m aware of it. That’s the first step towards avoiding a fixed mindset.
If I catch myself doubting myself, I need to realize it and switch into believing that I can do anything.
My goal is to get a good grade and learn everything I can about any subject, whether I think I like it or not. I’m going to have a passion for learning.
My mindset is totally growth. I know that I can accomplish anything that I want to in college / law school / med school etc., if… I have enough time!
I better find out.
Creating a Study Timetable
Every student starts with the same amount of time (about 16 hours of awake time each day), but how much each of us has left for studying is a whole different story.
Many students fail to do their time analysis, try to do too many things, and then wonder why they are not doing well in school.
I will not make that mistake. I will analyze my time to figure out if I have enough time to get good grades.
I Need a Schedule
I never did a schedule in high school, but I need one in college. There is too much going on that I need to remember.
There are things we all have to do like classes, meals, workouts, errands, and other things that we can’t change. Some of us play sports, have club meetings, or work different jobs.
I want to be involved and I want to have fun, but I never want to do too much outside of my main focus — my studies. That is what I’m in school for.
The Purpose of a Schedule
The most basic goal of a schedule is to make sure I get to where I’m supposed to be.
But the real goal of building an accurate study timetable is to find all of the time I have available for studying.
The good news is that creating a schedule is simple.
I can do it on a day planner, Google calendar, or a piece of paper. I will do it in the Shovel Study Planner.
When Am I awake?
I cannot study when I’m asleep. Setting my awake time will let Shovel know where to look for my available study time.
I know that getting 8 hours of sleep will leave me 112 hours of awake time each week.
What Takes Up My Time?
I’ll go through each day of the week, minute-by-minute, and think about everything I have to do. All of the things I mentioned — classes, meals, workouts, jobs, clubs, and errands. The more detailed the better. Minutes matter.
Everything that takes up time in my calendar is the time I cannot use for studying. Whatever time is left, is my available study time.
How Long Does It Take to Walk Between Places?
I want my available study time to be accurate so I’m going to put in how much time it takes to walk between things. I love talking to my friends after class so it takes me a long time to get somewhere. In Shovel, I add it as “Commute Time” at the beginning or end of each event.
When Is My “Me Time”?
Me Time is my personal and social time – Friday and Saturday evenings, Saturday and Sunday mornings. I don’t necessarily know what I’m going to be doing, but I know I won’t be studying unless I really have to.
I will add my desired Me Time into my schedule to know that I don’t want to use that time for studying.
The nice thing is that Me Time can be used for studying if I’m in a pinch. If I do things right, I’ll never have to use it, but it’s there if I need it.
When I’m done creating my schedule, it will look something like this:
When Can I Study?
As I fill in my schedule, I start to notice empty time blocks between all of the things I have to do.
That’s all of my available study time. I say “available” because I have it, but I may not use it.
Minimum Study Time Block
From a practical standpoint, smaller blocks of time may not be usable for studying. An hour might be fine, but if it takes me 10 minutes to open my computer, check Reddit, drink my coffee, and get in the “zone,” I will not be able to use a 20-minute time block for studying.
I can decide what my “minimum study time block” is as I settle into my routine. For now, I’ll just say that I will not study during a free time block that is less than one hour. In Shovel, I can easily set that with a slider.
Can I find More Study Time?
I’m always looking for ways to increase the available study time I have.
One thing I can do is try to combine some of the small time blocks to create a larger usable study block. Maybe I can move my lunch or a gym time.
When I’m finally through setting up my schedule, I should have a very accurate picture of exactly how I use my time and how much study time I have available.
Which Study Times Will I Commit To?
As I settle into my semester, I’ll see how I really do things, make adjustments, and decide how much time I really need. It may be more or it may be less.
No matter what I decide, I need to unequivocally commit to using my study time. The only way I can make a truly accurate study plan is to know when I’m going to study and stick to my plan. I can’t let anything or anyone distract me.
How much study time I’ll use will depend on how much time I need to get things done.
I’m going to figure that out now.
Organizing My Tasks
Knowing how much study time I have available will not tell me if I have enough time to get good grades. That’s only half of the equation. I also have to figure out how much time I need to get everything done. For that, I need to organize my tasks.
Organizing my tasks means three things:
- Knowing what tasks I need to get done
- Having all of my tasks in one place
- Estimating how long each task will take
Let’s see what that pile of homework looks like.
1. What Do I Need to Get Done?
“Did you read the syllabus? It’s in the syllabus”
– Every professor ever
Lucky me. Everything I need to do is listed in the syllabus for each class.
But if f I had a class where the professor told me what I needed to do as the year progressed, that’d be ok too — the same principles below would apply.
A syllabus is a contract between the professor and me and contains information about what I need to do to get a good grade.
I need to know the specific tasks that I need to get done. Those are usually found on the last page of each syllabus.
The first thing I do is get the big picture. I look at each syllabus and see how many tasks I have and organize them into a few logical categories.
Textbook chapters, novels, articles, online readings, etc. Things that the professor expects me to read before each class.
How Many Pages Do I Have To Read?
Readings will take up a lot of my study time, and I need to be able to plan them well.
The syllabus typically tells me what chapters I need to read, but to make an accurate study plan, I want to know how many pages each reading represents. Is it 10 pages or is it 50?
That’s easy to know. It’s right in the table of contents. I just look it up and write it down. I can do page ranges, but I could just as easily do a total number of pages.
I Print Out or Save All of My PDFs
If I have a class where I need to read a lot of individual articles, I don’t wait until the last minute to find out what they are. I print them out or save them as PDFs all at once. No searching for them or dealing with a printer before every class. Every reading is ready to go when I need it.
Printing out my PDFs will also help me identify how many pages I have to read and the format of each reading so I can easily estimate how long each reading will take. More on that later.
These are quizzes, midterms, or final exams.
These are usually graded tasks that I have to work on outside of class. They may be one-time things like papers and projects, or periodic tasks like problem sets, which may be due in every class.
There is really no end to how I can categorize my various tasks. I just think about the things that I commonly do and try to organize them together.
2. I Need Everything in One Place
A plan, by definition, implies some kind of an orderly way of doing things. I have a lot going on — my schedule and task list are packed. Trying to keep all of that in my head would be crazy.
I need to get everything organized in one central place. For me, that place is the Shovel Study Planner.
Each syllabus usually only contains about 40 to 100 tasks, most of which repeat, and I can create them in Shovel automatically. I set up all my tasks at once and I’m done.
If for any reason I’m just too busy to organize everything in advance, I try to input two or three weeks’ worth of tasks and keep adding more as I have time.
Shovel Prevents Me From Wasting My Time
In Shovel, every task I have to do is organized by its course, category, due date, and time.
Once my tasks are in Shovel, I never have to look anywhere else to see what I need to get done. Having things in one place cuts down the amount of time I waste looking things up throughout the semester.
3. I Estimate How Long Each Task Will Take
When a business creates a plan, they estimate how long each phase of the project will take, down to the smallest task. It is no different from a study plan.
Thanks to creating my schedule, I know how much study time I have available each week. Is it going to be enough to meet every deadline? To know the answer, I need to know how much time I need to get things done.
In almost everything in my study life, I know exactly how long things will take. Breakfast is from 8:00 to 8:30; lecture is from 9:00 to 10:00; practice is from 3:00 to 6:00. I always start and end at specific times. The clock decides. It’s easy to plan around my fixed events.
But then I see these:
“Read chapters 3 and 4.” “Write a 20-page paper.” “Study for the midterm exam.”
How long do those take? The clock doesn’t decide. They might take an hour, or they might take ten.
How can I possibly plan around that? Most students don’t even try. The result is uncertainty and stress.
The solution is to do it the same way any business does – make an estimate and then learn from experience.
Here’s how you can do that for your various college tasks.
Lectures are a waste of time if I don’t know what the professor is talking about. So my goal is to get every reading done before the lecture.
For that, I need to know how long each reading will take so that I leave myself enough time to get the reading done on time.
To know how long each reading will take, I need to know two things: First, how many pages will I have to read? Second, how long will one page take me?
I already know the answer to the first question, “how many pages” because when I organized my tasks in Shovel, I entered the number of pages for each reading.
And to answer the second question, “how long per page,” I need to know what reading source the reading assignment is from and how long will one page from that reading source take me to read.
Reading Sources – How Long Does One Page Take?
Most classes will have textbooks, novels, or other types of books. There may also be a variety of articles, usually in the form of printable PDFs. I call these “reading sources.”
Each reading source has a certain type of formatting and level of difficulty and will read differently.
Novels will read faster than Chemistry textbooks. Single-Spaced PDFs will read slower than Double-Spaced PDFs.
To get an estimate of how long it will take to read one page from a textbook or a PDF type, I just read a few pages, record the time, and divide by the number of pages I read — that will give me the average time per page for that particular reading source.
I time myself on each reading source/format.
Shovel Does the Math!
I don’t need a calculator to figure out how long each reading will take because Shovel will do the math for me.
All I need to do is attach a reading source to a reading tas, and Shovell will multiply the number of pages I need to read by the time per page of that reading source. And voila! I know how long each reading will take.
Shovel Stays Current
As I get into the semester, I can easily adjust my time per page in Shovel for each reading source and that will adjust my time estimates for all my remaining reading tasks from that reading source. Magic.
Readings are easy to estimate, but I can make accurate estimates for things like problem sets, projects, or papers, too.
For tasks that repeat multiple times in a semester, I start with a rough guesstimate on the first one (I will overestimate to make sure I give myself enough time) and then just time myself when I work on it. I adjust my estimates for future tasks accordingly. Again, super easy to “bulk edit” in Shovel.
For large assignments, I break them down into smaller parts and estimate the time for each. Preferably, I set a different due date for each part to keep me motivated and on track.
I can estimate how long it takes to do research, make an outline, write the first draft, do the final edit, etc. Next time I do a paper, I’ll have a pretty good idea about how long each part will take.
Estimating Study Time for Exams
Studying for weekly quizzes may only take an hour or two. A midterm might require 8 hours. A final 20 hours. Each exam will be different, but I’ll learn as I go. I definitely want to overestimate, but more on this later — I have an entire strategy for how I will study for exams.
ABT – Always Be Timing
One of the best ways to keep my plan accurate is to compare my estimates with my experience. This is what any business does to improve its estimates continually.
The easiest way to compare my estimates with my experience is to time myself. I use a stopwatch or just write down the time when I start working on a task and then again when I finish. It doesn’t take any time or effort but gives me a huge benefit.
If I thought my weekly essay would take 3 hours and it took me 5, I want to make sure I adjust the time for my future weekly essays so my plan is accurate going forward and I don’t fall short on time, pull all-nighters and all the good stuff.
I want to be a stress-free student. That means giving myself enough time to get things done.
How Far Ahead Should I Start?
As I’m setting up my tasks, I also need to consider when I need to get started on each.
The size, difficulty, and due date are different for each task. I might start a reading assignment 2 days ahead, but a research paper 14 days before it is due.
In Shovel, I can set the “Start Days Ahead” field for each task. Not only do I know when I need to get started, but Shovel will calculate only the study time I have available to complete the task within the period I actually plan to work on the task.
For example, if I have a task due in one month but plan to start working on it 14 days before it is due, Shovel will calculate my available study time for that task only within those 14 days. This makes Shovel super accurate in predicting whether you’ll have enough time to complete each task.
Can I Get It Done On Time?
One of the biggest causes of stress for me is not knowing whether I have enough time to get things done. I have time and workload fighting with each other. But with all of this information in Shovel, now I have a pretty good idea who will win.
I know how much study time I have available and when I have it. I know how much time I need for each task, when I plan to start, and when I need it to be done.
Shovel Study Planner does the math for me.
- It calculates the study time I have available between when I plan to get started on each task and when I need to finish.
- It compares the study time I have available with the time I need for that task and any other tasks that need to be done first.
- It then shows me if I have enough time to get each task done on time.
It’s simply the difference between the time I HAVE and the time I NEED. It’s my “Cushion.” It’s either positive — I have enough time, or negative — I don’t have enough time.
Here is how it works:
The Cushion Graph
Shovel displays this information in what is called the Cushion Graph. I can look at my entire semester and see if I may run out of time on any task and take steps to fix it now, way before I run into problems.
Shovel is a Real-Time Study Planner and does this calculation continuously, so I always know if I can get my tasks done on time.
Now, I just need to plan when I’ll do them.
Timeboxing Each Task
My schedule is set and my tasks are organized. Now I just need to make sure I get them done. Some would say that’s the hardest part, but thankfully there’s a great trick to help me do it.
It goes by different names — timeboxing, time-blocking, planning… I will use these terms interchangeably. But they all mean one thing: Putting a specific task into a specific study time in my calendar.
The Importance of Timeboxing
Once planned, a to-do item is no longer left to die on my to-do list. It is on my calendar. I set a date and time for when I’ll get it done. I commit to it. I will not be doing anything else but work on that item at that particular time.
Timeboxing gives me clarity. It helps me establish discipline and avoid procrastination.
Personal assistants do it for business leaders, so why wouldn’t I do it for myself?
How Will I Timebox?
I don’t need a personal assistant to do it. I have Shovel. I just move an “unplanned” task from the pile of tasks I need to get done into an empty study block.
Shovel will automatically set the amount of time I need for that task as the planned time, or I can adjust how long I’ll want to work on that task at that particular time.
I try to plan my big study blocks based on difficulty. Hard tasks first, easy tasks last.
When a study block with a task comes up on my calendar, I start working on it.
Normally I work on my tasks in the order of when they are planned but sometimes I do them based on how I feel. The main thing is to get them all planned and keep getting them done.
I try to never let a study block go by without something in it. If I know I won’t be working on anything, I drag in Me Time instead.
I Plan Ahead but Not Too Far
As a student, it doesn’t make sense for me to plan tasks too far in advance. Things change too often. Besides, I know I’ll be able to get everything done on time thanks to the Cushion.
I just try to plan one or two weeks ahead. Ideally, I sit down with Shovel for thirty minutes every Sunday night to plan my week.
I Follow My Plan but I’m Flexible
I created a plan, and I know what I’ll be doing almost every minute of every day. It’s right there on my calendar.
But a plan is not a prison. If I decide to move things around, I can. A plan should give me clarity about what I’ll be doing and confidence that I’ll be able to get things done. It is a way for me to stop thinking about everything I need to do and “off-load” it into a place where I can easily manage it.
I Keep Improving My Plan
The only thing that is certain in school is that everything changes. My study plan is never perfect. This is especially true at the beginning of the semester when I have to make assumptions about my schedule and the time I’ll need to get things done.
As I settle into a routine and see how I really do things, I make quick adjustments to my plan wherever they are needed.
Every Sunday I do a quick review of both my schedule and my workload.
I look at the week ahead and ask myself what might be different. Any appointments, errands, or new events?
I look at what tasks I have coming up. A tougher problem set, a paper, or a long reading?
Looking back at the past week, did I get things done on time? Am I actually using my study blocks that I planned to use? Is there any reason to adjust anything on my schedule? Where can I improve?
I continuously challenge myself to make my study plan as accurate as possible. The better it is, the less stressed I am.
Where Am I So Far?
Now I’m ready to do some work, but let’s see what I’ve done already.
- I have an accurate schedule
- I know my available study time
- I have my tasks organized in one place
- I estimated how long each task will take
- I know if I have enough time to get each task done
- I know when I’ll work on each task
That is a pretty good study plan. I’m already way better prepared than most of the students around me. Now it’s time to start doing the work.
It would be a shame to waste all of the time and effort I’ve put in to get here by doing things the wrong way.
I want to make sure that I know how to study the right way. I need to use study habits that help me get good results for the time and effort that I put in.
It’s time to learn what those are.
Following Good Study Habits
There are certain habits that will help me get better grades with less stress. If I follow them, I will be happier, healthier, and more successful. I know that these habits work because they are based on common sense. These study habits are centered around eliminating distractions.
I manage My Time Efficiently
Time is my most valuable asset in college. That’s why I try to find every study block that I can.
If I have committed to it, I try to use it. I never want to let study time get behind me. I try to keep as much of it ahead of me as possible. I always have a sense of urgency about using my time.
In school, everything changes. It is never possible to know exactly how much time I need. Tasks will be harder, there will be emergencies, appointments, and other things that pop up. I always expect the unexpected and have the time available to deal with it.
My Brain Needs a Routine
My brain likes predictability. If it is always wondering what’s next, it can never truly focus on the book in front of it.
The only way to get the most out of my studies is to establish a consistent study routine around all of my fixed activities. Every study block is a firm commitment. No matter how big or how small it is, I try my best to use it every week.
That way my brain isn’t wondering what I’ll be doing next Monday from 7 to 9 pm. It knows I’ll be studying. No exceptions. No distraction can get in my way because I treat my study block from 7 to 9 pm every Monday as a commitment I cannot change.
I Treat My Sleep as a Job
A job that I love and show up for on time. I pick a time to get up and go to bed every day, and I stick to it. At least on the weekdays.
I want to avoid an inconsistent sleep schedule at all costs.
An irregular sleep schedule will make it impossible for me to manage my time well. Even worse, it will dysregulate my circadian rhythm, which regulates my mood and well-being. This can even lead to depression. These Harvard guys explain it better than I can.
If I know I am not a morning person, I won’t set a sleep schedule I can’t keep. I want to set something that is realistic, as long as I am consistent with it.
Big Study Blocks – My Deep Focus Study Sessions
These are the big chunks of time after my last class or after dinner. I don’t even think about it. I go to the library and dig in. Here I focus on the big assignments that need uninterrupted time.
I Don’t Waste My Small Study Blocks
My success and my stress in college will be determined by how efficiently I use the small study blocks during the day. They add up to a lot and they are easy to waste.
If I have a free time block in Shovel that is big enough for studying and I didn’t mark it as Me Time, I will use it for studying every time.
This is when I can organize my notes, write practice test questions (more on this later), or do a short reading.
Every minute I can use during the day is a minute I don’t have to use at night.
I Get Something Done on the Weekend
I want to have fun on the weekend. That’s when I schedule a lot of Me Time, and I don’t feel bad about it.
But a few hours of studying on Saturday and Sunday can take a lot of stress off of my week ahead. Maybe I schedule some study time after Brunch before I see my friends again for afternoon activities.
I Get My “A” in “No” Time
Everyone has a different schedule and friends try to pull me out of my routine. But I scheduled my Me Time. That’s when I’ll see them. Otherwise, I’m adamant about saying ‘NO!’ and I don’t feel bad about it.
I don’t let anyone try to make their schedule mine. My education is my priority and I need to do what’s best for me.
Sooner Is Better Than Later
I always like to get things done as far in advance as I can.
I do a little bit of something every chance I get. Some people tell me not to get too far ahead or I’ll forget things. That’s OK.
It’s actually good to forget. When the brain has to exert energy to remember something, it will likely remember it better in the future. So forgetting can actually lead to better memory… science.
If I can, I like to stay ahead so I can deal with the unexpected.
Day Is Better Than Night (for me)
Some students like to study during the day when their brains are fresh, but some have more energy in the evening so they prefer studying at night.
I prefer the day. I am more motivated and I like having my nights open. Some of my friends prefer the night because they do activities during the day and have fewer distractions at night.
What’s important is that I know what works for me and that I stick to a schedule that works for me. I need to optimize my study time based on when I can absorb the most information.
If I were a student who liked studying late, I’d just make sure I gave myself enough time for sleep. That may mean not having any early morning activities.
Hard First, Easy Last (I like eating the frog)
Most students have that one hard class or task that they put off for as long as they can. Not me. I like to get it done. There is nothing that gives me a better sense of relief than knocking off the hardest tasks first. Everything after that is a breeze. This technique is called eating the frog.
For me, there is nothing worse than starting a difficult assignment at the time I least want to do it. I do the hard stuff first and save the easier stuff for last.
I Take Small Bites Often
Not to continue with the eating metaphors, but there is no reason that I have to do an entire task in one sitting. I take small bites whenever and wherever I can.
If I’m waiting for the professor to show up, I organize my notes. If I have some time between classes, I read a chapter, even just a few pages. The smaller I make it, the easier it is to get started. Anything I get done now saves me time later.
My “Pomodoro” Method
It’s good to take frequent breaks during study sessions. One technique is called the Pomodoro Method. It splits studying into timed study sessions followed by small break breaks that are timed as well, with a longer break after a couple of hours.
I prefer taking breaks based on set accomplishments rather than based on set time periods. When I’m feeling good and I am deep into a task, the last thing I want is to be interrupted by a timer.
I take a break at the end of a chapter, after finishing a problem, or some other logical stopping point based on actually getting something done.
I get a reward for accomplishment, not the passage of time, and how I feel determines the length of my breaks.
I Have a Sense of Urgency
Urgency is usually associated with stress, but I prefer to think of it as something that keeps me calm. It’s a feeling of awareness of what I have to do. It’s that voice in my head that keeps me moving forward.
The ONE Thing
There is a book called The One Thing, by Gary Keller. It opens with a Russian proverb that says “If I chase two rabbits, I will not catch either one.”
I made my plan. I know I’ll have time to get everything done. So when I start working on something, I don’t need to be thinking about anything else. I focus on the ONE thing that’s in front of me.
Every time I finish something, I ask myself, “What is the next One Thing?” It is probably in my plan so I start working on that ONE thing again. If it is not in my plan, I define it, plan it, and just focus on getting it done.
This question works great when I am ahead of my plan and have some study time to spare. There is nothing wrong with getting ahead.
Equally so if I am falling behind. Sometimes I may need to NOT do something, in order to do something that is more important.
If I Don’t Have Enough Time
As a regular student, with a good plan, I usually have more than enough time to get all of my tasks done on time. I see others around me who don’t. Student-athletes or those with jobs are a good example.
The Cushion is great because it can tell me, at the beginning of the semester, if I’ll have enough time to get everything done or not. If it is telling me that I won’t, and I make adjustments to my schedule and still see that I’m not going to have enough time to get something done, I already know what I’m going to do.
I Will Talk to My Professors
I’ll be honest with them at the beginning of the semester and tell them that I will be in a time jam. What do they suggest?
I Will Use Academic Resources
My college has an academic help-center. I make sure I know what resources are available to me so I’m prepared to use them if I need to.
I Will Team Up With Others
My classmates may have time problems too. Maybe we can work together to get through it. Split up our readings, have everyone do one of them and write up summaries. Come together in a study group and test each other.
I Find My Study Spots
Nothing will destroy my study time faster than picking the wrong place to study. I want to minimize distractions but also have a spot that isn’t lonely and depressing.
Where I study depends a lot on where I am on campus and what is most convenient. I try to avoid wasting precious time if I can get somewhere quickly and get something done.
Whenever I plan a task to a specific study block, I also think about exactly where I’m going to do it based on where I’m going to be before and after.
I Avoid Studying in My Dorm Room
My residence hall is beautiful, but there are too many opportunities for distraction. I like to separate my study life from where I live, completely. Where I sleep is home, not work. It’s my place to unwind. I keep it that way.
My Favorite Place to Study
For me, the best place to study is the library. I try to go there before I go anywhere else. It brings me focus. I can get hours of quiet, efficient, uninterrupted, and highly efficient studying done there. The kind that gets me good grades, and lots of them.
Libraries are among the few remaining places on the planet where even the most obnoxious people will respect silence. Libraries are beautiful. They have multiple floors, a hundred windows, and endless views to choose from. For me, that works.
Other Study Spots
If I don’t have time to get to the library, I have other spots where I can quickly take advantage of my small study blocks.
One of the easiest spots for a quick study session is right in my classroom. I’m either going into one or leaving one several times each day.
I’ll stay there and do my after-class work, like reviewing notes and writing test questions.
If I can’t stay in my classroom, there are dozens of great places to study on campus. I seek them out. They give me the variety that I need to stay sane.
I can even choose to study each subject in a different place. I do what best fits me but I try to find it quickly and stick to it. My brain likes predictability.
I Escape the Distractions (I Turn It Off)
The reason why I leave my residence hall is to avoid distractions. I ruin the whole point if I bring the distractions with me. Social media is the single biggest distraction that can ruin my academic goals.
I’m not going to stop using it because I just won’t. I just try to be conscious of when I’m doing it.
If it’s during class, study time, or when I should be sleeping, that’s a problem.
I turn off my phone and my notifications when I’m studying. That is how I avoid temptation. I am not letting my phone ruin my dreams.
Ultimately it’s about being honest with myself and knowing how much it affects my ability to get things done.
I need to decide whether looking at other people living their own lives was more important than creating my own.
I try to ruthlessly separate my social media life from my academic life. When it’s time to study, I study.
Studying with the Exam in Mind
Before I adopt a certain study method, the first question I ask myself is why should I do it that way? What is the end goal? If I study a certain way, will that help me accomplish that goal?
In most cases, the goal is doing well on my exams — quizzes, mid-terms, finals.
So the real question is: what is the best way to do well on an exam?
Most students don’t consider this but I will. I will think about the best ways to learn.
I Avoid the Wrong Ways to Study for Exams
Before I figured out how to study for an exam the right way, I tried a few methods that did not work well.
Waiting until the last possible moment, pulling all-nighters, and forgetting everything right after the exam wasn’t great. It was stressful and not effective.
Aimless Reviewing and Rereading
This method created three problems.
Firstly, I wasted a lot of time focusing on what I already knew instead of focusing on what I didn’t know.
Secondly, reading and rereading was not an effective way to commit new knowledge to long-term memory. Neither was able to apply this knowledge to complicated questions that typically appeared on exams.
All it did was give me a false sense of security.
I never really liked the phrase “study for an exam.” I think of “studying” as the acquisition of knowledge. That is, when I’m first exposed to it and work to understand it.
To actually apply the knowledge, which is what the exam is about, I don’t study, I practice!
Football players may study the playbook, but to apply plays from it in the game (their form of an exam), they practice them in “practice.” That’s how they get good at them.
To prepare for my exam, I also need to practice it, whether that means quizzing myself, doing problem sets, or creatively applying the material I need to learn.
It is not effective to just read and reread books and notes and expect to do well. Yet this is what students do all the time. They read a huge book with new and complicated material. Then they wait until the last possible moment and try to cram by rereading. It may work short-term, but it is not a good long-term strategy.
I Set Myself Up for Self-Testing
If I know I’m going to be asked questions on an exam, then why not start practicing for the exam by asking myself similar questions?
Self-testing is a well-documented study method that is far more effective than aimless rereading.
If I know that’s what works, then I’ll start by setting up my notes and textbooks in a way that lets me self-test as effectively as possible.
I Am Present in Every Class
Both physically and mentally! Classes are what I go to school for and what I pay for. Whether they are online or in person, I show up on time.
If I’m not in the class with my heart and soul, I can’t take good notes and I can’t ask or hear helpful questions.
Class is where professors give hints about what is important, introduce new approaches and explain things in ways I won’t see in my textbook. Exam questions will more likely come out of class lectures than my textbook.
I Am Prepared for Every Class
Being prepared means doing my assigned readings before class. The more prepared I am for each lecture, the more I will get out of it, and the less I will struggle later. Reading before class helps me understand the concepts better, take better notes, and participate, which is often a part of my grade.
I Sit Front and Center
If I’m studying on campus and I am able to go to class in person, I sit in the front row of every class. This is a no-brainer for me. It requires zero effort, but the payoff is huge.
I have no distractions and total focus on the professor. It’s the very best place to see and hear and it’s easy to ask questions.
Best of all, the professor knows I’m there and that I care.
My phone and my computer are my biggest distractions if I’m sitting at the back of a big lecture hall because nobody can see what I’m doing. Sitting in the front row will automatically eliminate that.
It doesn’t matter if there are three empty rows behind me – and there usually are, I sit front and center.
I Take Amazing Notes
Taking good notes will have a huge impact on my final grade. Every professor presents their content in a different way. Some use slides, provide a printout, a PDF, or a Word outline. Some write on a whiteboard and some just talk.
I Choose the Right Tool for Each Class
It’s good to know what each professor does so I can think about how I’m going to be taking notes in each class. Will I print off slides? Will I use a notebook? A tablet or a laptop? Will I take notes one way and do something different with slides?
Each tool is good for something else, I need to decide what works best for me.
Typing is the fastest way for me to take notes so I like using my laptop for classes where I have to write down a lot of information in full sentences. My laptop is good for taking notes in classes like English and History. It is not good for Math and Sciences with complicated formulas. There I need more free form.
Sometimes I like being old-school. A paper notebook gives me the flexibility I need for writing formulas. Perfect for Math and sciences.
Modern tablets with smart pencils give me the freedom of a paper notebook but add way more capabilities.
I can have all my notes, my class slides, PDFs, and textbooks in one place. It’s hard to beat.
My Notes Are Made for Self-Testing
There are many ways to take notes — the outline method, the mind map method, and many others. But doesn’t matter how I structure or organize the notes themselves. What matters is what I’m going to do with them after.
Everything I do in college should be done with the exam in mind. That includes taking notes. They should be taken in any way that allows me to easily review and self-test every concept that I need to know.
The best layout to accomplish that is…
The Cornell Note Taking Method
It is not really a note-taking method, but rather a layout for taking notes.
It allows me to create space on my notebook page so I can add questions for later self-testing. That’s it.
I keep the layout simple. I draw a line down each of the notebook pages about two-thirds of the way over. That’s it.
The concept is simple. I take notes on the left side and write test questions on the right. When it’s time to review, I cover the notes, ask myself the test questions and make sure I can answer them by heart. Just that simple.
The examples of this that I see online usually show the notes being taken on the right side. I like taking them on the left because, being right-handed, having the smaller space on the right side means that my hand never slides off the side of the notebook when I’m taking notes. If I were left-handed, I’d do the opposite.
If I’m taking notes on a computer or iPad, I make sure I have the same layout. I want to make sure I can always write test questions next to my notes.
I Capture Everything
When it comes to the “method” of taking notes, I call mine “fast and furious.” Things usually move so fast that I need to use my own form of shorthand when I find myself getting behind. I just review it after class and make sure it’s clear.
I see many “pretty” notes online but they aren’t a reality for me. I just write down everything as fast and as completely as I can.
My notes may be a mess, but that’s OK. What matters is the test questions that I’ll write later.
Sometimes I’m tempted to skip taking notes on something because I know I just read it in my textbook. No way. I know that doing it will help me remember it even better. Besides, what I see in the textbook may not be what I get in class. Good professors teach concepts in different ways. I never assume that anything will be the same.
I Clean up My Notes ASAP
The best time to review my notes is immediately after I’ve taken them, while they are still fresh in my mind. I make sure I find 10 minutes in my day to do that. If I have questions after the lecture, I go see the professor.
I Write Test Questions
When I use the Cornell method, I write my notes on the left side. The area on the right is where I’m going to write practice test questions.
I look at my notes and imagine what questions might be asked about this material. I write them down on the right side of my divided page.
I Mimic the Format of My Actual Exams
Exams can be given in all kinds of formats – multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, problem/solution, identification of terms, or essays. It’s good to know what my exam will be.
Ideally I want to look at past exams. I also ask the professor or other students who have taken the class before. I want to get as much information as I can about what to expect. This will help me write better test questions next to my notes.
I Ask Open-Ended Questions
A good way to write test questions for multiple-choice exams is to leave them open-ended.
- Define the meaning of…
- What are the three things that…?
- Explain the concept of…
- Which is most important? Why?
I Write Essay Questions
If my exam will be a bunch of small essays, I write out possible essay questions. Just thinking about what the professor could ask will get me thinking about the material in a different way.
When it comes to actually answering these practice questions, I don’t have to write full essays. All I need to do is think through what I would write, what the outline of my essay would look like, and what assigned readings I would use for reference to prove my points.
I Use Flash Cards
Some classes, like the sciences, may have a lot of terms that need to memorize. For those, I self-test with flashcards. Class or topic decks are usually readily available on Quizlet or whatever app I decide to use. If I have time, I create my own flashcards.
I Answer My Questions Out Loud
Answering each question aloud makes me think about the answer a little bit harder, which boosts my retention compared to just answering each question in my head.
I know that when I can answer a question out loud, by heart, it won’t matter how it appears on the exam—I’ll know the answer.
I Don’t Leave Any Loose Ends
At the end of each day, I make sure everything is wrapped up.
My notes are complete and clear.
I understand all of the concepts.
I’ve written test questions.
I’m ready to go. The test may be weeks away, but I can start preparing right now. If I practice a little each day, I’ll be ready for the exam without ever needing to cram.
I Can’t Succeed if I Don’t Read
My readings are the foundation for most of my classes. My lectures, papers, and exams will be based on those readings. In each class, I usually have a combination of one or more textbooks and PDFs or online readings.
I Time Myself
When I start reading, I start the timer or write down the time when I started reading.
I Read Every Word (if at all possible)
I don’t like to show up to class unprepared. I need to read what was assigned to me for each class. The things I read before class may be confusing to me but that’s good. It’s good to struggle a little bit. Struggle means growth.
Reading every reading before class also points out what I don’t understand. That was I can focus on it in lecture and see if it will be explained. If it is not, I have a chance to ask the professor about it. That is only possible if I read everything. I am in school to learn and reading is a big part of it.
I Skim if I Don’t Have Enough Time
Sometimes I may be too busy to read every word. If that’s the case, I at least skim the reading before class to get the main arguments. I avoid skipping readings completely because usually, I will not find enough time to do them later as I have to do readings for the next class.
When I Read, I Highlight for 3 Reasons
Experts don’t always agree on this, but I have found highlighting highly beneficial for three reasons.
1. Highlighting Improves my Concentration
It’s hard to read new and complicated material. Highlighting forces me to concentrate. I always have an intense focus when looking for the most important points and the best ways to highlight them. I’m always asking myself which of the content is likely to appear on the exam.
2. Highlighting Exposes Me To The Same Material More Than Once
First I read the paragraph entirely so I’m clear about what it says. Then I go back and highlight only those words that best summarize it. It takes me a little extra time, but it saves more later.
3. Highlighting Makes Reviewing and Writing Test Questions Easy
The most important reason why I highlight is so that I can speed review. If I highlight well, when I come back to the same text again, I can quickly understand a concept in as few words as possible.
Just as I did with my notes, I’m going to write a test question covering what I highlighted. Ideally, that highlighted text will provide a quick answer.
I Highlight Only The Most Important Concepts
Highlighting doesn’t necessarily mean a yellow highlighter. I like to use a pen on paper and an Apple pencil on my iPad.
When highlighting, less is more. I only try to pick out the key words and phrases needed to understand and remember the concept.
With practice, I’m able to craft whole sentences that make perfect sense using words spread across one or many paragraphs. It’s never a perfect process, but the more I do it, the better and faster I get.
My goal is to highlight just enough to be able to look at a page and quickly refresh my memory when I’m self-testing.
I Make Sure I Understand Everything I Read
I used to read past things I didn’t really understand thinking I’ll figure it out later. Often times I didn’t. Now I make sure I understand every word. If something isn’t clear, I mark it down to see if it will be cleared up in lecture. If it isn’t, I ask my professor after class.
I Write Test Questions Immediately After I Read
One of the main benefits of highlighting my textbook is that it helps me identify what the exam may be about. As soon as I am done with my reading, I go over what I highlighted and write test questions that ask about the highlighted concepts.
Self-testing (active recall) is way more effective than rereading. Same as with my notes, I write practice test questions that will help me quiz myself throughout the semester.
Many textbooks have a wide margin exactly for that purpose. I write test questions right in there. If I don’t have enough space in the margin, I write test questions in my notebook or my tablet.
I Leave No Loose Ends
Just like with my class notes, I make sure that I treat each session with my textbook as a single unit that should be completed before I move on.
I read it, understand it, highlight it, and write test questions. I make sure that everything is ready for review and self-testing.
I Adjust My Estimates
When I finish a reading, I open Shovel and enter how long it took me. Shovel will calculate my average time per page. If it was different than my initial estimate, I adjust my current average to be my new time per page for this particular reading source.
This will make sure my estimates for future readings are accurate and I leave myself enough time to get every reading done on time.
I Back Up Everything
I invest a lot of time and effort into taking notes, doing my readings, highlighting, and writing test questions.
What would happen if my backpack got lost or my computer stopped working? I need to make sure I’d be fine.
If I take notes on my computer or tablet, I make sure that everything is backed up to the cloud.
With physical notes and textbooks, I take a photo of each page. It takes a fraction of the time I spent doing the work but it could prevent a disaster.
I Am Ready For The Exam
Studying for exams is where most students think they need to put in a lot of work. Not me. I’m ready. I’ve been ready.
I’ve taken good notes. I’ve read and highlighted my textbooks. I’ve written sample test questions on every concept in my textbook and on one side of my notes.
All I need to do is start asking myself the questions.
I Self-Test (Active Recall)
I cover the notes side of my notebook with a piece of paper and ask myself each test question I wrote down.
I say the answer as if I’m explaining it to someone who doesn’t know it, and I do it out loud (if I’m not in the library).
The more I can pull from memory, the better I retain it.
If I can’t quite get it, I take a quick peek at my notes or my highlights to trigger my memory. Then I start from the beginning and do it again until I can answer completely without peeking.
Whatever I expect to be on the exam, I self-test it. Whether it’s history, economics, math, statistics, chemistry, or physics.
I ask questions, do problems, or whatever matches the format I expect on the test I’ll be taking. I start early and do it often leading up to the exam.
I Focus on What I Don’t Know
A big benefit of self-testing is that I don’t waste time studying things I already know.
I see students who study by continually looking at each page of their class notes and textbooks. They scan one page and then turn to the next and the next looking for things they think they don’t know.
Continually looking at things I already know is a waste of my time and effort. I focus my attention only on the things I don’t know.
I Check Off The Questions I Know
When I’m absolutely sure I know the answer to a question, I mark it with a checkmark or put a thin line through the middle of it.
As I am self-testing, I just skip by all of those that I checked off and focus only on those that I don’t know.
This is the method commonly used by flashcard apps. They’ll show me a card I don’t know more frequently and stop showing me cards that I already know.
I’m not in a hurry to check things off when I first start my reviews. I only check off questions during the last week or two before the exam when I’m absolutely sure I’ll remember the material at exam time.
As I do my self-testing and all of the questions are crossed off, it’s as if I took the exam and I got an A! And I will.
I Use Spacing (Spaced Repetition)
Self-testing is most effective when I do a little bit every few days. Just like practicing any other skill, I can’t expect to do well if I wait too long and only do it a few times.
I do a little bit every week. I learn something new, practice it, and then add a new piece step-by-step over time. I review everything but focus my attention mostly on the material I know the least. It will all come together in the end.
I Start Right Away
I start as soon as I have my first set of notes or have read my first chapter. Why wait? The sooner I start the better my understanding and retention will be. I start studying for the exam on the first day of classes.
I Gradually Ramp up to the Exam
At first, I’ll do just a little bit of self-testing every few days if the exam is still weeks/months away. I can get a feel for the difficulty and how much I’m retaining. As I get closer to the exam, I can switch to every other day.
There are some studies that show how specific time intervals work better, but I don’t overthink it. I let my instincts and my results tell me how often I need to review. I just do a little bit whenever I have time, and I add it to my tasks to make sure I do.
I Mix It Up (Interleaving)
In Make it Stick, the authors talk about how most people think they will do better if they do things with a “single-minded focus.” That is, doing the same thing over and over.
For example, a tennis player who hits 100 forehands first and then 100 backhands, or a golfer who hits 100 shots from the exact same distance.
Actually, success is greater using what is referred to as “interleaving,” which is simply mixing up the practice so you don’t do too much of one thing for long periods of time. It’s better to alternate the backhand and the forehand instead.
This has also been proven especially useful in math! Students who practice different types of problems in random order are better at solving problems during an exam than students who practice one type of problem multiple times.
I mix things up when I study because it is more effective and it will keep me from getting bored as well. Doing the same thing over and over gets monotonous and I’m more likely to quit before I get my practice done.
I Don’t Over Study
Many students actually study too much. That’s usually because they don’t know what they already know.
They get so worried about missing something that they keep going over the same things again and again. Self-testing helps prevent this.
Sooner or later I reach a point of diminishing returns. I trust my instincts. When I know the answer to every question by heart, I’m done. I’d rather use that time to study for a different exam or get ahead on assignments.
I Do a Final Review
The night before my exam, I do one last scan through the test questions, flashcards, or problems. I review the few remaining difficult concepts and call it a night.
I never need to cram. I rarely study for an exam past 8:30 p.m. the night before. My goal is to know everything days before.
I Warm up in the Morning
Just like an elite athlete who warms up before a race, I do a few practice questions in the morning to get the blood flowing and to get in the zone.
I Aim for the 100%
I aim for the best score possible because every point matters to my GPA and every extra point on my GPA can help me get a better job. I take my grades seriously.
I Do a Post-Exam Review
No matter how well I do on my exam, I always take the time to reflect on it.
Is there anything I can learn from it that will give me an advantage on the next exam? Was the form of the exam as I expected? Did the material come mainly from my textbook or class notes? Any hints from the professor that showed up on the exam?
If I missed a question, I look at the material in my notes and my book. Did I not think it was important? Did I fail to highlight it? How did I write my practice question?
I always carefully read what my professor writes on that exam so I know exactly what I need to do differently next time. If something isn’t clear, I go talk to the professor.
I Seek Help Early
No matter how well I plan and how hard I study, there are times when some of my classes can be overwhelming and I need some help. That should never be a surprise. I expect it and I want to know well in advance where I’m going to get that help. I seek out help early rather than late.
I Go See My Professors
Nobody knows what I need to do to do well than my professors. I make sure I go see them early and often, whether I need help or not.
I want to develop a strong academic, professional, and personal relationship with every professor I can.
They can help me in their class, steer me in the right direction professionally, and they can write invaluable recommendations for when I apply to graduate school or employment.
I Know My Academic Resources
My school has a lot of academic resources that I can tap into. I’ve looked at the catalog and the website and found everything that might be helpful when I need it.
I know where to find advisors, academic support services, tutors, and health services. I’ve visited the offices. I’ve asked them what I should do if I have problems.
I Use Outside Resources
If I need help on any specific topic there are endless outside resources. YouTube, Khan Academy, and others have thousands of structured lessons on almost anything I want to learn.
I Identify Potential Difficulties Before They Arrive
One of the benefits of doing a study plan is that it helps me identify potential problems well in advance. As I set up my time and workload, I’m looking at my tasks, my textbooks, the table of contents, and the estimated time things will take.
I’m looking for anything that is out of the ordinary or anything I don’t understand. I don’t wait until I’m starting on a task to find out that I don’t understand it. I scan ahead and look for problems before they arise.
I Get It Done
Ultimately, my success in college will be determined by me. I have the ability to do it. The question is, will I do it?
We are all guilty of reading How-To books with great intentions, but then we don’t follow through.
None of these things are difficult. The hardest part is just getting started.
Self-Discipline Over Motivation
There will always be times when I don’t want to do something, in class and in life. Motivation goes in and out. It is not consistent. My success is going to be determined by my own self-discipline.
The best cure for procrastination is action. I’m going to build a plan. I will know what I have to do, when, where, and how I’m going to get it done.
Then I’m going to follow my plan, dig in, and do it.
And that applies to YOU too!
The world needs people who are willing to do the hard things that others won’t. From now, that’s going to be you!
If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you.