Developing and improving study skills is a gradual and long-term process. It is also an individual process that will improve your academic performance and ability to learn. Smart study skills will also enable you to work more efficiently when pressed for time. The key to becoming a successful online student is learning to study smart.

While the basic principles of effective studying are universal, techniques and strategies often vary from subject to subject. To excel academically, it's important to develop the most effective studying techniques for each individual subject area in which you'll be focusing your time.

How to Get the Most Out of Studying

So, are you a savvy, self-regulated learner? Do you apply smart study skills and strategies? Or do you spend valuable time memorizing facts rather than making meaningful connections between essential concepts and real world applications of core principles and lessons?

The table below summarizes the most popular study habits, divided between effective and ineffective. Do you rely on any of these strategies?

List of Top Study Habits
Effective Ineffective
Distributed Practice Highlighting (underlining) Text
Practice Testing Cramming (before a test)
Self-Explanation Multi-tasking

Surprisingly, the one study habit many students rely on the most, highlighting text, is equally ineffective as the second favorite technique, cramming just before a test. Most experts agree that the best strategy for effective studying is distributed practice.

Also known as spaced repetition, distributed practice is when you spread out your study and class preparation over time. Cramming and memorizing facts without any true understanding may help squeak by a test but it's unlikely you'll retain that information a few days later, let alone after graduation.

As an example, if you're studying vocabulary for a foreign language you're more likely to remember those words by reviewing them for 30-60 minutes several days a week rather than in one long cram session. Better yet, if you then use those words in real sentences you'll improve your results far more than merely memorizing the words out of any meaningful context.

Another top tip for successful study is practice testing. This is where you create your own quiz questions, based on class notes and readings. Ideally, you should do this shortly after a lesson, by yourself or with friends or classmates to add a sense of fun and sociability. Questions should require a short answer rather than multiple choice responses, since that emphasizes understanding instead of mindless memorization of facts.

For practice questions you can either use flash cards or write your questions in the margin of your class notes. This latter technique, called the Cornell Note-taking System, strengthens understanding by compelling you to clarify the meaning of course concepts and reveal conceptual relationships. Once you see the big picture you'll increase your comprehension and improve your chances of acing the next exam or class project.

For additional wisdom on study strategies (and the psychology of studying) view the 5-part Video series by Cognitive Psychology professor, Stephen Chew of Samford University. The five videos, ranging from 7-9 minutes each, discuss the following topics:

  1. Beliefs That Make You Fail... Or Succeed
  2. What Students Should Know About How People Learn
  3. Cognitive Principles for Optimizing Learning
  4. Putting Principles for Learning into Practice
  5. I Blew the Exam, Now What?

Dr. Chew offers valuable strategies for studying smart. The most important skills that you can put to immediate use involve deep thinking about course concepts. Consider the following Do's and Don'ts as most important.

Ineffective Strategies (Don't Do These):

  1. Mindlessly re-read course materials
  2. Memorize isolated facts (vs. understand key concepts)
  3. Cram just before the exam without previous study (i.e. distributed practice or practice testing)

Effective Strategies (Do These):

  1. Elaboration: reflect on how specific concepts relate to others
  2. Distinctiveness: identify key differences between course concepts
  3. Personalize: reflect on how course concepts relate to your own experience
  4. Appropriate Retrieval and Application: reflect on how you can apply course concepts and principles to your own life

In addition to the four Effective Strategies above, Dr. Chew suggests minimizing distractions to maximize focus on critical course concepts. By far the worst possible habit many students rationalize as harmless is multitasking (e.g. watching TV, checking social media or email, and surfing the web during study).

As Chew suggests, the very most important strategy you should adopt if you truly wish to learn and succeed academically is simply this:

unplug and think hard about the meaning of the concepts you're studying


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