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How to study effectively

Posted 2:04 p.m. Monday, April 22, 2024

Students study in the Murphy Learning Center on the UW-La Crosse campus.

Learn 10 essential study skills to retain information, stay focused and understand more

Are you tired of pulling all-nighter study sessions for tests? Do you find yourself constantly distracted or falling asleep while studying? Or do you end up with low grades despite your best efforts?

You may benefit from learning how to study.

The key is to understand that learning is not measured by the amount of time you spend in class or with your books and notes, but by what additional knowledge you've gained from those experiences. With effective study habits, you have the potential to accomplish much more in less time. Think quality — not quantity, explains Charlene Holler, a retired academic skills specialist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Here are some of Holler’s best study strategies based on research, learning theory and years of meeting with students at the Counseling and Testing Center on the UWL campus. Also see Holler's test taking strategies.

1. Use daytime hours to study.

Prioritize academics when you are more alert and have access to resources. In college, this might include tutors, professor office hours and labs. In high school, it might be teachers, parents, friends and others. Reward yourself during the evenings with social and personal time. With less on your "to do" list, you can also maintain a consistent sleep routine, which is crucial to effective brain health.

2. Establish specific study times each day.

Those study times also need purpose, which means "to do” lists. Create both a “must get done” and a “should work on” list each day. Make these academic tasks specific and attainable; so you will be less likely to procrastinate.  

3. Review material close to when it was first presented.

Don’t wait until the mid-term or final exam to study. Revisiting your notes with the lecture still fresh in your mind helps you both reinforce and clarify the information. Confidence in your notes during follow-up reviews is essential. The longer you wait before reinforcing the material, the more difficult it will be to connect to upcoming concepts.  

4. Review in an active way.

“Looking over” notes is the most common way students explain studying. Students are confident they “know their notes,” but become frustrated when “the test didn’t look like my notes!” Silently reading over notes, which are always in the same order and the same wording, often leads to an illusion of competence. You think you know the material, but have only memorized bits and pieces. Your instructor will be assessing how you can connect and apply multiple concepts. 

Active study involves reading out loud, drawing diagrams, listing steps, working problems, etc. Explaining information in your own words is a higher-level thinking skill than silently re-reading. Students should write down key points after every lecture. Better still is to get in the habit of writing a three to four sentence summary. These lecture-by-lecture takeaways can serve as a study guide for an upcoming exam.

Some prefer using online study tools. Check out these popular options.

5. Use short and focused study sessions.

Break your study sessions up into intensive, 25-minute segments with two-minute review periods and breaks in between. [See the Pomodoro technique below].

6. Set specific goals for study segments.

Instead of setting a vague goal like "look over my biology notes from yesterday," figure out exactly what you want to accomplish. For instance, maybe you want to "learn the seven steps of digestion." Just like going to the grocery store with a list helps you spend less time, less money, and get exactly what you need, starting a study session with specific tasks is an efficient use of your time and can lead to effective learning outcomes.

7. Learn in two directions.

A metaphor for learning can be building a wall. Pieces of information are the bricks. Content background is the foundation and review is the mortar. As new content is added, your wall of information rises. But your wall is only as strong as your effort to connect concepts through review. But building a high, solid wall is not enough. Your instructor will want you to see what the building looks like. For that you need to step back for a wider perspective. Sometimes students are surprised when the test does not look like their notes; they didn’t spend enough time seeing the building from multiple perspectives.  

8. Prepare for classes.

Lectures are often the primary way classroom content is presented, so making the most of that time makes sense. Our brain works better when it has a framework of what is going to be presented in a lecture. Think of this framework as a mental outline. When material is presented, you can start to see how concepts are connected. Think of preparing for class as getting a running head start in a foot race. Three ways to prepare for a class will make class a first review of material, making solidifying new concepts after class that much easier. 

  • Look over your previous class notes. 
  • Look over required or suggested reading to see what the author emphasizes. This cursory view can be done quickly by focusing on an introduction, learning objectives, bold headings, vocabulary terms, graphics and chapter summary.  
  • Look over PowerPoint slides for an idea of what the instructor is going to emphasize.

9. Get proper sleep, exercise and nutrition.

Take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Your body needs proper care to allow you to learn. This is especially true for sleep. Lack of quality sleep can take both a physical and mental toll in just a couple of days. Sleep not only replenishes your energy, but is crucial in strengthening and consolidating information.

10. Control electronics.

Turn your phone off or move it out of sight. When the brain is constantly switching between tasks — from studying to an instant message and back again — it is harder to learn material. What you think are only momentary interruptions result in huge losses in overall productivity. Ironically, there are apps that can help put you in control. Examples include Forest, AppBlock and Cold Turkey.

How to apply the Pomodoro technique to studying?

Setting a goal and starting the timer are key components of the Pomodoro technique.

Francesco Cirillo developed the Pomodoro technique in the late 1980s. This method maximizes learning through short, but targeted study segments. Two or three back-to-back segments will take a total of one to one and a half hours. The short sessions build in both physical and mental activity, which are crucial to learning. These study segments need to be in a conducive place where there will be few interruptions and distractions (preferably out of your living space and unplugged).  

Steps in the Pomodoro Method:

  • Define your learning goal: Decide on a specific and attainable learning objective that can be accomplished in 25 minutes. 
  • Set your timer to 25 minutes. Work hard toward your goal and when the timer goes off, stop!
  • Actively review for two minutes: Read or speak out loud to activate auditory memory. Write, draw diagrams and make lists, for tactile learning.  
  • Get up and move for two minutes: Your purpose is to get oxygen rich blood to your brain. Avoid friends and electronics so your focus remains on the content.
  • Reinforce material just learned for two minutes: Go over your targeted material again. This second review in a short span of time pays huge dividends in solidifying content.  
  • Prepare for second (or third) Pomodoro: Decide on material to learn in your next segment, with the added dimension of connecting the concepts. These connections are vital to see that bigger picture. 

Reward yourself after several connected study segments. Get a snack, check your phone, change locations, etc. Knowing these segments are short, along with feeling confident in understanding material, should encourage you to use this method often.   

How do I know what to study? 

Student studying in Murphy Library at UW-La Crosse.

Questions can be a powerful learning strategy by making us curious, directing our attention, and revealing what we do not know. To target what to study during your session, ask yourself these questions. 

  1. What do I already know about this? If your foundation of knowledge is solid, you can support adding more information. If you do not have that basic understanding of terms or theories, and you add more, studying becomes like a Jenga game as missing supports collapse the tower. If you realize your foundation is not solid, take the information you need to know in smaller chunks and practice it until you can add something to it. Reach out and get help with concepts if you need to.
  2. What do I want to know? Make yourself curious and use that as motivation. Why does this happen? What else has been written about this? What would happen if this aspect was changed? You may not always be excited about every subject, but working to find an angle of interest will help you learn.
  3. What do I have to know? What skills or knowledge are you are expected to know going forward in your class? 

How do I study without getting distracted?

Even the presence of a phone can decrease your cognitive capacity.

Having a lot to study doesn’t mean you need to throw out your phone. It does mean you need to set some ground rules. Try making nighttime the time you reward yourself by returning calls or chatting with others. Think of it like this: If studying was your job, would you work for 30 minutes and then be on the phone with a friend for an hour? No, this would be completely inefficient. If you are worried about your family or friends’ expectations about an immediate response, inform them that you have a tough semester of classes ahead and will not be responding to messages until the evening hours. 

If you struggle to put down your phone, try using apps to turn off your notifications for set time periods. Or try moving your phone out of your immediate proximity. Even the presence of your phone can decrease cognitive capacity.  

How do I study for a test? 

Students working in fall 2015 classroom at UW-La Crosse.
  • Set your study timeline. Determine how much information will be on this test, how well you know the material and what you need to learn. This will determine how far in advance you need to start. Whatever you decide, plan to finish two days prior to account for unexpected things that come up.
  • Enter it in your planner/calendar. Set a specific schedule for studying and build it into your to-do list every day.
  • Figure out what you don’t know. Test yourself on the material. Ask yourself, “What do I already know and can set aside? What material do I still stumble over? You don’t want to waste time practicing what you already know.
  • Session by session narrow your focus to information you still need to learn. As you approach the exam, the information you still need to learn will be some of the hardest, but there will be less of it. You will have more time to concentrate on the most difficult material.
  • Seek help if needed. If you are still having trouble understanding, know that you have resources to help you learn such as asking your instructor or a tutor in the subject. Make sure you know about your resources before you are desperate.

How to cram if you must

  • Decide what to learn. Use this rule of thumb: Spend 25% of your time learning new material and 75% of your time drilling yourself.
  • Relate information to something else you know. Think of your brain as a giant pegboard and “hook” new information to learned information.
  • Recite, recite, recite. This is the test for knowing the information forwards and backwards.
  • Relax. Crammed material is not learned as well as well-reviewed material. Use relaxation techniques to minimize the chances of freezing up on the exam.

We asked students on Instagram to share their best study tips. They responded ...

UWL student Libby Darling suggests blocking out a specific time to study. Instead of saying, "I'll do this tomorrow," say "I'll do this at X time tomorrow." Here is Darling's calendar and study space.
  • Classical music and coffee are my go to!
  • Create a good atmosphere with good lighting
  • Quizlet is a savior!
  • Always have a specific place for studying
  • Block out your time to study
  • Catagorize what you want, need and should do
  • Do the hardest work right away in the morning and save the easier work for later in the day
  • Take frequent breaks to recharge
  • Write due dates on a calendar to prioritize deadlines
  • Move to a different study space for each assignment

Follow UWL on Instagram.

Looking for more?

See more study skills resources on the Murphy Learning Center webpage. If you think mental health concerns are negatively impacting your academics, reach out to UWL Counseling & Testing Center at 608.785.8073.