Skip to main content

Accessibility menu

Skip to main content Skip to footer

Students' study skills

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Most students come to college with study skills and habits that worked well for high school, but find that those skills and habits don't translate well to the learning demands of college. Many if not most of our students can benefit from some guidance on how to study.  While introductory-level general education courses are a very good place to teach study skills, students in upper-level courses can benefit too, given that the kinds of learning needed by more advanced undergraduates differs from that needed by introductory-level college students.

Research indicates these basic facts about studying:  

  1. What matters most is what students think about while they study (as opposed to what, precisely, they do, or for how long)
  2. If studying is easy or fast, students are likely not learning deeply enough
  3. Multitasking will undermine studying

Finally, many first-year/first-semester students lack the time management skills that college demands.  They may misunderstand the demands of college when they note that a course meets only three hours a week; similarly, they may erroneously assume that the pace of learning in a course that meets five hours a week will be just like that in high school. Engaging in some assignments focused on time management for your course can be useful to students in introductory-level or general education courses.


What students think about:  

  • Math instructors may want students to think about different things while studying than do, say, history instructors, but research suggests that deeper learning results when students actively connect new material to what they already know or some personal experience.  Reading guides can be helpful;  consider other strategies.

  • Learning will be hardest when students are such novices that they cannot connect your material to anything.  Helping students learn how to read in your discipline will help (e.g., How do I know what stuff is the forest and what are the trees? What information is the big picture, and what is supporting details? When do the details matter?  How do the details matter? Which details matter more than others?). Clarifying a disciplinary framework can also provide students with some strategies for how to think in your field.

 On “studying fast and easy“

  • Students who rely primarily on strategies like memorization or re-reading texts or lecture notes, for example, may find that everything seems familiar, especially once they have read the same material twice.  They may then feel confident that they will ace your exam, assuming that familiarity = expertise.  They are then likely to discover that they are unable to apply “familiar” concepts to situations or problems they have not seen before, which is what you expected them to do on your exam.    

  • Avoiding work is a fairly common strategy for managing a busy life, and today’s students may be just as busy as their instructors. To convince students to work hard enough to learn, consider developing the motivational climate of your course: help students understand the value of learning what you are teaching, set the bar high but not unattainably so, help a diverse range of students envision themselves working in your field.

No multitasking:

  • Help students understand the pitfalls of multitasking -- the research is overwhelming that no one can focus on more than one thing at a time, although some of us can switch our focus among tasks fairly quickly, and that attention-shifting undermines the concentration necessary for learning.  Developing most levels of expertise takes hard work that often isn’t nearly as much fun as the other ten thousand things our students could be doing.  But complex learning will take far longer -- if it happens at all -- when a student’s focus wanders.

 Tips for implementing

  • Ensure that the prior learning you guide students toward is accurate before you send students into it.  How well did they learn in high school, or last semester?  

  • Collect information on how individual students studied and use that to identify the strategies that successful students most often use in your course.  Modify the exam wrapper or the paper wrapper for this purpose (see Resources below).  If your class is very large, ask only the A students to complete your study skills survey at the end of a course.

  • Students who believe they “just aren’t good at” [whatever it is that you teach] are unlikely to try very hard.  You will need to find strategies to counter this “fixed mindset,” and you will likely need more than one.

  • Tell study groups what and how to study, even those that develop spontaneously.  E.g., assign the hardest problems or discussion questions in the textbook chapter to study groups; develop a challenging reading guide for each chapter that starts with the most difficult material first. The higher level of difficulty helps students recognized when they need help, takes advantage of group learning, and may help circumvent overconfidence that can result from starting with the easy stuff.

  • Apply the idea above as a means of collaborating with tutors, Student Support Services, or any other campus offices from whom your students might seek help.


Hoskins, D.  (2020). Students' study skills. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from