Build Better Study Habits

Doing well in college is highly dependent on your study habits. We have all met the student who never seems to study but consistently has the best grades in class. Some students may be blessed with natural aptitude in a particular area and may not need to study as much as the rest of us but they are the exception and not the rule. Every student has a preferred learning style that may not necessarily be the best learning style for them. By evaluating your learning style, you can determine what works best for you, identify weaknesses in your study pattern and customize your own study plan.

To identify possible weaknesses in your learning style, review the following questions:

Do you need absolute silence when studying?

Some students need silence when studying to achieve the best retention. This avoids distraction and allows the brain to focus on comprehending and absorbing what you are studying. Other students (like myself) need ambiance to concentrate. Dead silence can be just as distracting as loud noises. However, there is a big difference between ambiance and interference. If you find that you can remember what song was playing in the background or can summarize someone else’s conversation, this is interference. Your brain is using vital resources interpreting the noises in the background: resources that could have been more wisely and efficiently used retaining the information you are reviewing. If you must have music, opt for something soft but not too soothing that you fall asleep!

Do you tend to sit at the front or at the back of the room during class?

Studies have shown that students who willingly sit at the front of the class pay closer attention and often take better notes. Efficient note taking is crucial to the study process because poor note taking leads to gaps in learning. It is widely known that you forget 50% of what you learned one hour after class has ended. You forget 80% within 3 days. Without proper notes it is almost impossible to recall the necessary information when needed. Note taking increases retention by as much as 40% especially when it incorporates visuals. This leads us to the next question.

Do you take good notes?

Are your notes taken on loose paper that you can never find later? Do you spend more time looking for your notes than actually studying? Taking good notes sets the foundation for success so if you find that you cannot find, read or understand your notes later, it’s time to revamp your note taking skills. If your professor speaks too fast for you to make complete notes or absorb the material consider investing in a tape recorder (be sure to ask your professor if it is okay to tape the class because some don't like it). By using a combination of abbreviated note taking and a tape recorder, you can review them both together to expand your notes and it’s almost like having the professor as your personal tutor! If you make notes on paper, use ruled paper which helps legibility, try to keep notes sequential and insert topic headings whenever the professor switches topics to avoid sections merging and general confusion. It is useful to obtain a notebook for each course or purchase a binder with organization tabs if you prefer loose sheets. This will reduce lost notes and alleviate frustration. Make sure to record the date and page number at the top of each page so you can resort your notes if they get mixed together. Also take note of the chapters in your textbook referenced by the professor to make it easy to cross reference with your notes later. Note any specifically referenced pages in the left margin near the appropriate section of your notes. If you are a visual learner, be sure to sketch any useful diagrams or associations at the time they are made instead of trying to recall them later. Review your notes as soon as possible after class, filling in any missing elements (e.g. write out abbreviated words) and adding any concepts that you may not have written down but might be crucial when studying (analogies, websites etc.).

Tablets are a better alternative to paper because they provide a richer note taking experience; Apps such as OneNote or Bamboo Paper revolutionize the way you take notes by combining the ability to take notes, sketch diagrams, record audio or video, insert website clippings and more. The added bonus is that you can backup your notes online where they are protected...we've all misplaced notes at one time or the other. The larger the screen, the better so invest in one that has at least a 10" screen. We love the Microsoft surface pro because it uses Windows 10 and doubles a laptop when we need it.

Are you highly organized?

Turning in late assignments, forgetting about exams or projects, misplacing notes and losing textbooks are signs of disorganization. Poor organizational habits lead to wasted time, poor study habits and ultimately less than satisfactory grades. Keep a separate assignment book in which you keep track of work assigned and deadlines. Keep your work area free of clutter by filing notes and shelving books once each study or homework session is over. Letter trays are a great way to keep track of handouts, completed assignments etc. and a stationary drawer will keeps pens and paper neatly organized for later use. White boards and cork boards are also useful tools…when used correctly.

Are you easily distracted?

Signs of distraction include frequent snack or bathroom breaks, taking excessive phone calls, doodling and periodic daydreaming. Although many students believe that they study better with the television or radio, quieter surroundings reduce distraction and improve concentration and retention. If you do believe that you need sound to stay on task, avoid listening to your favorite CD or tuning into your favorite television channel because that invites you to sing along or take frequent glances at the TV. Even though you may feel like you absorbed a lot, multitasking in that manner actually reduces the amount of material retained and reduces the effectiveness of the study session so you are not utilizing your full potential. Also avoid taking phone calls during your study sessions. Notify friends and family of your study hours and ask that they not call during that time.

Do you choose the correct location?

Location, location, location. If you are easily distracted, choosing a quality location is key. Search for a study spot that is quiet and not high traffic. Having a desk and chair is recommended and some locations that may yield a good study location include local and institutional libraries, a quiet bench at the park or an unlocked classroom during the evening. Once you choose a place that is suitable for study, get all study materials organized before beginning. Avoid beds and comfortable furniture that are associated with relaxation instead of study. Ensure that there is proper lighting and avoid studying with snacks that can also offer distraction as well. Have a light snack of fruit then get to work!

Do you have proper diet and get enough sleep?

Healthy meals consisting of fruits and vegetables are far better than fast food because the nutrients are readily absorbed into the blood stream giving fuel to the brain. Fast foods full of sugar and caffeinated drinks might provide instant gratification but the lethargic feeling that often follows can wreak havoc on study time and retention. Such foods make the body sluggish and invite fatigue. Try to avoid heavy meals right before studying. Instead opt for a serving of fruit. Fruit is an excellent source of simple carbohydrates, having long chains of sugar molecules. The body can slowly break these sugars down to release glucose and fuel the brain for a longer period of time than it can with the complex carbohydrates found in fast foods. Ensure that your give your brain enough time to recover. I cannot emphasize enough just how important it is to get enough sleep each night. If you can find time during the day, take a power nap. Turn off the lights, shut off the computer, mute the phone, set the alarm for 15 to 30 minutes and go to sleep. Both your body and your brain will thank you for it and you’ll have an easier time studying too!

Are you prone to last minute studying?

Are you prone to cramming and all-nighters? This is a sign that your study habits may need to be reevaluated. With regular review sessions and proper time management, you will find that they will be no need for all-nighters. Cramming does not facilitate long term memory and students who cram will find that they will have to continuously relearn previously taught materials making finals a particularly stressful time. If possible, organize and rewrite notes directly after class when the material is fresh. Read through the related material in the textbook carefully, reading for comprehension and making any additional notes. Revisit the material again in the next couple days, this time for retention (look out for another article on reading for comprehension and retention). If you make use of the window of opportunity right after you are first introduced to new material, committing it to memory is easier, gives confidence and can ultimately relieve test anxiety.

Are you always running low on time?

Do you have problems finding time to study? Do you start studying and find yourself having to stop and start a new more pressing task? Time management is one of the most important components of effective studying. If you do not take the time to create a realistic schedule, you may find that you study in sporadic periods never finishing any one section entirely. Set dedicated periods each day exclusively for studying but make sure you are realistic with your study goals. Planning to study for 5 hours straight starting at 9pm is not realistic. Try scheduling shorter study periods centralized around your work and class schedule so that you can relax and get enough sleep each night. Do not study any one subject for more than 45 mins to an hour if possible and rather than overloading on any one subject try switching subjects after each hour because this enhances short term memory.

Final Thoughts...

These are just some of the things you can do for yourself to get the most out of your study time. Remember, preparation breeds confidence which alleviates test anxiety. Use the guideline to tweak your study habits and you’ll be well on your way to success.

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